My friend’s first rock concert was Air Supply with his Mom at West Point’s Eisenhower Theater. A concert, yes; but not precisely rock, you say? He recalls it as traumatically loud: a permanent loud recorded till this day in the striations of his inner ear, a cell-mutating loud like Slayer in Snug Harbor, the sternum-tuned punch of the floor tom alone enough to knock your ticker into arrhythmia. As the permed Australians melted face, singing something about wanting to do something to every woman in the world, he sheltered from the visible waves of volume in his mother’s arms. She was every woman in the world to him.
My first, charmed rock concert was my favorite band in the world at the time in a theater in my hometown – a couple floors down, in fact, from my Dad’s office in the Old Main Building on the campus of SUNY-New Paltz. At 12, I was already the kid who could sing you the bassline to every song he knew; but lyrics didn’t matter much to me, and in some ways they still don’t unless they make themselves matter to me, for better or for worse. A lot of my favorite bands weren’t necessarily the best with words.
This band was Orleans. Maybe to you Orleans is just another lite-rock laughingstock, an era-bound abomination of sensitive beards and flare jeans, helium harmonies, cheesy amore and didactic post-hippie politics slathered atop a bad coke habit. Laugh now or forever hold your peace, ’cause you’re about to get schooled on the subject of this miscategorized, unfairly maligned and (potentially) genuinely important American rock band. They had the talent to contend for rock Rushmore. Fear not, my hipster friends: We will also get to the part about how Orleans really had only themselves to blame for their own critical and artistic marginalization.
Orleans was funky. Orleans understood funk’s first principles of space and counterpoint in a way that few funky white bands did or do. Orleans featured two dazzlingly good electric guitarists relating to each other in ways that transcended the standard lead and rhythm roles (similar and every bit equal to Barrere and George in Little Feat, or the Manuel/Hudson/Robertson latticework of the early Band records, or even Television’s Verlaine and Lloyd – and yes, I did just say that, oh hipster friends). Bassist Lance Hoppen and the late drummer Wells Kelly (later augmented by local hero Jerry Marotta) formed a crisp, motile rhythm section that honored the spaces in a way that made a lasting and musically valuable impression on me. For while Orleans may never be hip, space is always hip, so it was a good tip. Orleans at their live best sounded more like Stevie Wonder on “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” than anything Air Supply or Pablo Cruise could have ever managed.
Back to those guitars – those spidery Stratocasters, to be precise. The band’s main man, John Hall, was one of the best and most liberated lead guitarists of his era: a guy who had a Hendrixian fire, feel and swagger in his phrasing, expanded past blues by his schooled sense of melody and harmony. You could listen to Hall jam all night, truly; but it was the second lead guitarist and second lead vocalist, the late Larry Hoppen, whose lyrical “melodic statement” solos were more likely to define the tunes in which they occurred. The dual lead and the lead duel are a couple of artifacts best left in the ’70s from whence they came, but the Hall/Hoppen duel-to-dual solos on the song “Waking and Dreaming” are better, I am telling you, than the ones by Walsh and Felder on “Hotel California.” Posterity will not agree, but posterity is pretty gullible.
They played all my favorites that night: “Please Be There,” “Two-Faced World,” “Let There Be Music,” “Half Moon,” “Cold Spell.” After the show, thoroughly jazzed by what we had seen, Patty Sue Bunt and I went around the back of Old Main (as Campus School kids, we knew our way around) to see if we could find the band. We did. Lying on our bellies on the grass and peering through some narrow ventilation windows, we spied on a minor but fully established touring rock band hanging out backstage after a home-area gig. It was a year before the release of the hit for which they will always be known, the hit that was probably also the beginning of their end (signified by Hall’s first departure), the John and Johanna Hall-written, Larry Hoppen-sung classic “Still the One.”
They and their bearded and willowy entourage were helping themselves to the hospitality buffet in the makeshift green room in the basement under what is now called the Studley Theatre. Then the bearded John Hall spied us and carried his plate of food over to the open window. “We’re your number-one fans,” we screamed down on his head, holding up one finger each. “Looks like two of you to me,” he said, chewing, holding up two fingers, and that was that.
John Hall was cool, easy with a couple of pre-teens. He was there for you, a good guy, the kind of guy you could really vote for. The desolate emptiness I felt later that night has defined every celebrity encounter I have ever had and is probably the reason I never seek them out or do interviews.
The greatness of Orleans is not an easy sell these days. A fair bit of their output is prom-ballad, clinical yacht rock, and their vocals (virtuosic in their own right) are unfortunately period-stamped and dominated by the distinctive yes-please-or-no-thanks tenor of the Hoppen family voice. Funny that when I, a genuine fan, think of Orleans, the sound I can’t shake from my head is the rich baritone of the late Wells Kelly taking his one lead vocal turn per album: “Sunset,” “The Bum” and, most of all, the beautiful light pop tune “Mountain.” What an odd thrill that voice was and still is to me.
Orleans will never quite get the respect and position of privilege, the recognition for innovation, that they arguably deserve. They weren’t the only band to marry funk and R & B with the mature adult pop of the bearded ’70s, but they were one of the first and – as a band and as players, though maybe not as writers – one of the very best. All they really needed to fare better with posterity was a dash of weirdness, a little nasty streak, some stubbornness to resist to the prevailing yacht-rock values of the day.
You would think they might have learned some of that cultural contrarianism from Woodstock forbears like Helm and Danko, who had so strenuously declined the prevailing hippie values of their own day, and whom Orleans surely must have known around town in the mid-’70s. But for whatever reason, Orleans kept it sweet as can be. Thus, you will have to wade through some period stuff to get to what I am talking about, but it is there, and it is worth the effort, for you and for the legacy of a really good band.
Orleans performs at Opus 40 in Saugerties this Saturday, August 30 at 5 p.m. Tickets cost $40 at the gate and $30 in advance, available at Opus 40, Town and Country Liquor in Saugerties, Mother Earth in Kingston, Saugerties and Poughkeepsie, Convenient Deli in New Paltz and Headstock in Woodstock. VIP reservations, at $75, include a signed CD, a meet-and-greet with the band and VIP parking and seating. For more information, visit www.opus40.org or call (845) 246-3400.
Orleans, Saturday, August 30, 5 p.m., $75/$40/$30, Opus 40, 50 Fite Road, Saugerties; (845) 246-3400, www.opus40.org.