A cool breeze blows off the glistening Atlantic as we stroll the sunny Asbury Park Boardwalk this Sunday, July 15, 2018 evening, taking in the sights and sounds of this historic seaside town. As we pass Convention Hall and the Paramount Theater, we’re reminded of the town’s artistic past. Here, musical innovators like John Philip Sousa, Billie Holiday, and Lionel Hampton, and later, Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, and Southside Johnny arrived, and ultimately went on to make their marks in musical history.
As we duck into Tim McLoone’s Supper Club, we take a step back in time ourselves, as the unusual round-shaped ediface we’re entering was originally a glittering orange and white Howard Johnson’s restaurant when it was first built back in the early 1960s. Climbing the stairs to the Supper Club, we realize why this place is beloved here in Asbury Park — the elevated view of the ocean is stunning. And not only does the Supper Club boast an outdoor terrace that overlooks the boardwalk and ocean, it’s also a venue which presents top-notch entertainment. Recent performances including Emily Grove and Friends’ tribute to Joni Mitchell, Eddie Brigati’s After the Rascals live concert performance, and Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul guitarist Marc Ribler’s Red, White and Brit tribute to The Who.
Likewise, tonight there’s a musical presentation dedicated to classic songs of the past — Christine Spero and her band’s Spero Plays Nyro tribute to one of the unsung heroes of ’60s pop music songwriting — Laura Nyro.
Nyro was born Laura Nigro in the Bronx, NY, in 1947. Her father, Louis, was a trumpet player and a piano tuner. As a child, Laura taught herself how to play the piano. She listened to recordings by Judy Garland and Billie Holiday, in addition to such classical composers as Debussy and Ravel. She began composing her first songs at the age of eight.
During high school, Laura sang with friends on street corners and in subway stations. As a teenager, she experimented with different stage names, including one which strongly appealed to her — Laura Nyro. While still a teen, Nyro sold her first song, “And When I Die,” to Peter, Paul and Mary; she also made her first professional appearance at the “hungry i” coffeehouse in San Francisco.
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Nyro’s debut album, More Than a New Discovery, on the Verve Folkways label provided hits for other artists, notably “Wedding Bell Blues” and “Blowin’ Away” for The 5th Dimension and “Stoney End” for Barbra Streisand.
Once David Geffen became her manager, Nyro auditioned for Clive Davis from Columbia Records. In her New York City apartment, by the light of a flickering television set, she performed for Davis the songs that would ultimately constitute her second, and most popular, album — Eli and the Thirteenth Confession.
Nyro followed up that LP with other notable recordings including New York Tendaberry, Christmas and the Beads of Sweat, Smile, Walk the Dog and Light the Light, and more.
Her impact on other musicians has been significant. Artists including Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Bette Midler, Rickie Lee Jones, Elvis Costello, Cyndy Lauper, Todd Rundgren, Alice Cooper, Steely Dan, Paul Shaffer, and others cite Laura Nyro as an influence on their music. Said Elton John about Laura Nyro, “I idolized her,” explaining, “The soul, the passion, just the out and out audacity of the way her rhythmic and melody changes came was like nothing I’ve heard before.”
In 1996 — after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer — Nyro worked with Columbia to create a retrospective of her best recordings — a two-CD set entitled Stoned Soul Picnic: The Best of Laura Nyro. She died the year the recording was released, 1997, at the age of 49. In 2012, Nyro was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Unlike Laura Nyro — who was born in The Bronx — Christine Spero was born in Queens, into a family of musicians. Both her grandmother and great-aunt were classical, ragtime, and silent movie pianists.
At the age of 10, she moved to Long Island. As a teenager, she was tapped to record at New York’s RCA Studios by producer Neil Sedaka to lay down tracks with her group, 7th House. The group’s first 45 rpm single, “Ode To Freedom,” was written by Christine and featured a B-side, “River Queen,” written by Sedaka himself.
Moving from New York to San Francisco, Spero continued to study music and was influenced by numerous classical and jazz musicians, among them the great jazz saxophonist John Coltrane.
Spero was also heavily influenced by Laura Nyro, stating in a recent interview with Spotlight Central, “I owe a large debt regarding the way I play music and the way I feel about playing music to Laura Nyro,” noting that “Laura Nyro brought art to pop music.”
In 2015, Spero created a recording entirely devoted to the music of Laura Nyro. Entitled Spero Plays Nyro, the album draws heavily on material from three pivotal Laura Nyro recordings — Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, New York Tendaberry, and Christmas and the Beads of Sweat.
And tonight, here at McLoone’s, Spero — along with her band, The Christine Spero Group — is just about ready to perform a live concert presentation of her Spero Plays Nyro tribute recording.
As a small but dedicated house — filled with fans of both Nyro and Spero — waits for tonight’s show to begin, Christine Spero takes the stage to open tonight’s concert with a pair of solo performances featuring her voice and piano.
“I’m proud to present her music,” Spero says at the start of the show, reminding the audience that Nyro’s second album, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession,came out exactly 50 years ago.
