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"The Comets in Edmonton Prove
You're Never Too Old to Rock"

by Alex Frazer-Harrison

I've never before been blown back in my seat by pure energy at a concert -- but that's exactly what happened when I saw the legendary Bill Haley's Comets perform in Edmonton, Alberta on July 19.

I was a little worried about the weather as I drove up to Edmonton to see The Comets play at the Klondike Days exhibition. The Calgary Stampede the week before had all but been rained out, so I was hoping history wouldn't repeat itself.

Sure enough it was clouding over by the time I got to the fair grounds. The Comets were to perform on an outdoor stage. I hate outdoor stages, because they're too vulnerable from the weather.

As it started to rain and thunder, I found bass player Marshall Lytle and he invited me backstage. I've been lucky enough to correspond with Marshall via e-mail for the last few months and it was actually he who alerted me to the Edmonton concert.

Backstage I tried my best to keep my jaw attached to my mouth as I was introduced to his bandmates: the legendary guitarist Franny Beecher, 76, drummer and professional tough guy Dick Richards, 74, saxophone powerhouse Joey d'Ambrosio (or Ambrose), 64, pianist and Saddlemen founder Johnny Grande, 68 and singer Jacko Buddin, 61.

I had heard about the extraordinary energy these fellows have. But I had to see it to believe it. While most guys their age are out on the golf course or in the rocking chair, The Comets just released their third new CD in six years, The House is Rockin', and are of course still big draws in Europe.

Meeting The Comets fulfilled a lifelong dream for me. I'm 29 years old, but became a Haley fan 25 years ago after seeing The Comets perform on an old Bobby Curtola variety TV show in Canada, followed by weeks of hearing Rock Around the Clock played on Happy Days.

I ultimately spent two hours with The Comets, talking and listening to anecdotes, jokes and the comfortable, friendly banter you get between people who are longtime friends. I've been backstage to meet performers before, and there's always that "edge." None of that here -- the boys were enjoying themselves and didn't mind if weather ultimately delayed their first show.

Eventually, the weather improved enough and at 6:30 p.m. the first show started. It was a small crowd -- maybe 20 people. Blame the weather -- it's an outdoor venue, remember. But the Comets played their all.

The song lineup was pretty much the same as the We're Gonna Party CD, if you know the album. Lili Mae, Steel Guitar Rag and House is Rockin were a few of the newer tracks performed, and of course there were the traditional hits Shake, Rattle and Roll, Rip it Up, Rock-a-Beatin' Boogie, Mambo Rock...

Marshall, now 65, still sounds as good as he did when he was with the Jodimars. His singing on You're Never Too Old to Rock was letter perfect, and he delivered an excellent rendition of the Jodimars' classic Eat Your Heart Out Annie.

Dick Richards was a treat to watch as he launched into another Jodimars classic, Well Now Dig This. d'Ambrosio knocked our socks off with his playing -- and on House is Rockin' and the Louis Prima standard Buena Sera, displayed a great blues singing voice. My only regret is d'Ambrosio's long-term replacement in The Comets, Rudy Pompilli, is no longer alive. A duet between those two classic sax players would have been amazing to see.

Johnny Grande remained the rock-solid foundation of The Comets, but I've never heard his piano playing brought to the fore so much on earlier Comets recordings.

As for Franny Beecher ... well Marshall doesn't call him The Viagra Kid for nothing. This guy ought to lend himself out to a power company. I can't believe he's 76. I know it has been said before, but let a reporter confirm it -- Beecher plays better now than he did in the 1950s. Jaws dropped in the audience. Mine included.

Jacko Buddin was a pleasant surprise. Despite his sometimes unconcerting tendency to play with the lyrics, he breathed new life into the old Haley songs. And he showed his musical versitility by taking over the drums for Dick on Dig This and dueting with Johnny on piano during House is Rockin'.

The second show followed on time at 9:30 p.m. And it was a much better show. Better because of a larger (though still not huge) crowd, better weather, and a tighter performance by the band. Marshall asked me if I felt they were "too loose" the first show. I thought they were fine, but you do this stuff day in day out, you know when you're off...

What struck me at the second show was how many teenagers were enjoying the music. There weren't just Baby Boomers in the crowd this time. And this perhaps inspired the Comets to an excellent performance.

Let's put it this way. As I write this, I am listening to We're Gonna Party, a live CD the Comets recorded in 1991, and I have to say I'm a little disappointed. Not that it's a bad CD. Only the performance the Comets gave on July 19 in Edmonton was so much better!

The show was basically the same as the 4:30 performance, except without Lili Mae and R-O-C-K. Strong performances all around -- Buena Sera was excellent; Rock-a-Beatin Boogie, Steel Guitar Rag, Rip it Up, Crazy Man Crazy, Shake Rattle and Roll, all great. It was great to see these Haley tunes brough back to life. At one point a guy shouted out "Joey's Song!" I thought I was the only guy in Alberta who had ever heard of that obscure 1959 Haley instrumental!

The standing ovations began as Joey blew the audience back 10 feet with Straight Jacket. Marshall in both shows did things with a bass that are probably illegal for seniors to do in some states! I'll be honest, I never realized that it was Marshall and Joey Ambrose, not Al Rex and Rudy Pompilli, who pioneered those climbing-over-the-bass antics that were immortalized in the film Rock Around the Clock and in Haley's later rock n' roll revival concerts.

Straight Jacket featured a new addition for the 9:30 p.m. show. As Joey told me afterward, Dick and he decided "just for the hell of it" to give Dick a drum solo on Jacket. It worked extremely well and it'll probably be a regular part of the performance from now on. Dick is another Comet whose boundless energy belies his age.

Rock Around the Clock itself was almost anticlimactic after Straight Jacket, but Franny shows he can still play The Solo (tm) every bit as well as Danny Cedrone did on the original record. The encores were also great -- Saints Rock n Roll and Rock the Joint with its Clock reprise at the end had the crowd to its feet.

Almost as soon as they hit the stage, it seemed, they were gone. But a few minutes later, the guys were at a little booth near the stage signing autographs.

A boxful of House is Rockin' CDs were sold out in minutes, mostly to teenagers, I noticed.

I shook hands with my musical idols one last time. Marshall asked me to keep in touch, Joey, Johnny and Franny had kind words, and Dick recalled visiting my hometown of Calgary and getting "the biggest pancake I'd ever seen!"

As I moved away from the stage, I saw a cute teenage girl proudly clasping her newly-autographed copy of House is Rockin', telling her dad, "This is great, it only has one song on it that's on my other CD." A teenage Bill Haley fan in Canada ... there's hope for civilization yet!

Alex -

Photos: "Alex Frazer-Harrison, The Calgary Mirror"