If the name Burton Cummings doesn’t necessarily roll off the tongue, perhaps these classic rock song titles will help:
“American Woman,” “These Eyes,” “No Time,” “No Sugar Tonight.”
Or the group that made them famous as the turbulent 1960s gave way to the more peaceful 1970s…The Guess Who.
On April 21 or a “rock and roll Friday night,” as he would later dub it, I had the pleasure of seeing Cummings, an early member and former lead singer of The Guess Who, perform live at the Arcada Theater in St. Charles, IL, near Chicago.
It was part of my continuing series of concerts (many at this same cozy and intimate venue) by time-tested artists of the past 60 years who are still rocking and rolling as if the passage of time was just an incidental nuisance.
Never mind that the calendar is about to be flipped to May 2017, Cummings brought the jubilant crowd – whose average age was probably 60 – to their feet as if it was May 1970 when Guess Who’s “American Woman” ruled the Billboard Hot 100 (three weeks at No. 1) making the Canadian band the first from its country to do that.
In other words, he didn’t disappoint.
In fact, Cummings, who hails from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, and was one of the premier pop/rock vocalists of the late 1960s/ early ’70s, exceeded expectations.
The show was a straight-up jam session, but more polished and professional, with old familiar tunes played by Cummings and his five band mates who, by the singer’s own accounting, were far better than those other guys he played with so many years ago.
Cummings set the good vibe for this show early on. He announced near the beginning – after opening with the medley of Guess Who’s “No Sugar Tonight”/ “New Mother Nature” – that there would be “no camera police, no dancing ladies, no pyrotechnics”…or put another way, no hassles and no frills…just good music and the songs that make up his (and Guess Who’s) vast catalogue of past hits.
Oh, and the great stories that went with them.
For instance, the first story he told revolved around ’70s TV personality and radio disc jockey Wolfman Jack (how many of you remember that name?) and the love he always showed The Guess Who on the late-night concert TV show, “Midnight Special.” He then launched into his band’s tribute, “Clap For The Wolfman,” a 1974 song that Cummings cowrote and which turned out to be Guess Who’s last top-ten hit before the band broke up the following year and Cummings went solo.
More stories followed, like the one he told after he and his band performed one of my personal favorites, “Laughing,” a top-ten gold single in 1969 by his former group. On the flip side of that 45 (young readers will have to google what those words mean) was a song solely written by former Guess Who band mate Randy Bachman (later of Bachman-Turner Overdrive) called “Undun.” Cummings joked that it was the best song Bachman had ever written…without a collaborator. He then noted the joy he and his old band felt when – after “Laughing” had run its course on the charts in ’69 – radio flipped the record over and began playing “Undun,” turning it into a hit in its own right and giving the Guess Who that rare double-sided pop chart smash.
Then the band played that jazzy, Brazilian-flavored tune in the same style it was originally recorded, with Cummings nearly reaching the high notes he had embellished it with on the original record.
The audience loved it, and he in turn loved the audience.
Indeed, Cummings’ affection for the local crowd was clear and genuine. He and The Guess Who had legitimate ties to the Windy City as they had recorded many of their songs in Chicago during their heyday, including their biggest hit, “American Woman.”
Before launching into one of the lesser-known national hits, the rollicking late Guess Who single “Star Baby,” the Canadian singer noted how it was a big hit here locally and how it charted high on famous AM rock/pop station WLS – a reference many in this crowd of 50- and-60-something-year-old Chicagoans appreciated. He also recalled a missed opportunity to shake British singing legend Cliff Richard’s hand during a chance encounter when both appeared at the Chicago WLS studios back in the day.
The closest thing to a sour note Cummings hit with the home crowd was during a story following the ballad “Sour Suite,” in which he lamented his favorite NHL team the Toronto Maple Leafs (surprisingly not the Winnipeg Jets) losing Game 5 of the Stanley Cup playoffs that night to the Washington Caps (placing the Canadian team one more loss away from playoff elimination).
The problem with his story? Chicagoans likely aren’t interested in hockey or anyone else’s team anymore after their beloved (and heavily favored) Blackhawks were surprisingly swept out of this year’s playoffs the night before by the Nashville Predators, ruining their chances for a fourth Stanley Cup in eight seasons.
