Denny Laine At Bb Kings, Tuesday, January 9th, 2018, Reviewed
The problem with Wings, with Denny Laine in Wings, is that Denny Laine is a Paul McCartney type A but there was already a Paul McCartney Type A and Wings needed a John Lennon Type A. So during Laine’s ten years as the third wheel, but the one that kept Wings stable as a band the way a third wheel keeps a tricycle steady, he couldn’t quite come into his own. At BB King’s last night, Denny drew us the diagram: In December 1966, Denny formed the Electric String Band with power pop great Trevor Burton (of the Move) and prog rock innovator Viv Prince of the Pretty Things influenced by the George Martin-Paul McCartney who made “Eleanor Rigby”. The Electric String Band song he performed last night, “Say You Don’t Mind,” is nascent Wings: it cemented his place in the power-pop firmament, Denny was already resolving influences from Paul that Paul would eventually recast in his own image. For power-pop guys, Denny in Wings is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and unlike nearly any wingman in the world, Denny wasn’t in the market to simply provide cover so in 2018 he doesn’t have to sell his position in Wings: he is too secure not to assume you take it at face value.
But that isn’t the entire Denny Laine (born Brian Hines, he stole the Laine off Frankie Laine) story and while if it is the central chapter, his guitar bona fidas is evident in Ginger Baker hiring him for Ginger’s post-Cream band. More, it is as a member of the Moody Blues that Laine is being inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame later this year. Denny, the original Moody lead singer and guitarist (replaced by Justin Hayward) wasn’t invited to the Hall so he telephoned the multi-instrumental epicenter of the Moody Blues, Ray Thomas, last week and Ray said it was “bollocks” and that it was not a band decision, it was the Hall’s decision. Peter Asher of Peter and Gordon fame (Denny works with Peter’s band when he records on the West Coast), had, according to Ultimate Rock, said he’d never vote for the Moody Blues without Laine’s name attached, the honoree added, “That was kind of the most rewarding part of the thing, I think – I had friends from the top who pushed for me to get back in.” All would be well that ends well and Denny is in except sadly Ray died last Thursday, January 4th, 2018 of prostrate cancer.
Denny Laine, with an excellent backing band, the Cryers, opened their two hour set by reeling off six songs from the Moody Blues debut album. Well, maybe reeling is the wrong word. Denny was loquacious, and began by tying the laces of Brit music history, tight. Denny was playing in a local band when Ray, just back from Hamburg where he was performing on the same circuit the Beatles made famous, asked Denny to join his new band Moody Blues. Denny said yes, as long as the Moody Blues kept to the blues. Denny’s lead vocals on “Go Now” gave the band their first hit and found them performing at the same Dance Hall as… the Beatles. Last night, all six songs off 1965’s The Magnificent Moodies were first rate, Denny looked old, untidy, and shaggy, well he is 73 years old so he would, but he was better at singing James Brown and Solomon Burke, not to mention the Bo Diddley rip “Lose Your Money (But Don’t Lose Your Mind)” than on the 70s material. The early evening included an astounding harp solo by Jeff Brown, seamlessly replicating Ray’s. Former Wings drummer Steve Holley, completely nailed the “shave aad a haircut two bits” Black African beat. A highlight of the evening was Denny explaining by showing how Buddy Holly performed the “Peggy Sue” beat on guitar before Steve and band leader bassist Joe Orlando’s mid-song jam. It started so well but it was hard to maintain it and the reason is Denny can’t sing McCartney’s parts very well, and as the evening went on it became annoying. Everything was so good yet the “Picasso’s Last Words,” “Band On The Run” and “Spirits Of Ancient Egypt,” were spectacularly naff. Other Wings songs worked better, “Mull Of Kintyre,” which opened with a story so peculiar, about Denny running over dead sheep on the McCartney’s Scottish farm, is better than the original, with the synthesizer bagpipes pleasantly low key by Belle Liao . Denny co-wrote the song, Wings biggest hit, and sings it winningly. “Listen To What The Man Said,” introduced an excellent young sax player and the sheer joy of performance (the entire band seemed genuinely delighted to be on stage) would have made for an awe inspiring singalong if the audience weren’t in need of a coupla tanks of oxygen. It’s terrific watching a band having fun and the Cryers were having tons of it.
Momentum was hurt because every song opened with a story even if every story was worth hearing, I have no idea why Denny hasn’t contacted Anthony DeCurtis to ghost his memoirs, he claims he’s forgotten much of it but I doubt that most sincerely, as Laine noted early while mourning Ray’s death, it all came rushing back. Denny is the story of British rock in miniature and nobody better expresses the ranginess from blues to power pop that occurred from the mid-1960s to mid-1970s, as a member in good standing in one of the biggest bands of the British Explosion and in the biggest band of 1970s.Denny exemplifies the rank and files blues breaker purist as the Beatles changed him to proggy, ultra melodic strings and dings Meanwhile Denny’s achievements while with Wings, the excellent “No Words” from Band On The Run and the better “Again And Again And Again,” from Back To The Egg (perhaps the only time one of his songs on a Wings album that should show on a highlight reel, you think you don’t know it but it is that “Now you don’t wanna be the little woman…” one)
Throughout the evening, despite his scruffed up ageism, Denny was charismatic with an easy going on top of it all; you can see why he has managed such a long career, you can see why Peter Asher would run to his defense. Whether blowing the harp or running through scales at the speed of sound, Denny charmed us all. He dealt with an irritating audience members full throated screams with an “I love you too,” before adding a withering “you’re bread and butter”. He takes his age as a joke on himself, “I’m nearly blind” he insists as he peers under his Lennon sunglasses. Then he dedicates “Live And Let Die” to Ray, and to all the rest of us for making it through another year. The Cryers played McCartney’s always complex song constructions with absolute ease and confidence and the Laine-Mike Pinder early blues rearing into prog songs without breaking a sweat. Laine spent twenty years at the top of the food chain, with a handful of very good songs, and a place at the rock and roll table due to his work with the Moody Blues and Wings. Though Denny claims Wings were not a band, but rather Paul and whoever, but nah: Wings were a band with a clear leader. And however self-effacing Laine may be, he makes a clear case for himself as an English blues guy who could write a good song, and managed a lifelong career that in retrospect can make for an enjoyable two-hour distillation. Last year Laine was performing the entire Band On The Run album, and I think I would have liked him much less because what Denny has proven at 73 years of age is that Laine does Laine very well indeed, and he has every right to be proud at how well he does it.