Rare Earth and Tonic were the featured bands Wednesday night for the Empire State Plaza Food Festival, with the members of the legendary Rare Earth seeming older than expected and Tonic too young to have released their first album in 1996.
Tonic came out after Rare Earth with a streak of high-spirited songs driven by the heavy guitar chords of Jeff Russo and catchy melodies layered on top by singer Emerson Hart. Opening hard with two of their hits, “Open Up Your Eyes,” and “Take Me As I Am,” they surprised with their solid four-man sound and good songs.
They looked like a boy-band barely grown up, however. Thin, small-framed and wearing trendy clothes and innocent, happy faces, they were fun to watch. Musicians of their genre like to look like the tortured artists on stage, but these guys had happy faces.
By time they played “You Wanted More,” the songs were sounding very similar. But they were still good, foot-tapping sing-alongs. Same with “If You Ever Need Somebody, Count on Me” — similar energy, similar drum beat and similar guitar riffs — but it was a tight sound and good verses and good choruses. And each only lasted three minutes or so before the next song came at you.
Russo proved to be a skilled guitar soloist, as well, taking a few lengthy, intense turns.
Rare Earth is an old band working hard to survive off their original heyday in the early 1970s. It was an uphill battle Wednesday night. It was nice to hear their Motown hits, but they felt a bit tired on this round.
They opened with “Hey Big Brother,” which original member — from 1968 — Gil Bridges sang. Everything was political back then, and this song was no exception, though the words today have relevance but no teeth.
Bridges told us before playing “I Know I’m Losing You,” another of the group’s big hits, that they would “stretch out” a bit on it. They did, but it didn’t add much. Fortunately, they followed with the first song they ever recorded for Motown, “Get Ready,” which took up the whole side of a record — they played a 15-minute version Wednesday night. The song started with solid, slow interplay between Ray Monette on guitar and Bridges on sax. The song had umph for the first half, but wandered off with a few mediocre solos.
Drummer Floyd Stokes, who joined the group in the mid-‘90s, did most of the singing, including “Born to Wander” and the blues tune “Tobacco Road,” from their first record, which fell short of Stokes’ claim of a “low down dirty, filthy” tune. The sax solos of Bridges were tasteful and patient. You waited for him to start flying up and down the scales like most sax guys, but not him.
They dedicated “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” to Motown producer and writer Norman Whitfield, which was very cool. They were definitely best when they stayed well inside their Motown roots.
Their big hit “I Just Want to Celebrate” — all hits came from 1971 or earlier — was also cool. A few generations know that tune. This was an old crew playing old songs, gathering the energy needed to drive parts of them home, but not entire tunes.
While people were scattered around more than half the way up the State Museum steps, the seating was far from filled. It was a beautiful night, and the sunset offered quite a spectacle with the Capitol as a backdrop to the stage.