Even though Joe Cocker and Huey Lewis and the News found fame in different eras, the two acts were united by a shared love for rock ‘n’ roll, soul and bits of the blues, coupled with decades of constant radio airplay. As a result, it was only fitting to find the pair of performers sharing a double bill for the first time, and as a jam packed Ravinia audience demonstrated Friday night, there was plenty of cross generational appeal.
Lewis and his Bay Area-bred News certainly had no trouble getting the party started, blending its hit-riddled history with an appreciation for old-school soul covers. This year marks the second supporting its latest project Soulsville, which concentrates heavily on chestnuts from the Stax Records family spun in the band’s blue-eyed soul tradition. After tipping off with the harmonica-heavy “The Heart Of Rock & Roll,” the fellas dug deep into yesteryear, swinging casually through the Soul Brothers Six’s “Some Kind of Wonderful” and strutting with the horn-heavy grooves of The Staples Singers’ “Respect Yourself.”
From the early MTV era, “I Want A New Drug” and “Heart And Soul” provided the night’s most electric sing-a-longs, while Lewis and company also showed off their pristine harmonies come “Doing It All For My Baby” and an a cappella version of the Bobby Day-penned/Frankie Lymon-popularized “Little Bitty Pretty One.” The 75-minute set also took a few creative risks, like a jazzy jam through the ’90s album track “Small World” and a fiery, rock ‘n’ blues rendition of “Workin’ For A Livin’,” which served as the ideal way to pass the baton towards the co-headliner.
Cocker continued the relay at full tilt with the blustery one-two punch of his own “Hitchcock Railway” and Traffic’s “Feelin’ Alright.” Even at 68, the English veteran chugged along with fervor on fellow deep-bellied rockers like “The Letter” and “When The Night Comes,” though he wasn’t nearly as strong when it came to the ballads. “Up Where We Belong” proved laborious, but at least a boisterous background vocalist (filling in for original duet partner Jennifer Warnes) helped balance the scales. Unfortunately, Cocker was on his own come “You Are So Beautiful” and let’s just say those high notes he once hit so effortlessly were now a significant stretch.
Thankfully that soft spoken segment was short-lived and Cocker picked up plenty of speed come the contemporary blues rocker “Hard Knocks” (the title track from his current studio collection) and a smoldering treatment of The Beatles’ “Come Together.” The spastic singer showcased additional interpretive mastery, making everything from Randy Newman’s sassy “You Can Leave Your Hat On” to Ray Charles’ mighty “Unchain My Heart” completely his own. Between those points of connection for Cocker and Lewis’ free-spirited recollections, the near three-hour evening was certainly ideal for any retro rock lover and could easily find itself being reprised as any summer’s surefire package tour.
– Andy Argyrakis
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