Cummings did throw the crowd a bone, though, by noting that the Blackhawks’ team captain Jonathan Toews hails from his hometown of Winnipeg, which reignited their applause.
And the stories continued along with more classic tunes. He played a couple of other artists’ oldies like the Platters “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” and the Kingsmen’s “Louie, Louie,” while noting that the former was a very difficult song to play (but he seemed to do so effortlessly…and without accompaniment from his five band mates) and the latter was one he studied incessantly as a youngster and which is likely ingrained in our collective psyche after nearly six decades of hearing it.
These songs seemed to fit well in his song set of old Guess Who tunes and his own “Stand Tall,” a 1976 top-ten hit that became his biggest solo record. On that power ballad, in which Cummings’ famous high notes were front and center on the original recording, the singer took a more subdued approach on this night – lowering the song’s key and not over-challenging his 69-year-old vocal chords.
Meanwhile, rockers like “Hand Me Down World” (which, like “American Woman,” featured Cummings in a grittier hard-rock vocal), the riddle-infused “Albert Flasher” (Cummings’ voice had extra reverb for this selection, true to the original), and “Baby, Come Back” (no, not the 1978 No. 1 tune by Player, but the song by the Equals that he and Bachman covered as part of a reunion duet project in 2007 – the album was called Jukebox), all sounded great.
As did the two biggies for which many in attendance were waiting anxiously – at least I was.
“These Eyes” was previewed by Cummings’ recollection of how that song changed his life forever. He noted it has been played on U.S. radio five million (!) times since its 1969 release, placing it in the pantheon of songs like “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Hey Jude,” and “Aquarius”/”Let The Sunshine In.” He noted the passage of time since the song first surfaced and graciously asked the crowd to cut him some slack on the song’s famous high notes, which we did with no hesitation.
By the time he got to the semi-political “American Woman,” the crowd was amped. He teased us with a prolonged bluesy rock intro that loosely interpolated the opening acoustic guitar riff of the original song. By the time he had us spelling it out, “I said A, I said M…, E-R-I-C-A-N” followed by the “American woman gonna mess your mind” lines, the entire audience rose to its feet.
I still find a measure of irony in how much Americans love this song given its purported anti-patriotic tone (“American woman, get away from me” and biting references to “war machines” and “ghetto scenes”), particularly in the Trump era.
Regardless, we remained standing throughout the song and for the next tune, the upbeat and somewhat funky “No Time,” the top-ten predecessor to “American Woman” in early 1970.
Clearly, Cummings – who turns 70 in December – still has the knack for good showmanship. In fact, his story-telling and comedic skills were a surprising twist for someone who in his early career photos looked as if he could’ve starred in a serious suspense thriller flick. I, for one, could swear Julie Roberts’ husband in the 1990 movie “Sleeping With the Enemy” channeled Cummings’ early sinister look for his character.
But – unlike that character – Cummings was affable, likable and sane…and genuine. He often repeated how thankful he was to be still doing this after all these decades, stating “you’ll never meet a more grateful person than I am.”
And no matter how many times he said it, which might have sounded trite coming from anyone else, we left the show believing him.
I would definitely pay to see Burton Cummings and his band again.
Click here to hear Cummings’ and The Guess Who’s original songs in my special Spotify playlist (in the order of the show’s setlist below). I’ve replaced the three non-Cummings songs at Nos. 7, 11 and 13 with three Guess Who songs he didn’t play last night but I would’ve loved to hear: “Glamour Boy,” “Dancin’ Fool” and “Rain Dance.”
1. No Sugar Tonight/ New Mother Nature
2. Hand Me Down World
3. Clap For The Wolfman
6. Star Baby
7. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes (old Platters song)
8. Sour Suite
9. Albert Flasher
10. Stand Tall
11. Baby Come Back (2007 Bachman-Cummings cover of an old Equals song)
12. These Eyes
13. Louie, Louie (old Kingsmen song)
14. American Woman
15. No Time
16. Share the Land (encore)