306 E Churchville Rd, Bel Air, MD
Saturday, April 28, 2018
On Saturday night we ventured far north past the deep suburban sprawl of Bel Air into the hinterlands of Churchville to witness the debut performance of Under the Big Top at a roadhouse pub & grill called Naughty Dogs (formerly Bull On the Beach).
Big Top reunited longtime friends Mark O'Connor (keyboards, vocals), Chuck Gross (bass, vocals) and Bruce Crawford (guitar, keys, vocals) from '70s Parkville popsters The Toys, with the addition of young-gun beardo Korey Hershberger - a hard-pounding drummer who also played with opening R&R covers duo Russ & Korey, featuring singer-guitarist Russ May.
|Big Top's Bruce Crawford, Chuck Gross and Korey Hershberger|
Russ May introduced the band as purveyors of "'60s psychedelic rock" and the quartet proceeded to play over an hour's worth of all-original rock 'n' roll that got greater Bel Air shaking its collective ass. The teeming standing-room-only crowd (apparently featuring a lot of Chuck Gross' workmates) was really supportive, enthusiastically dancing and hooting their approval. Which was a welcome surprise to O'Connor.
|Mark O'Connor dials up the keys on "Rotary Phone"|
After openers Russ & Korey finished their Great American Songbook set of popular Classic Rock to a rousing sing-along reception from the roadhouse crowd, a nervous Mark was worried that Big Top's unfamiliar original music would go over like the Sex Pistols playing to Texas cowpokes in 1977. "I just hope we don't get run out of town," he joked. He needn't have worried. Both crowd and performers were great.
|Big Top's Bruce Crawford, strummin' and a-hummin'|
According to Mark, all of Big Top's songs - with the exception of his "Lost and Found Ring" and "Valerie" (a solo electronics-heavy effort he recorded for the Fellow Commoner album) - were new, with about half of them written since the band got together this year. And, according to ertswhile Western High math teacher Bruce Crawford (whose open-air noggin was the exception-to-the-rule of the otherwise all-behatted Toppers), the songwriting was pretty evenly distributed, with each composer singing their tunes. "I think we did about four of my songs, four of Chuck's and four of Mark's," he said afterwards. Even drummer Korey chimed in, singing while keeping the beat on his own psychedelic-sounding original.
Though I didn't know any of these songs, and hadn't seen O'Connor and Gross play together since their days in the legendary Marble Bar all-star group The Beaters (featuring Joe Manfre and Mikel Gehl from Neige and vocalist Cindy Borchardt, later of the Monuments), nothing was lost in translation: the poppy tunes - always melodic, always well-played, invariably clever - were easily accessible and the hard-driving beat hard to resist. These guys are pros, well-seasoned with years of experience and with hundreds of songs in their repertoire.
Amy and I, along with former Towson University WCVT DJ (and current WVUD-University of Delaware jock) Rod Misey, were the lone representatives of the Marble Bar fanbase who might recall The Beaters. Rod Misey even has a recollection of Bruce Crawford getting up on stage with the Beaters once to play a Beatles song (which would make sense since the Toys used to dress up in Sgt. Pepper's outfits to do a Fab Four revue). But no one else remembered this, for, as I said, these guys have played a lot of songs in a lot of bands over a lot of years!
I shouted out a few requests for songs from Chuck's days playing with Mark in the synth-and-drum machine dominated Laff Clinic (nee Mad Habits) - like "Career Girls" (Chuck's Mid-Atlantic Song Contest winner from the early '80s) and "Monkey On His Back" - but they were surplus to needs, like bringing sand to the beach. Big Top already had plenty of new tunes to unveil, without needing to reach into their back catalog. Some of Chuck's newbies included "Jaundiced Judy," "Lava Lamp," "Mr. In Mezzo," "Gravity Hill," "Photograph" and "I Know You Left Me."
In a set full of memorable tunes, highlights included rock-opera-in-the-making "Rotary Phone" (chronicling, in Mark's words, "the tragic consequences when lovers can't reconcile the repercussions of one's attachment to outmoded technologies"), Chuck's scorching "Lava Lamp," and Mark's rousing set-closer "Basement Revolution." Russ May even strapped on his acoustic guitar to get up and jam along with the band during the big finale.
|This KORG is a Weapon: Mark O'Connor plots his "Basement Revolution"|
Listen to Under the Big Top dial-up "Rotary Phone" (a partial recording, as my phone battery died!):
Listen to Under the Big Top play "Lava Lamp":
I didn't know the name of the following song, but Chuck sang something about everyone wanting to be happy (after all, "Everybody's Happy Nowadays" as Buzzcocks once observed) and as far as Big Top's debut, everyone here tonight was indeed happy - so "Mission Accomplished!" [Addendum: Subsequent to this gig, Mark texted me that this ditty is actually entitled "Jaundice Judy," yet another fine song about gals named Judith - see "Judy Is a Punk," "Mad Mad Judy," "Judy in Disguise," "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," "Judy's Turn To Cry," et. al.]
And here's more good news! Under the Big Top will be back at Naughty Dogs for an encore performance sometime in late June 2018. Happy now?
Mad Habits (Media Maxi-Pad)
Balto Band Bash 2014 (Accelerated Decrepitude)