Three Dog Night
The Grass Roots

July 19, 2013
Pacific Amphitheatre
Costa Mesa, CA

Review by Shawn Perry
Photos by Donnie Baker

If you were to combine all the hits the Grass Roots and Three Dog Night had during their prime, you could probably fill a radio station's playlist all day long. Which isn't surprising when you figure both groups were designed to be hit-making machines. The Grass Roots, who have had over 40 members in their ranks, were hatched by a songwriting duo in need of a vehicle for their songs. Three Dog Night was put together by three vocalists who brought in a four-piece backing band and recorded songs mostly written by outside songwriters like Hoyt Axton, Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman and Laura Nyro. Rarely do you get so much rich history on one stage in one night. Those are the kind of pairings you get at the Orange County Fair.

The members of the Grass Roots — guitarist Dusty Hanvey, keyboardist Larry Nelson, drummer Joe Dougherty and bassist/vocalist Mark Dawson — took their places at 7:45 and began the evening with “I’d Wait A Million Years,” a minor 1969 hit. The band played proficiently and the mostly Baby Boomer audience reacted favorably. “This is the rock and roll version of the senior tour,” announced Dawson, making the first of the night’s many jokes about the band members’ age. As someone who grew up on a steady diet of this music, the jokes didn’t make me feel any younger.

Other hits like “Sooner Or Later,” "Let's Live for Today" and “Temptation Eyes” went down smooth and easy, while an a cappela take of Crosby, Still & Nash’s “Find The Cost Of Freedom” paid tribute to the veterans. The harmonies didn’t quite ring with that unique CSN flavor, but they were strong and powerful nonetheless. “Where Were You When I Needed,” was announced as the first Grass Roots hit from 1966. What they neglected to mention was that it was written by P. F. Sloan and Steve Barri, who created the band.

For an encore, the band’s biggest, most well-known hit, “Midnight Confessions,” brought the 30-minute set to a rousing close. It’s funny how the Grass Roots have never really stopped since their inception. They’re one of those reunion-proof bands that can carry on for as long as there are musicians to replace members and an audience to hear the songs. Three of the four members have been with the group since the mid 80s, so it’s hard to knock their credibility. Thankfully other Grass Roots bands with past members haven’t surfaced to challenge this sustainable jukebox who won the audience over.

Three Dog Night could have played their set by the numbers, but they veered off the chart of predictability a few times, creating a better than expected experience for yours truly. I mean, without Chuck Negron, I wasn’t sure how the three-singer dynamic so central to the band’s sound was going to work. As I was about to find out, they solved that issue long ago.

So it was with the opening song, “Family Man,” that I saw vocal support all over the stage, most prominently from bassist Paul Kingery, the third singer of Three Dog Night for nearly 30 years. Ah ha! Handling all the lead vocals fell to original founding members Danny Hutton and Corey Wells, both in fine voice for the most of the evening.

“One Man Band,” “Black & White,” “Never Been to Spain,” “Shambala” — each were lined up and trotted out in quick succession. And why not? These guys are pros who still tour regularly. You figure with original guitarist Michael Allsup, original keyboardist Jimmy Greenspoon and drummer Pat Bautz, the newest member since 1993, they are able to tap the fair and corporate markets for a steady stream of gigs all year long. And it’s all because they play songs people want to hear.

What made Three Dog Night’s set special were the songs they played that no one expected to hear. Hutton claimed it had been 25 years since they had dusted off “It’s For You, “ a Lennon-McCartney song the Beatles never recorded, a Top 10 hit for Cilla Black in 1964, and included on Three Dog Night’s 1968 debut album. They also took a stab at Randy Newman’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” buried on the band’s Coming Down Your Way album from 1975, and later a hit for Joe Cocker.

Wells, who played acoustic guitar on and off all night, mentioned that both his daughter and granddaughter were in attendance before launching into “It Ain’t Easy,” the title track from Three Dog Night’s third album and another fortuitous turn. “Heart Of Blues,” a new one from the group’s forthcoming album without an exact release date (Wells said maybe 2035) provided a bluesy sway that resonated soundly.

“Liar” put Allsup and Greenspoon, always the musical muscle behind Three Dog Night’s edgier side, in the spotlight. If only they'd had time to play a little "Fire Eater" or "Chest Fever." Vocally, Hutton handled “Liar” and “Celebrate” with relative ease, while Wells, who’d held his own up to this point, sounded a little rough on the rough-sounding “Mama Told Me Not Come.” No matter how you try to dance around it, “The Show Must Go On” and “Joy To The World” lacked Negron's grit, but they are songs they have to do, and the audience seemed oblivious to the kind of minor details only rock nerds like myself care about.

At the end of the night, as I was consciously aware I hadn't seen the same exact band Captured Live At The Forum in 1969 on stage tonight (and I’m realistic enough to know very few are left), I was impressed enough by who’s left and the rich bounty of songs — music a good majority of those who filled the Pacific Amphitheater tonight grew up on, thrived on and relish on in their distant memories. That and the fair weren’t a bad way to start the weekend.


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