The boys in the band are dark-haired and lithe, and the lead singer is 75, but you don't notice it. They're all fine young Animals once the music begins.
In 1962, a group of young men in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne formed a band -- born out of a rhythm & blues combo -- called The Animals. Eric Burdon was their lead singer.
Burdon's unsmiling delivery, intense eyes, and raw fire hose of a voice propelled The Animals into being one of the spearheads of the British Invasion, with hits like "It's My Life," "We Gotta Get out of This Place," "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," and above all "(The) House of the Rising Sun."
Until last night, I hadn't fully appreciated how much I have been missing shows at City Winery in New York. For years I've been a regular there, but over this past spring and summer, I've been living in Princeton, New Jersey, finishing a book about F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Winery is, alas, a car ride, two train trips, and a walk away from me instead of right across the Village. Michael Dorf has kindly let me hear some musicians I've loved all my life from a matter of feet away — Prince, Gregg Allman, Steve Earle, Joan Armatrading, Paul Brady, Dave Davies. Now, Eric Burdon.
Musicians were there to hear Burdon. Before the show, I said hello to Jimmy Vivino, whom I met long ago in Woodstock, when he played with Levon Helm. Vivino was beaming at the prospect of listening, not performing for once, to "one of the greatest blues singers" in concert in such a small venue. Burdon's excellent band vamped for him before he downright strutted onstage, looking coolly Californian in black, in shades, with a scarf (he's lived in the States for years, now).
Davey Allen plays rippling, ripping keyboards; Johnzo West shines on lead guitar. Evan Mackey and Ruben Salinas made a trombone and sax sound like a whole New Orleans jazz band — Burdon kept holding his own mic in Salinas' saxophone during the solos. Dustin Koester's drums were screened perfectly from the small house by plexiglass, or he'd have knocked us into Varick Street; you could hear his beat well, but not feel it in your face. Justin Andres laid down a bass line that sounded grand, song after song, against the rise and fall of Burdon's voice.
What are you going to start with at a winery, when you have a hit song entitled "Spill the Wine"? Right. Burdon slid straight on into a grand "C.C. (or See See, if you prefer) Rider" and riffed away happily on "South of the Border" along the way. After "Monterey," he waxed reminiscent about the 1967 festival. "A beautiful blonde ... she was in the movies. Standing next to me. And Otis Redding came on, and it began to rain. That girl, the girl next to me handed me a white rose." He paused. "I took it from her ... and I ate it." A chuckle — Burdon's timing is immaculate. "So fucked up. Hey, this next song is 'Don't Bring Me Down.'"
Burdon respects Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly) in a clear-eyed and unsentimental way — one great blues vocalist to another. He told us the story of Lead Belly's two imprisonments for murder: "Once he wrote a song for the warden's wife, Irene, and she said, 'Let that man go.' And he left and killed somebody else." Burdon shook his head. "And he wrote this beautiful song — a love song gone wrong. It's called 'In The Pines.'"
The Animals' arrangement of that song is rocking and flaying, getting the brutality of a song too often delivered in treacly moans and whines. Its terrifying litany of "My girl, my girl, don't lie to me / Tell me where did you sleep last night" stayed with you long after Burdon returned to The Animals' hits.
And those hits just kept coming: "The Story of Bo Diddley (Bo Diddley Special)," "It's My Life," "When I Was Young," a gorgeous, passionate "House of the Rising Sun." But Burdon and the band reveled in covers, too: a blistering, funky "Mama Told Me Not to Come" was a fine surprise. Introducing "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," Burdon dedicated the song "to the spirit of Nina Simone." After he sang it, he told a story.
Once upon a time, he said, "Paul McCartney's wife at the time [Linda Eastman], dragged me" to Hunter College to hear Simone perform. They waited backstage until everyone was gone except Simone and her husband. Burdon went to be introduced. He grinned at us, as he recounted: "She said, 'So, you're the little white motherfucker who took my song and ruined it.' I said, 'Yes, ma'am, I knew I shouldn't have come here.'"
Eric Burdon returns to City Winery NYC on October 10th and 11th. The shows are sold out. Check here for details of Eric Burdon and The Animals on tour.