He played at the Saugus Kowloon on the 16th of Aug., looking like a wizened old smurf underneath the Chinese lanterns. I've seen a handful of acts at Kowloon, and I'm still not used to it. A group like the Cowsills is one thing, but Laine qualifies as rock royalty. What's he doing here? We're across the street from a Hooters, and next to that there's a store that sells nothing but Christmas junk. All around me are aging rock fans bemoaning how McCartney still plays stadiums, while his old partner in Wings is playing in a Chinese restaurant for $1,000 and a free meal. I nod my head and say something stupid like, "Well, music keeps him young, and he married a woman from the area, so he knows the venue." Still, I suspect Denny would rather be at Hooters.
A surprising number of people have purchased VIP tickets and fully expect to meet Laine at an upstairs buffet "meet and greet." The economy can't be too bad if the locals will spend sixty bucks to sit near Denny Laine while he eats rice.
He shows up, looking like most 70-year-old British rockers, only smaller and slightly bedraggled.
"Good old American food," he mutters as he tucks into some noodles and dumplings.
He shakes hands with people, signs autographs. He's a good bloke. He shakes my hand. He has a strong little grip, a working class grip. I think about mentioning the guitar he's selling on his website, an old Gretch that he used on the Wings' 'London Town' album. But since I don't intend to buy it, I keep my mouth shut.
It's hard not to be just a little star struck. This is Denny Laine, the voice behind "Go Now," the shimmering 1964 hit for the Moody Blues. He was the anchor of Wings. McCartney was mainstream showbiz; Laine was a blues grinder.
Quietly, he moves about the banquet room, making sure everyone gets a little visit. He's polite, but as soon as he's meets everyone he's out the door.
After enduring a tepid set by Justin Hayward in Somerville last year, I'm cautious about these aging rock idols. Mike Nesmith, on the other hand, was brilliant, as was a revamped lineup of Savoy Brown in Rockport. Laine's success will depend on a variety of things: song selection, how his voice is holding up, and the backing band, a New Jersey quartet known as The Cryers. Unfortunately, The Cryers are playing a few songs to warm up the audience. They sound like a wedding band doing Tom Petty! How will they fit in with Denny Laine? In just a few moments, I've gone from being optimistic to downright grim.
Finally, after three Mai Tais that have left me with a pain in my left eyebrow, Laine shambles onto the tiny stage. It's time. He kicks the set off with some tunes from the first Moody Blues album, "The Magnificent Moodies". The Cryers suddenly sound great. They've become an entirely different band, meaty and bluesy and ballsy. Laine is a dervish, blowing some wicked harmonica, playing punchy guitar licks. His voice sounds rough, but he's pushing his way through. Every so often he misses a note, but just keeps howling until he gets it right. He's great.
With four or five songs in the bag, he sings "Go Now." The Cryers can't capture the majesty of the original recording, but Laine's voice can still send shivers up your back. He follows with some tunes from his solo albums, and such Wings songs as "Again, and Again, and Again," and "Live and Let Die." He even treats us to his psychedelic pop gem from 1967, "Say You Don't Mind,"(which was a modest hit for former Zombie Colin Blunstone in 1972).
At one point in the night, someone in the audience asks Laine to sing "Silly Love Songs." Laine grimaces and says, "That's a song for old people." The crowd was disappointed. The poster for the show had listed a bunch of Wings' tunes, and the word on-line was that Laine has been playing a lot of Wings' material during these recent shows. But I sense we're getting a truncated version of Laine's usual show.
Though he chucks most of the Wings' tunes, one of the night's high points is a spirited sing-along on "Mull of Kintyre," helped immensely by Cryers' keyboardist Belle Liao. Using her electric synth, she magically fills Kowloon with the sound of bagpipes. It was glorious. Seriously, have a few Mai Tais and sing "Mull of Kintyre." It'll cure whatever ails you.
But it was all over too soon. Laine sang a soaring version of "Band on the Run," and then he was off. "No encore," he said. "We're British." Whatever that means.
I'd imagined the night would be either great or a disappointment. It was both. Perhaps Laine felt the size of the venue didn't warrant a long set, or maybe he subscribes to the old line about "Always leave them wanting more."
There's also the possibility that he just wanted to get back to his hotel room and finish off the dumplings.