Fans of garage rock and power pop would be hard-pressed to find a better act on tour right now than the Flamin’ Groovies, though they might be shocked to learn that the band is indeed touring. Personally, I was just as surprised as I was excited when I heard they were coming to Cleveland, since the Flamin’ Groovies are one of those groups that I have always admired but never thought I’d get the chance to see, due to their lack of mainstream success. Even as far as cult favorites go, the Groovies tend not to receive quite the same attention as their contemporaries. But with records like Shake Some Action, Teenage Head, and Jumpin’ In the Night in their repertoire, it’s hard to understand why they aren’t better known.
Although their past recordings speak for themselves, the Flamin’ Groovies’ greatness still shines through today in their live shows. The present lineup, featuring co-founder Cyril Jordan on vocals and guitar, original member George Alexander on bass, ’70s-era lead singer Chris Wilson on guitar and vocals, and newest Groovy Victor Penalosa on drums, have been playing gigs together for the past two years. They even wrote and released a single, “End of the World,” which recreates their ’70s sound so well that it’s practically uncanny. And fortunately, this seems to be only the beginning of the Groovies’ revival, as in addition to touring, they are planning to release their first full album of new material in decades, plus a feature length documentary, all to commemorate the band’s 50th anniversary next year.
The Flamin’ Groovies’ diverse catalog spans everything from blues-based tunes to jangly Byrds covers, and they still pay homage to these influences in their current shows. In fact, the song that kicked off last Saturday’s concert at the Beachland Ballroom was Gene Clark’s classic “Feel a Whole Lot Better,” which also appeared on the 1978 release Flamin’ Groovies Now. This was one of many covers heard throughout the set, which is only fitting since the Groovies are proven masters at interpreting other artists’ material, whether it’s well known hits by established names or buried gems first recorded by their left-of-mainstream heroes. As if to show off their range to the Cleveland crowd, the band performed a hard-hitting “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” dedicated to Brian Jones, alongside “Married Woman” by bluesman Frankie Lee Sims, whom Cyril Jordan was surprised to note that the blues-obsessed Stones never covered.
Regarding their own compositions, it’s clear that the Groovies still understand the power of an infectious riff, the driving force behind many of their best songs, and Jordan and Wilson’s guitars faithfully brought these enduring melodies to life at Beachland. Their most legendary single, “Shake Some Action,” as well as the unbelievably catchy “Slow Death,” were rendered with plenty of raw energy to the absolute delight of the crowd. It certainly didn’t hurt that the band was playing these timeless tunes to a room full of dedicated fans, many of whom probably would have paid well over the $25 entry free, and who enthusiastically called out obscure requests all evening. But I’m willing to bet that any fan of good old-fashioned rock ‘n roll would have been pleased with these instantly memorable songs, whether they knew them by heart or were hearing them for the first time.
The only complaint I can imagine someone might have about the show is that the set was strictly focused on the 1970s portion of the Flamin’ Groovies’ career, thereby neglecting the Roy Loney period. Loney originally formed the band with Jordan in 1965, starting out with a ’50s rock ‘n roll inspired model, and he served as lead vocalist and guitarist until his departure in 1971. In his absence, Jordan helped steer the band in a more power pop direction, leading to what many consider the Groovies’ magnum opus, Shake Some Action, in 1976. Considering the album’s relative popularity, it only makes sense that they performed almost every track over the course of the evening at Beachland, though not with the pristine studio quality of the original recordings, but with a rougher, grittier edge, kind of like a garage band that actually knows how to play their instruments. Even the melancholy, Beatles-esque ballads “You Tore Me Down” and “Please Please Girl” were rendered with just as much force and fun as the rollicking rockabilly selections “Don’t You Lie To Me” and “She Said Yeah.” It would have been incredibly hard not to dance to at least one, if not all of the songs they played, and a particular highlight was “Tallahassee Lassie,” which I found myself listening to repeatedly on the way home from the concert, trying to relive the dynamic performance.
Another great moment came during the encore in the form of the show’s only Loney-era song “Teenage Head,” a down-and-dirty blues tune at its core, appropriately filtered through raunchy garage rock and accompanied by an origin story that inevitably makes audiences snicker like teenage boys. It was a perfect ending to the night and was totally in keeping with the overall upbeat tone, as the band members did everything they could to keep the audience laughing throughout the show, tossing out plenty of off-the-cuff one-liners in between songs and even turning the technical difficulties that plagued the performance into sources of amusement. Chris Wilson apologized for one of the interruptions by saying, “There is a potentially disturbing event going on. We smell something burning in one of the amps,” to which Cyril Jordan added, “They don’t call us the Flamin’ Groovies for nothing.”
Antics aside, I would not hesitate to describe the Flamin’ Groovies, both then and now, as “rock ‘n roll in its purest form.” Both the songs they wrote and the ones they covered are deceptively simple yet powerful, much like the teenage romances–and lust–that their lyrics seem to describe. Perhaps what makes the Groovies’ performances so effective to this day is the band’s ability to recapture and maintain the youthful vitality of these 40-something-year-old records, even while making cracks about being eligible for senior discounts. Their formula of catchy, memorable music combined with straightforward, relatable lyrics still works, and likewise the Groovies still know how to work it.
Although this year’s tour is quickly winding down, I still encourage you to check out the Flamin’ Groovies in whatever way you can, whether that means attending one of their few remaining dates or simply picking up an album. The Groovies’ day in the sun is long overdue, and the more people who recognize them for their talents, the sooner that day will come for this often forgotten but always remarkable band.