Night Beat host Geoff Anderson shares a review of Commander Cody and his West Coast Airmen at Baur’s Listening Lounge September 2, 2015.
Commander Cody has been in the boogie business for nearly 50 years now. Trends have come and gone; white wall tires, disco, Paris Hilton, rap music (still waiting for some of those to go), but the Commander continues to boogie on.
Actually, pigeonholing the Ol’ Commander into a single genre isn’t accurate. Since the 1960s, he and his bands have continually mashed up musical styles, cross-pollinating and creating musical hybrids from raw materials such as country, rock-n-roll, blues, jazz, western swing, R&B and of course, boogie-woogie.
Commander Cody’s band, the Lost Planet Airmen was the primary crucible for the musical alchemy back in the late ‘60s and early to mid-‘70s. Other bands of the era joined in the mix-n-match style such as Asleep at the Wheel, David Bromberg and Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks.
Through all the musical costume changes and chameleon impressions, the one constant was: Fun. In fact, a theme song of sorts was “Too Much Fun,” as in, “There’s a whole lotta things I ain’t never done, but I ain’t never had too much fun.”
Now, well into the 21st Century, George Frayne a/k/a Commander Cody is still at it. In fact, the band’s first tune Wednesday night was “Too Much Fun” setting the stage for the rest of the evening. Back in the day, the Lost Planet Airmen numbered eight or nine (counting the Commander).
Lately, however, the band members have thinned out like the Commander’s hair, dwindling to a quartet. The loss of the steel guitar, fiddle, harmonica and sax has directed the band’s sound more toward rock-n-roll, blues and R&B and somewhat away from the country sound that was often prominent in the 70s. But the boogie woogie rolls on.
The set list drew heavily from the Lost Planet Airmen days. “Riot in Cellblock # 9,” “Don’t Let Go,” “Lightnin-Bar Blues,” “House of Blue Lights,” “Wine, Do Your Stuff,” “Hot Rod Lincoln,” “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar,” “Oh Momma, Momma,” and “Truck Drivin’ Man” were each a little packet of nostalgia for the crowd that was mostly in its 50s and 60s and therefore danced and boogied to the original Airmen. This time around, they mostly just sang along.
Frayne sang most of the old favorites. He never had anything resembling a spectacular voice. Mostly he sort of talked-sang. The big advantage to that style is that it’s relatively easy on the vocal chords, preserving them for decades. In other words, the Commander in 2015 sounded just like he did in 1975. The other three band members sang too with the leader giving each player a chance to sing a couple of tunes in each of the two sets.
Many of the tunes weren’t straight from the Lost Planet Airmen songbook, but fit right in anyway. Songs like “Boogie Woogie Country Girl,” “All Tore Up” and “Hello Josephine” seemed like they could have been Lost Planet Airmen tunes if only the band would have stuck together a little longer.
Sean Allen on guitar and vocals played some rowdy solos to keep the festivities moving and also added critical fills to recreate many of the arrangements from yesteryear. Tim Eschilman played bass and sang and long-time Frayne associate Steve Barbuto played drums and sang. In contrast to Frayne’s talk-singing, the other three all carried their melodies and even put on three-part harmonies on a regular basis.
Besides the boogie, the Ol’ Commander’s fun was traditionally assisted by various chemicals. In fact the first album was called Lost in the Ozone. “I’m drinkin’ wine/I’m drinkin’ gin/And I’m lost in the ozone again.” Many of the songs defining that persona were included in the set list Wednesday night including “Seeds and Stems,” “Roll Your Own,” “Wine, Do Your Stuff,” “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke” and “Lost in the Ozone.”
Having seen the Commander in concert several times in the 70s, he appeared to be living the songs at the time. Once, I saw him staggering through the crowd to go on stage at fairly small club. He needed a couple of minutes of holding up a wall before he could make it on stage. Watching that, I was worried that the upcoming set might be, well,…a little ragged. But no! He and the band killed it! Diligent training? Maybe.
In contrast, on Wednesday night Frayne apologized for his drippy nose early in the set. He wanted everyone to know that it was caused by cold airplane air from his flight earlier that day and not cocaine. “At 71 I can’t do that!”
Indeed, the Commander’s locomotion onto and off the stage was careful and deliberate, assisted by a walking cane. On stage he guzzled a bottle of San Pellegrino. He commented on his reefer songs, lamenting that now that weed is legal in Colorado, the songs are no longer really subversive and therefore not quite as much fun. (It’s OK George, it’s still illegal under federal law!)
One result of the slimmed down band is that Frayne’s piano playing is much more in the forefront and doesn’t get lost in the shuffle like it did with a bigger band. Like his voice, the piano playing is intact after all these years, but unlike his voice, he can really play. His left hand was incessant, insistent in pounding out the boogie on the grand piano. And he’s still trying to figure way if there’s a way to have too much fun.
Too Much Fun
Riot in Cellblock # 9
Rock that Boogie
Boogie Woogie Country Girl
It Don’t Matter Now
Don’t Let Go
All Tore Up
Smoke, Smoke, Smoke
Roll Your Own
House of Blue Lights
It Should’ve Been Me
Truck Drivin’ Man
Wine, Do Yer Stuff
Oh Momma, Momma
Hot Rod Lincoln
Seeds and Stems
Beat Me Daddy 8 to the Bar
Lost in the Ozone
George Frayne, vocals, piano
Steve Barbuto, drums, vocals
Sean Allen, guitar, vocals
Tim Eschilman, bass, vocals
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