Trying to categorize the band called Sweet is a bit like trying to hold down an air bubble trapped under plastic. There’s the bubblegum outfit that had hits like “Funny Funny” and “Little Willie” from 1968 to 1972. There’s the glam-rock group that had a series of 13 top ten international hits during the mid-’70s, although few of these releases made any mark in the states.
Then Sweet dropped the glam trappings and went for a heavier sound and image that carried it until its last chart success in 1978, “Love is Like Oxygen.” Then the group broke up in 1982. While producers, personnel, and the roles each played changed dramatically over the years, the classic line-up was unquestionably the group listed in the roll call in the opening moments of 1973’s “Ballroom Blitz.” These were lead singer Brian Connolly, bass player Steve Priest, guitarist Andy Scott, and drummer Mick Tucker. Connolly died in 1997 and Tucker in 2002. Along the way, the two surviving members went their separate ways and led two different versions of Sweet—Priest in California, and Scott in the U.K.
It’s the Priest version of the group that was recorded live at the Morongo Casino in California on August 30, 2008, to a comparatively small crowd. Along with Priest providing background vocals and bass, the American incarnation of the new Sweet included Stuart Smith (vocals, guitar), Joe Retta (vocals, acoustic guitar), Stevie Stewart (vocals, keyboards), and Richie Onori (drums). Naturally, the purpose of such gigs is to give fans recognizable renditions of the songs they remember. This ensemble does a reasonable job at this, but it isn’t Sweet. It’s a Sweet tribute band. Nutra-Sweet, perhaps.
Of course, one can take this stuff too seriously and that would miss the point. AM hits like “Fox on the Run,” “Little Willie,” and “Ballroom Blitz” weren’t designed to be creative monsters to begin with. Still, songs like “Wig Wam Bam,” “Windy City,” “Sweet F.A.,” and “Hell Raiser” are derivative pop montages. “Blockbuster” is only different from David Bowie’s “Jean Genie in its lyrics. The guitar middle section was clearly taken from The Shadows’ “FBI.”
Then again, the same could be said of the original recordings. But there was a magic back in the day not captured in the new band. Two tracks that clearly show how different this group is from the founding fathers are “AC.DC” and “Six Teens.” The originals featured the Queen-like choral vocals of the Desolation Boulevard period, Sweet’s high point in the U.S. This group doesn’t always demonstrate that range.
On the other hand, tracks like “Turn It Down,” “Teenage Rampage,” and especially “Set Me Free”—the concert’s standout jam—are perfectly suited for Retta’s Ronnie James Dio-style delivery. That’s the main distinction. To be Sweet, you need Connolly hitting the high notes.
For dessert, Priest’s Sweet adds a few empty calories with a previously unreleased studio version of the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There.” Sure, why not? In the end, this concert was for Sweet fans who were there when the performance was live. For everyone else, forget the name. It’s an evening of bubblegum glam-rock pop candy that’s dispensable fun. It’s just in the wrong wrapper.