“It was life-changing for me,” states Spero. “She was a genius and should be remembered.”
In a nod to the days when vinyl ruled, Spero holds up her very own Eli and the Thirteenth Confession LP that she explains came with a long-lost lavender-scented lyric sheet. Launching into a number from that album — 1968’s “Timer” — Spero’s voice channels Laura Nyro’s as she negotiates the piece’s shifting rhythms and meter on this bouncy number.
Revealing that Nyro was obsessed with finding a "captain" - a perfect man - Spero tells the audience that Nyro's obsession with this idea led to her purchasing a tugboat and making her husband, David, the captain. Unfortunately, recalls Spero, "In six minutes, she got seasick and sold the tugboat!" With that story in mind, Spero performs "Captain for Dark Mornings." In this number - from New York Tendaberry - Spero sings with passion, "I would lay me down and die, for my captain," her soulful vocal accompanied by a piano part which is reminiscent of crashing waves.
Following avid applause, Christine invites the members of her band — brother-in-law Elliot Spero on winds and percussion, Scott Petito on bass, and Peter O’Brien on drums — up to the stage. Launching into a Steely Dan-influenced arrangement of “And When I Die,” audience members nod their heads and tap their toes to cool impassioned vocals by Spero, in addition to O’Brien’s reggae-inflenced drumming, and funky bass playing by Petito.
The audience reacts with enthusiasm, and Spero and the band respond with the infectious “Sweet Blindness” — a hit for The 5th Dimension — which features a smooth tenor intro by Elliot Spero. Christine Spero’s voice sounds full and resonant as she sings, “Oh sweet blindness/A little magic, a little kindness,” bringing audience members back to a time of love and light.
Following more applause, Christine and the band follow up with a soulful rendition of “Billy’s Blues.” Recreating images of enjoying top-quality jazz in a smoky city club, Elliot Spero plays a tenor solo which is matched with a counterpoint by Scott Petito on bass before Christine’s vocals take the song home much to the delight of the McLoone’s crowd.
Changing things up, Christine and Co. launch into the happy upbeat soul of “Blackpatch.” The song takes listeners on a journey as it twists and turns with a variety of tempo and meter changes. Audience members tap their toes and nod their heads to the infectious rhythms emanating from Peter O’Brien’s drums.
“Yeah!” yells out one member of the audience before Spero launches into a highlight of the evening’s presentation — a live performance of “Black Swallow”/“Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp.” Starting off with a soulful Scott Petito bass solo, his beautiful round tone and vibrato emanate throughout the club.
Piano mysteriously enters into the orchestral arrangement before Christine vocally brings Laura Nyro’s poetic lyrics to life singing, “Spring whispered in her ear/Like soft Mediterranean wailing/Sleepy woman by the window/Dreaming in the morning air.” The interplay between Christine’s vocal and Elliot’s soprano saxophone sparkles before Elliot plays an inspired saxophone solo. The crowd appreciates the caliber of musicianship required to perform this difficult piece in a live concert setting and reacts accordingly.
Soulful vocals are featured yet again on Nyro’s “Lonely Woman.” Singing, “No one knows the blues like lonely women do,” Christine’s bluesy lead is accompanied by Elliot’s stirring saxophone playing before the piece — in a typical Nyro-like twist — shifts its tempo and feel.
An audience favorite is The Christine Spero Group’s rendition of “Eli’s Comin’” — a Laura Nyro hit for Three Dog Night. Opening with its iconic rubato introduction, “Eli’s comin’/Eli’s comin’/Oh, you better hide your heart,” the tempo quickens. The band cooks as Spero sings her heart out, deftly supported by her colleagues before the group slows down for the coda and Elliot shines on tenor on this enduring pop classic.
Before the band takes a short break, Elliot Spero issues the ultimate compliment, dubbing his sister-in-law “the keeper of the flame” of Laura Nyro’s music.
Following intermission, Christine’s voice is spotlighted on the lovely Nyro ballad, “Emmie.” Dynamics are front and center as the piece goes in and out of measured time, occasionally employing the use of vocal dissonance before shifting into a swing feel for a few bars and then into a catchy Latin pop rhythm. The crowd cheers for the performance.
After the musicians perform the bouncy “Luckie,” they follow up with “Broken Rainbow,” where Elliot plays wooden flute and Christine accompanies herself on the piano on this song which Nyro composed for a documentary on Navajo Native Americans.
Christine Spero’s songwriting skills are on display when she and the band perform “Laura and John,” an original song dedicated to both Laura Nyro and John Coltrane. O’Brien plays a unique backbeat rhythm on his drums reminiscent of the famous Bernard Purdie shuffle as Petito’s bass dances on this jazz-rock composition. As Spero sings, “You left the party way too soon,” her impassioned performance elicits an emotional response from audience members who understand the musical genius and innovation of both Nyro and Coltrane. Moreover, many also appreciate the sheer quality of Spero’s well-written composition which features a bridge that echoes the brilliant melody/chord combination of the bridge from Nyro’s own “Stoned Soul Picnic.”
