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Music Review: The Harmonious Five – Wanna Hear You Say “YEAH!”

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Thanks to my uncle Cliff, who was a huge fan, I was exposed to rhythm & blues music since early in my childhood. I never knew what this music was called, but I liked it. I really discovered this music when I was about 15, picking up 78 rpm records at the second-hand store solely based on whether they had interesting titles or familiar artist names and not playing them until I got home. Many of these already old records blew me away. I loved this sound! Even then, I didn’t know I was listening to R&B music.

It was the era of up-tempo rockabilly and blues-based rock & roll. Because of differences in rhythm and tempo, I simply thought of R&B as a type of slow rock. Over the years, my knowledge and understanding of music increased, and so did my appreciation of the music I soon learned was American rhythm & blues.

Because one aspect of R&B is its catchy, danceable rhythms, musicians from solo acts to bar bands to top hitmakers include at least a few R&B songs in their repertoire. This is certainly true in Canada, where I live. Not all musicians get R&B. Bar bands, especially, seem to like that the rhythm of R&B songs gets people up dancing, but they play and sing by rote without expressing the underlying soul of the songs. When an artist truly feels this music, gets the heart and soul of it, the wry humour and the slapstick, the subtle and sometimes not so subtle social commentary it carries beneath its often light-hearted surface, something magical happens. When performed by an artist who gets it, R&B music is powerful and timeless.

The Harmonious Five get it. While I prefer some more than others, the 17 tracks on this release are clearly performed by artists who understand and respect this genre and are journeymen musicians who have been playing R&B for a long time. All of these tracks are excellent and a few are better than that. This album rocks out with all the heart and soul this music was meant to deliver.

This band’s presentation is also consistent in other ways. The album was printed on one of those discs that’s made up to look like an old vinyl record, complete with an orange label at the centre that looks very much like the labels on my old 45 rpm records. The photographs on the cover and inside the box are shot in that hokey theatrical style so common on ’50s R&B and rock & roll albums and are interesting in their own right. This album is not simply a set of music these musicians happen to like. It’s heartfelt homage, a tribute and a tip of the hat to the wonderful artists and music of the R&B era.

In their promotional release, these veterans of the New York/New Jersey music scene write: “Our specialty is unearthing little-known treasures – fun, groovy, and irresistible music, played and recorded as authentically as possible. … The Harmonious Five’s desire is to … mine a particular sub-field of group vocal harmony, but also trying to bring to light some of the wittier and more obscure material that not many people are aware of.”

If this is their goal, these seasoned musicians have accomplished it. While they are excellent R&B songs, most of the selections on this release are, if not obscure, at least little-known. The Harmonious Five has avoided the common error (in my opinion) of creating a set selected from the few dozen very well-known R&B blasts from the past, instead opting to choose some of the best from the hundreds of other R&B songs available. The musicianship is tight and flawless. The vocals and harmonies are wonderful. More than that, these guys do get the music. In each track on this release, there is something ineffable and gripping that reflects the respect these artists have for this genre.

Among the songs on this release, there is only one with which I had been familiar before hearing these tracks. I still own Lieber and Stoller’s slow rocker “Young Blood”—the b-side of The Coasters’ “Searchin'”—on a 78 that I bought more than four decades ago. The Harmonious Five’s interpretation of this song is right on, catching not just the technical aspects of the song but its spirit. While I wasn’t familiar with the other songs here, my ingrained sense of what R&B is all about tells me that each of them is just as accurately and respectfully interpreted.

Before or while listening to these songs, it’s interesting to read the two pages of liner notes that provide some of the background and genesis for this album as well as the philosophy of the band. One thing neither the liner notes, nor the promo materials explain is the name of the band. The Harmonious Five consists of Ed Alstrom on guitar, Dave Keyes on piano, Mark Berger on bass, and Frank Pagano on drums. By my count, that’s four musicians in the band. Does the band also include the ghostly presence of some long ago R&B artist lending his or her spirit to this music? From the sound of it, perhaps.

In some reviews, I will point out certain tracks that are especially well done and occasionally tracks that are not so well done. I won’t do that here. These tracks are consistently excellent in every way. From beginning to end, the music on this album is good rock & roll and great rhythm & blues. I would recommend it to anyone.

You can purchase The Harmonious Five’s Wanna Hear You Say “YEAH!” and learn more about the band and its music at CD Baby, where you’ll also be able to listen to clips of all of these songs, read the liner notes, and purchase digital downloads of the entire album or individual songs. I recommend buying the real-world album just for the disc and packaging. This is music to be held, touched, and felt, not just listened to.

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