Saturday, May 10, 2008

Performing 'Wonderous' Music

Band covers entire classic rock albums

By Joseph Kellard

Wonderous Stories once played the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the Who’s “Tommy” and Yes’s “Close to the Edge” — all in their entirety. While that’s an unusual set for the five-piece band, performing whole albums is a trademark of Wonderous Stories, whose members further pride themselves on never practicing together or following a set list.

At a show at TJ Farrel’s in Bellmore last Friday, the band played no LPs, yet hinted that they might by opening the show with “Baba O’Riley” and “Bargain,” the first two tracks on “Who’s Next.” By evening’s end, keyboardist Mark Bonder let loose the eerie wind and cathedral-like synthesizer sounds that introduce “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” as drummer Ricky Martinez did his best Elton John on lead vocals. Bonder and Martinez are two of the band’s multi-instrumental musicians, along with front man Kenny Forgione and Kevin McCann, who both sing and play guitar and bass, and lead guitarist Tommy Williams.

In between the Who and Elton John songs, the band peppered their sets with a host of Beatles’ tunes, including “Magical Mystery Tour,” “A Day in the Life,” “Taxman,” and “Birthday,” the last at the request of some fans in the crowd celebrating their special day.

“Here’s one you won’t hear everyday,” Forgione said before breaking into “I Am The Walrus,” as Bonder’s keyboard supplied the string section.

While Wonderous Stories’ library features enough familiar tunes, the band never shies away from playing relatively obscure songs. Last Friday, they performed Yes’s most popular song “Roundabout,” when Jon Anderson-like vocalist Laura Press stepped on stage to sing, as well as the lesser known “Heart of the Sunrise” from the same album. “Here goes nothing,” Forgione said before he plunged into that technical number.

While the band is faithful to the recorded versions, sometimes uncannily so, they still take enough liberties with the covers to express their particular styles. The one constant, though, is their spot-on, tight precision, a quality all the more outstanding considering their disdain for rehearsals.

“We’re able to do this because these are all songs we grew up listening to,” said Forgione, who spent his pre-Wonderous Stories’ days performing with McCann.

The duo’s acoustic gigs ranged from well-known Beatles’ tunes to Tears for Fears-like pop songs of the day. But they also injected some personal favorites, such as Peter Gabriel-era Genesis tunes. “And we’d always have some people who would tell us, ‘I can’t believe you’re playing that stuff,’” Forgione recalled.

In 1993, he and McCann formed a trio with Chris Clark, the band’s original keyboardist, who introduced much of the intricate progressive rock, including Yes. After adding a drummer, the quartet played increasingly more sets of this intense, relatively obscure music. The following year, Martinez, the drummer on PBS’s “Sesame Street,” replaced the band’s percussionist, and two years later Williams, the musical director for 1980s pop star Debbie Gibson, completed Wonderous Stories (named and spelled after a Yes song).

In more recent years, Bonder has filled in as Clark has performed on Broadway, most recently in “Wicked.” But when Bonder, Martinez and Williams joined the band, each brought more songs to cover, from Pink Floyd to Steely Dan.

The idea to play whole albums grew out of Forgione’s love of one in particular. “‘Tommy’ affected me from the time I was a kid,” said Forgione, who keeps his long brown hair in a ponytail. “When I heard it, it freaked me out. So if it did that for me, it must have done it for other people, too.”

“All of us said, ‘Wow, this is really fascinating and challenging, let’s try to pull this off,’” Martinez remembered.

The band first tested the waters with “Sgt. Pepper,” as Clark learned to play the difficult parts, like the strings on “She’s Leaving Home.” “People loved it,” Forgione recalled, “because not only are you playing the hits everyone knows, but also the songs that people forget about.”

The band then played “Tommy,” a double-LP, and several other, mostly “concept” albums, including the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour” and “Abbey Road” and Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” which they once performed at Heckscher Park before some 4,000 fans.

Wonderous Stories draws many fans in their 40s and 50s, but is attracting a sizable younger crowd, including college-age kids, at its gigs at venues like B.B. King Blues Club in Manhattan, Coyote Grill in Island Park, Mulcahy’s in Wantagh, and the Jones Beach boardwalk band shell.

Williams, who grew up in Merrick listening to the Beatles, Cream, Yes and Genesis when disco and punk were the rage, is surprised and heartened when younger fans sing back to them every lyric of every song, even the obscure ones, from any random album they play. He sees this as their yearning for the album era.

“With the advent of downloading, very few people download a whole album — they mostly take a song or two from many different albums,” Williams said. “So the idea of an album as an entity that you listen to, it’s become like an aging bottle of wine. It’s much cooler to get one of those now.”

The band opened its second set on Friday with a medley of vintage numbers, including “Lucky Man” by Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung” and Traffic’s “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.” Among the last few songs on their impromptu list were the Allman Brothers’ “One Way Out” and “Bodhisattva” by Steely Dan.

“That’s the thing with us,” Forgione said, “you never know what we’re going to play. We don’t even know what we’re going to play.”

To learn more about Wonderous Stories, visit the band’s Web site at

Joseph Kellard is a journalist and columnist living in New York.

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