Explaining, “In 1967, Laura sang this at the Monterey Pop Festival,” Christine sings the bluesy “Poverty Train,” accompanied by Elliot on penny whistle. The jazzy 6/8 feel gets audience members heads nodding along as both Speros play together with feeling.
After suggesting that the next Nyro song was directed at Nyro’s former manager, David Geffen, Christine and her colleagues perform a rockin’ rendition of “Money.” Featuring outstanding drumming by O’Brien, Jaco Pastorius-style bass playing by Petito, and an exciting sax solo by Elliot Spero, Christine moves the audience when she sings, “I feel like a pawn in my own world/I found the system and I lost the pearl.”
Following hearty applause, she and the band play the Eastern-influenced “Smile” — a mysterious folk-rocker — which then segues into “Mars,” an avant garde piece comprised of dissonant piano chords, lightning fast bass runs, precision Peter O’Brien drum rolls, and innovative squawking and trilling on the saxophone by Elliot Spero.
After audience claps and cheers, Christine announces that the next song was “Laura’s highest charting single.” Performing Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Up on the Roof,” Christine’s voice again sounds youthful as she brings back memories on this classic tune which everyone knows thanks to recordings by artists such as The Drifters and James Taylor.
“Save the Country” — another hit for The 5th Dimension — features Christine on vocals and piano and percussion by Elliot and Peter O’Brien. On this lively number about Martin Luther King and brothers John and Robert Kennedy, Christine croons, “We could build the dream with love I know” as the band joins in on the uplifting coda.
“I think it’s time for a picnic!” exclaims Christine as she and the group launch into another hit for The 5th Dimension — “Stoned Soul Picnic.” The audience bops along and dances in their seats as Christine and Co. sing this Nyro classic which ultimately segues into a cool Latin jam. Following an inventive piano solo — her fingers flying around the keys — the band continues cookin’, prompting the audience to respond with whistles and cheers!
With the audience chanting, “One more! One more!” Christine and her musical colleagues perform “Wedding Bell Blues.” Singing with spirit, she and her friends deliver the happy sound of Laura Nyro to this community of music lovers here at McLoone’s.
As the audience continues to clap and cheer, Christine thanks them for coming and wishes them a good night before Elliot announces with a smile, “You know you’re all Nyrotics — and we hope we’ve put you into the Nyrosphere!”
As patrons make their way out of the club, we chat with several of them about tonight’s performance.
Says Kathy from Spring Lake, “I was impressed! Christine Spero brought back a lot memories of Laura Nyro. I saw Laura perform — and her music is still timeless,” adding, “When I was in college, a lot of people used to play her music. In fact, as a student, I remember buying a Laura Nyro songbook and playing her songs myself.”
Elyse from Brooklyn comments, “I’m a big Laura Nyro fan and Christine Spero sang a lot of the songs I know,” before exclaiming, “and her band was really tight!” Acknowledging, “Their performance really brought you back to the songs you grew up with,” Elsye confesses, “And I requested ‘Emmie,’ too — I think it’s so pretty and it touches me.”
Elyse’s friend, Jamela from Brooklyn, suggests that hearing Laura Nyro’s music again transported her back in time when she says, “Hearing all that 60's stuff was like, ‘Oh, yeah!,’ and I started remembering back to when I was 18!”
Brian from Ocean Grove tells us he saw Laura Nyro perform 40 times and even met her backstage at Manhattan’s Bottom Line.
“I’m a really big fan,” discloses Brian. “We’re the same age, and she died so young. She was one of a kind,” before declaring, “Christine Spero really did Laura justice, and her band was phenomenal.”
Linda from Toms River calls The Christine Spero Band, “Fabulous!” asserting, “They brought back a lot of memories for me — I really enjoyed it! My father played sax and clarinet, and Elliot Spero’s playing reminded me so much of him.”
Linda’s husband, Lenny, agrees stating, “Christine Spero and her group are all such accomplished musicians. Elliot Spero is an amazing saxophone player, and I was completely transfixed by Christine’s fingers as she played the piano.”
Linda’s friend, Sharon, from Sarasota, FL says, “I really didn’t know what to expect this evening, but Christine and her tribute to Laura Nyro made me feel young again!”
Perhaps Sharon’s husband, Bob, however, best sums up the experience for many in tonight’s audience when he says, “It was great” before concluding, “When I closed my eyes, I thought I was listening to Laura Nyro.”
To learn more about Laura Nyro, please go to lauranyro.com. To find out more about Christine Spero and her band, please click on christinesperogroup.com. For more on upcoming performances at Tim McLoone’s Supper Club — including Tim McLoone and The Shirleys Perform the Music of Carole King on August 2, The Motor City Revue on August 24, and The Jersey Four Celebrates Joe Long’s Birthday with a tribute to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons on Sept. 14, please go to timmcloonessupperclub.com.Photos by Love Imagery
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