Backstage with Ron Onesti:
Classic rock’s Burton Cummings to return to Arcada for encore
“Guess Who” is going to rock the Arcada again?
The former lead vocalist, keyboardist and flautist (that’s right, flautist) from the Canadian rock ‘n’ roll supergroup “The Guess Who,” Burton Cummings will return for a command performance at The Arcada April 21, and WHAT a show its going to be!
Although he was only with the band from 1965-1975 (with a short reunion tour from 2000-2003), those formative years produced some of the biggest hits in pop/rock music: “American Woman,” “No Time,” “Share the Land,” “Hand Me Down World,” “Laughing,” “Clap For The Wolfman,” “Star Baby,” “New Mother Nature” and “These Eyes.” His solo career includes many hit singles including the radio airwaves favorite “Stand Tall.”
The last time he was here at The Arcada, he told me just how thrilled he was to return to St. Charles.
“You guys have an incredible building, an incredible staff, and incredible fans! It’s a magical place,” he said.
His bushy mustache, uncombed hair and jolly-happy persona makes for a caricature of a rocker that is completely lovable, wildly entertaining and musically genius. On stage it seemed that he was having as much fun as the audience. I don’t think I have ever witnessed a performer who was as much a part of the audience while at the same time being part of the act as Burton was. Each song that he sang was not only a crowd favorite, but also visibly one of his favorites! I really can’t wait for this show!
He had such a connection with the audience that Burton even went as far as asking his entire band to take a break, leaving only himself and his keyboard on stage. Once again, he made the audience feel as if he was performing for each individual person with small-talk conversation and intimate candor. He then broke out into a surprising rendition of Bobby Darrin’s “Mack The Knife” … it was soooo cool!
Another reason he was so excited to return was his history in Chicago.
“The Guess Who cut its biggest records in Chicago, at the RCA Studios on North Wacker Drive, across from The Opera House. ‘American Woman,’ ‘No Sugar Tonight,’ “No Time,’ ‘Hand Me Down World,’ ‘Share The Land’ — all the biggest singles we had we cut in Chicago! Being from Canada, I was used to cold winters and Chicago made us feel like home, and the people were always great! But that deep dish pizza, oh that deep dish pizza!” he said shaking his head with a smile.
During his performance, he played the flute, something I really didn’t realize he was able to do.
“Yeah, I enjoy playing the flute and the harmonica … the guitar too,” he said. “When Randy (Bachmann) wrote ‘Undun,’ he had me play on the record. That was a new concept at the time because most bands were strictly drums, bass, guitar and keys. But when I break it out at live shows, the people go nuts!” said Burton.
“Ya know, Burton,” I said, “Rarely have I seen a performer with the kind of history and the pedigree that you have had having so much fun on stage!”
He responded, “I have lived 50 lifetimes already. Any performer would love to be able to get the response from an audience that I am lucky enough to get. I almost feel like it is all new again. People are hiring the band left and right, I am still writing and I really get a kick out of being on stage. Really, how lucky can an entertainer get, especially one my age?”
A topic for my column for another day will be the discussion about bands that have splintered off into other incarnations, like Dennis DeYoung leaving Styx, Peter Cetera leaving Chicago and Burton Cummings leaving The Guess Who. The bands still went on and the lead vocalists went on to foster their own solo careers, but basing their performances on the music from the years when they were still in their respective bands. Is it still “the band” without the lead singer? Is it about the music and not the personalities? It is a hot bed of barroom discussions, with people passionately picking sides, but I will focus on that another day.
All I know is when that all-too-emotionally-familiar guitar riff starts “American Woman” (a song written about the band members avoiding the Vietnam War draft, the “American Woman” being the Statue of Liberty), I cannot help air-guitaring like I am a rock ‘n’ roll madman on the stage myself. Cool when I am in the car, kind of weird when I was waiting in line at the bank the other day! Man I love my classic rock, and I am not afraid to embarrassingly show it!
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.