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Sunday, August 7, 2011

Celebrating Girl-Groups!

It was all about love. Waiting for it, finding it, showing it, fearing for it, fighting for it, sometimes losing it, sometimes taking it all the way to happy-ever-after marriage. On Saturday afternoon the rock archivists of the Ponderosa Stomp and Lincoln Center Out of Doors presented a fond four-hour marathon of girl-group songs from the early 1960s, sung by the women who made them. 

Headlined by Ronnie Spector, Lesley Gore and LaLa Brooks (of the Crystals), the concert also brought back names that drift by on oldies stations: the Exciters, the Jaynetts, the Angels, the Cookies, the Toys, the Chantels, Reparata and the Delrons, Maxine Brown, Baby Washington, Beverly Warren. 

While the event was called “She’s Got the Power!,” most of the songs told just the opposite story: of women with strong voices and chiming, rocking tunes who were declaring how completely their happiness depended on a guy’s love. (Ms. Gore had the rare exception with her feisty “You Don’t Own Me.”) The show’s backup orchestra, which included guitarists from the Rascals, Yo La Tengo and the Patti Smith Group, was cleverly named the Boyfriends. 

The singers were teenagers in the 1950s and ’60s, with high, bright, sometimes untrained voices that leaped out of transistor-radio speakers, like Ronnie Spector’s raw, arresting tone: a definitive Noo Yawk voice. The songwriting behind them came largely from cubicles and office-building studios in New York City, where teams like Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry distilled tales of romance down to two and a half minutes and a chorus like “Baby, I Love You.” 

There were girl groups elsewhere, particularly in Motown, but this concert at the Damrosch Park Bandshell rightly celebrated New York as the fountainhead. The music reflected the city, uptown and downtown, with brash arrangements, doo-wop harmonies, a frequent hint of a Latin beat and some Broadway storytelling. The sophisticated harmonies and horn arrangements behind a song like Ms. Gore’s “Judy’s Turn to Cry” easily connect to show tunes. 

The concert was in three parts: a revue with the lesser-known singers doing a few songs each; a string of minisets from the headliners; and a closing tribute to the prolific Ms. Greenwich, described by Paul Shaffer (who sat in on keyboards) as “the spirit of the girl-group sound.” A representative from BMI, the royalties collection agency, announced that by its tabulation Ms. Greenwich’s songs have received airplay totaling 125 years. 

The singers aren’t teenagers anymore. Voices have lowered and thickened; dance steps, with a few exceptions, were more limited. Arlene Smith of the Chantels worked the stage in a motorized wheelchair as she sang “Maybe.” But many of the voices had aged well. The clear standout was Ms. Brooks, lean and incredibly limber at 64, who belted “And Then He Kissed Me,” “Da Doo Ron Ron” and a borrowed song, “River Deep, Mountain High,” with lavish, exultant drama (and a little Tina Turner rasp for “River Deep”).
Ms. Brown’s songs — “All in My Mind,” “Oh No Not My Baby” and “We’ll Cry Together” — were suffused with pained suspicion and tearful relief. Brenda Reid pushed the Exciters’ songs “Tell Him” and “Doo Wah Diddy Diddy” toward hearty gospel. Louise Murray, one of the many vocalists on the Jaynetts’ “Sally Go ’Round the Roses,” brought out the desperate warning at the core of that mysterious song. 

Typical of the Ponderosa Stomp’s thoroughness, the performers also included half a dozen of the era’s frequent backup singers, among them Toni Wine, who wrote (with Carole Bayer Sager) “A Groovy Kind of Love,” and sang it solo at an electric keyboard with elfin affection. 

Though women’s songs now express more independence, the girl-group sound has been durable. It’s had its latest resurgence with bands like the Cults and Best Coast, and Ms. Spector made a point of singing a slightly expurgated version of Amy Winehouse’s girl-group-styled “Back to Black.” At the Ponderosa Stomp young love — yearning, confused, desperate, triumphant, blissful — still glowed from the grown-ups onstage, culminating in that definitive girl-group wish in the finale: “Be My Baby.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/01/arts/music/shes-got-the-power-at-lincoln-center-review.html?_r=1&WT.mc_id=AR-D-I-NYT-MOD-MOD-M213-ROS-0811-HDR&WT.mc_ev=click

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