Better than: Having to sit through an entire Alan Parsons Project studio album.
The Alan Parsons Project is one bizarro creature born of England's matured prog-rock scene in the latter half of the 1970s. Most important progressive pop music albums, including the famously Parsons-engineered Pink Floyd LP Dark Side of the Moon
, had already been released. That album was still famously charting on Billboard
in 1976 when APP debuted with Tales of Mystery and Imagination: Edgar Allen Poe
. Parsons had joined forces with his then-manager, Eric Woolfson, to write and record music. At this point, King Crimson had stopped recording, Peter Gabriel had left Genesis, and Roxy Music had just broken up. The Sex Pistols and punk rock had stolen the spotlight, with Johnny Rotten calling any surviving prog acts like Genesis "boring old farts" in the media. British prog had lost its edge.
When the 64-year-old Parsons appeared with six other musicians at the Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale last night, the man seemed healthily aware of his legacy. During a set that pretty much followed the 2010 live album Eye 2 Eye - Live in Madrid, he introduced "La Sagrada Familia" as a song "from an album about an architect, Antoni Gaudí." It's what Parson's did: concept albums. They not only included the work of Poe and Gaudi but also the Pyramids of Giza and Isaac Asimov's I Robot. This is some nerdy type of rock.
I needed a rock nerd to assist in taking this all in, so I brought along Ed Matus, a local musician who burst on to the local scene as guitarist for hardcore trio Subliminal Criminal in the 1990s and currently dabbles in several electronica projects. He believes there is a clear line in Parsons' music, and it was on full display last night. To things like "La Sagrada Familia," Matus groaned, "This stuff is like soap opera music." During a section that included the entire second side of the group's 1980 album, The Turn of a Friendly Card
, he commented, "If you're gonna do music like that, you might as well reenact a joust."
Yep, the keyboards were fluffy, the couplets cheesy, and clichés like "All the king's horses and all the king's men" flew with little irony. It was the embodiment of what is cringe-inducing about prog rock. "I think that they're a band worth looking at," reflects Matus. "It's just that some of their lesser songs outweigh the good songs. I love 'Eye In the Sky,' 'Time,' I love all the songs that Eric Woolfson sung. But some of it -- most of it -- is just flat, middle-of-the-road stuff."
However, did we regret the experience? No way. Though, Matus notes, Woolfson, who passed away in 2009, never agreed to performing live because he only ever believed the albums should be presented as Broadway-like musical productions. The songs of Parsons breathed with new, energized life in the live setting.
In the company of Parsons, who stood on a riser in the middle of the stage taking some vocals, guitars, and keys, was a group of mostly younger but talented musicians. Breathy voiced P.J. Olsson took the softer vocals and offered some guitar and tambourine. Manny Focarazzo played most of the famous keyboard lines, surrounded by three synths. An energetic Danny Thompson pummeled the drums. Guy Erez gave the band a vibrant pulse on grooving bass and even indulged in some funky solos. Alastair Greene shredded on most guitar leads and offered growling vocals on some songs. Finally, Todd Cooper delivered the more grandiose vocals and augmented the band on tenor and alto sax.
Early in the show, the group sang "Don't Answer Me," a song that seems a throwback to 1950s pop rock, featuring a tempo and castanets lifted right from the Ronnettes' "Be My Baby" with harmonies that rivaled the Beach Boys'. The wall of sound that these musicians produced was, at times, entrancing. "Time" was the night's soft-spoken highlight with Olsson giving it a sincere go even though he couldn't always hit the high notes. "I Wouldn't Want to Be Like You," in all its late-'70s disco-like funk glory, came soon after (eat your heart out, LCD Soundsystem).
Other highlights included the instrumental "Lucifer" ("This is the shit I like," said Matus as the pulsing, noodling intro crescendoed) and of course, toward the end, the song Parsons dedicated to Michael Jordan: "Sirius," which smoothly segued into "Eye in the Sky." It was that unabashed indulgence in powerful music juxtaposed with sensitive, even -- dare I say? -- dreamy melodies that made this show far from dull. These were manly musicians playing tough-guy, loner music. During a potent version of "Prime Time," Matus noted, "I don't know if they're trying to make up for the fact they are live, but they rocked it out too much."
Despite indulgent turns into high concept and fantasy world, sci-fi soundtracks, the highs peppered in the set list made it worth our while. The crowd, which gave the band five standing ovations, packed almost every seat in the Parker Playhouse, which felt like a glorified school auditorium but offered nice acoustics.
Despite some bombastic moments, my ears did not end up ringing and, ending just about 10 p.m., allowed for a good night's rest with a nice soundtrack to drift away into the land of Nemo.
The crowd: Baby boomers, some with their children; and nerds.
Personal bias: Prog rock mattered most in the late '60s/early '70s.
707 NE Eighth St., Fort Lauderdale, FL