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THE EVERLASTING FIRST: Artful Dodger

Continuing a look back at my first exposure to a number of rock ‘n’ roll acts and superheroes (or other denizens of print or periodical publication), some of which were passing fancies, and some of which I went on to kinda like. They say you never forget your first time; that may be true, but it’s the subsequent visits–the second time, the fourth time, the twentieth time, the hundredth time–that define our relationships with the things we cherish. Ultimately, the first meeting is less important than what comes after that. But every love story still needs to begin with that first kiss.

I very, very much recommend you add a copy of this CD set to your collection.

This was originally posted as part of a longer piece covering both pop music and comic book characters. It’s separated here for convenience.

Was Fairfax, Virginia’s phenomenal pop combo Artful Dodger mentioned in Bomp! magazine’s epic 1978 power pop issue? Either way, the earliest memory of Artful Dodger I can summon would be from Cleveland Scene magazine, a tabloid I used to see sometimes when I visited my sister Denise in Cleveland Heights. I think it was a review of an Artful Dodger show (possibly at The Agora), and the review mentioned that Artful Dodger’s set included a cover of The Dave Clark Five‘s “Any Way You Want It.” Well! In 1978, one way to get my attention was to cover the DC5. But I don’t remember hearing any of Artful Dodger’s music anywhere, so I didn’t really pursue the matter.

In the summer of ’79, I got my first real six-string (bought it at the five-and-dime)…wait, wrong summer, and wrong performer reference. Artful Dodger came to town that summer for a show at Stage East in East Syracuse, with Syracuse’s own power pop powerhouse The Flashcubes opening. If I have the story straight, Artful Dodger played a sparsely-attended Stage East gig the previous week; after three albums that didn’t sell as well as anyone hoped, the band was nearing the end of its tenure with Columbia Records, but hadn’t quite given up on makin’ a grab for that damned elusive brass ring. A second Stage East gig was scheduled, with The Flashcubes (who had a large local following) added to the bill; as an added incentive, the first 100 ladies admitted would receive a copy of The Flashcubes’ most recent single, “Wait Till Next Week”/”Radio,” while the first 100 guys would receive an Artful Dodger EP.  The Flashcubes did radio commercials for the gig, with ‘Cubes drummer Tommy Allen referring to Artful Dodger as “one of the great pop-rock acts of our time.” The message: Get to Stage East to see Artful Dodger, you lot!

The gig itself hit a snag early on: with so much of the crowd drawn there specifically by The Flashcubes–and specifically there to see The Flashcubes–the fans were reluctant to let The Flashcubes finish their opening set and make way for the headliners. The ‘Cubes kept getting called back for encores, until our local lads finally put their collective foot down, announcing that they were done for the night. ‘Cubes bassist Gary Frenay all but pleaded with the crowd to get set for Artful Dodger, “a really great band!,” as the ‘Cubes were finally allowed to leave the stage.

By this time, I guess Artful Dodger had a lot to prove to a skeptical crowd. I wasn’t among the skeptical–I was eager to hear AD for the first time–but I was unprepared for the pinpoint accuracy of Tommy and Gary’s description of Artful Dodger: A really great band? One of the great pop-rock acts of our time? Yes. Oh God, yes!

Artful Dodger seemed like a perfect combination of the best aspects of The Faces and Badfinger, with lead singer Billy Paliselli‘s raspy vocals calling to mind Rod Stewart, and the band’s rockin’ crunch conjuring a meeting of Ron Wood‘s swagger and the power-pop dynamics of Pete Ham and Joey Molland.  I was mesmerized. Granted, I had a pretty good buzz on by now, after an evening at the bar with my pals, but the Artful Dodger boys delivered on their end of the bargain, with a ready ‘n’ steady supply of hook-filled rock ‘n’ roll music. They didn’t do any DC5 material–the only cover I remember from that night is Chuck Berry‘s “Sweet Little Rock ‘n’ Roller”–but they earned my allegiance with their original material. I was particularly captivated by “It’s Over,” a mid-tempo number, drawn out in its live incarnation by a hypmotizin’ extension of its musical intro. From that evening on, I consider myself at home as an Artful Dodger fan.

The next day, I played the Artful Dodger EP that my Y chromosome had awarded me at Stage East’s door: four songs from the group’s eponymous 1975 debut album: “It’s Over,””Wayside,””Think Think,” and my favorite, “Follow Me.”  I eventually acquired all four of Artful Dodger’s LPs, and re-acquired the first two in the CD format, but my Artful Dodger collection began with that EP.

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