Boy Bands at 80: Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons

Concert Review

by Lila Meretzky

On Friday evening, March 20th, I had the great pleasure of being (along with my brother) one of the few people in the audience under forty years old at the Beacon Theater.  I was surprised when a family friend bought us tickets to see Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons - I was under the impression that Frankie Valli was dead, but to my glee, he was quite the opposite.  The music of Valli and the Four Seasons has been a huge part of my growing up; it played constantly in my house, and their “Golden Hits” album was the first CD I ever bought. To see him live (with four incredible young backup singers as surrogates of the original Seasons) after being raised to a soundtrack of his music was moving.   I’d never been to the Beacon Theater before, and its grandeur impressed me greatly. It was complete with murals of Medieval trade ships and 30 foot statues of Greek gods, yet the casual concert felt right at home in the decadent setting.  

Valli’s age does him great credit; never in my entire life have I seen an eighty-year old man move with the same energy, converse so easily with a packed house, and sing with the same voice immortalized on records made in 1962.  Even though the years have shrunk him slightly, it is as if his brain and vocal chords have been preserved in youth.  He swaggered on with the confidence of a model, wearing a simple grey suit, and the same haircut he’s had since the 1970’s.  Valli bears a striking resemblance to actor Dustin Hoffman, which, because I’d never actually seen a picture of him before, I found quite entertaining.  Between every set of three or four songs, Valli would pause, give a little background on the upcoming music, tell a joke, or relay an anecdote, while maintaining an air of humility and speaking concisely. Without being cloying, he told the audience about lying awake at night as a kid, dreaming of being a singer, about the first concert he ever went to, and who inspires him.  Valli has reached a high point in his career: a thriving baby-boomer fanbase still exists, and the passage of many years has distanced him from previous tragedies, scandals and fights with the Seasons (at least in the eyes of his concertgoers).  I’m familiar with his life story from seeing Jersey Boys on Broadway.  Now, Valli is free to perform a diverse array of songs from any point in his career, and embraces his age with grace, giving off a cantankerous grandfather-y vibe, while still performing with verve.  

Not only was the concert a tribute to his voice and career, but to the musicians Valli has worked with over the years.  A phenomenal troupe of brass and wind players, percussionists, singers, guitar and bassists, and a keyboardist/bandleader stole the show.  Many of these musicians have been on the road with Valli for years, and they complemented each other as if each one was a cog in a giant music making machine, led by Valli.  Nearly every song featured elaborate brass arrangements, flute and sax solos, and tremendous vocal power from the Seasons.  The energy level of the band far exceeded that of any other rock concert I’d seen, every note exuding the sheer joy of live performance.  Often as a classical musician I find myself prone to unintentional snobbery towards non-classical musicians, and it was both humbling and inspiring to see rock, jazz and latin musicians play with dexterity and meticulousness that equals any member of the New York Philharmonic.  At the climax of the show, when the universally recognizable starting chords of “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” erupted from the band, Valli stepped back, letting each of the Seasons sing a verse, and joining in for the choruses in a grand display of his (in the words of Ms. Swerdfeger) vocal pyrotechnics.  It made for a somewhat more serious moment, signifying Valli’s passing the torch to a new generation of talented singers, and the closing of his own career.  

A few things I take away from this concert are an appreciation for the equal passion and aptitude of non-classical performers, gratitude towards my parents for introducing to me the music they listened to as kids, and plenty of inspiration from Valli, who through personal tragedy has managed to build a career spanning over fifty years.  If only the boy bands of today could take a lesson from Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons: that pop vocal ensembles shouldn’t just be vehicles to sell people merchandise.  That, like the Four Seasons, the Beach Boys, and the Supremes, fame is an opportunity to provide timeless entertainment.  The influence of groups like these has been so far reaching, invariably shaping popular culture since their creation.  I think it’s high time pop acts start wearing suits again.