Circus Band, New Minstrels: Keeping the flame
MANILA, Philippines - At “The Greatest Hits Reunion” concert in September at Pasay City’s PICC Plenary Hall starring members of the ’70s acts Circus Band and New Minstrels, age was not just a number, it was a punchline.
During one of the early breaks between songs, the New Minstrels’ Ding Mercado quipped to the audience, “Thanks especially to the parents who brought their children…and their caregivers.” Jacqui Magno later mused that their group has “leveled up,” referring to a higher level of blood sugar, cholesterol, and the like.
Prior to a lively number, Hajji Alejandro dared that “Ang hindi pumalakpak, may edad na” (“Those who won’t clap along are geezers”). Magno herself thanked the audience “that you still like us despite the pregnancies and menopause.” This, shortly after Louie Reyes herself, taking a gulp of water, remarked about how things have gotten “dry.”
All this was perhaps par for the course for a concert that featured singers who already are or will soon be senior citizens: Circus Band alumni Hajji Alejandro, Pat Castillo, Jacqui Magno, Tillie Moreno, and Basil Valdez, and New Minstrels alumni Joey Albert, Chad Borja, Ray-An Fuentes, Ding Mercado, Louie Reyes, and Eugene Villaluz.
It was a self-deprecating way of keeping things light, breezy, and joyful throughout a show that meant to shelter its 3,000-plus spectators from the rain and traffic, the Janet Napoles scam, and other evils of the world. This probably explains why there was hardly any mention of anything close to real-life melodrama, such as, say, the 46-year-old Borja’s having successfully battled thyroid cancer or that Joey Albert - whose radiance made Mercado dub her “Reyna Bilena” and “Flawless de Mayo” - had gone through cervical then colon cancer.
No, that overcast, drizzling night was conceived as a no-tears “Celebration,” to quote the Kool and the Gang hit served up early that evening. Yet many in the show’s audience of mostly 40- to 60-somethings shed quiet tears of joy at either hearing yesteryear tunes or at seeing the night’s stars in vocal action despite visible wrinkles and creaky joints. Indeed, “We’re going to reminisce,” as one of the performers declared. Though they did not dress the way they did back in the bell-bottom decade (Magno’s free-flowing dresses and bandanas, plus her allusion to high-inducing grass, were the closest to flamboyance that night), they did indulge themselves and the crowd to a bevy of oldies but goodies.
The show’s jukebox set design-backdrop stressed the show’s antiquity quotient, symbolic of the nostalgia trip the show tripped on. It would have been very nifty, though, had the Plenary Hall’s video screens - which, before the “Reunion” commenced, repeatedly flashed sponsor acknowledgments and promoted an upcoming series of joint Philippine concerts by Michael Johnson, Stephen Bishop, Ambrosia’s Joe Puerta, and local boys Side A - flashed classic photos of the Circus Band and the New Minstrels, maybe even shots of the members as solo artists.
Okay, the Circus Band and the New Minstrels alike were show bands, live-circuit favorites back in 1970s Manila for their renditions of the era’s American Top 40 hits. So it was hardly a surprise that the “Reunion-ists,” either individually, via duets, as all-female or all-male groups, or as one big musical bunch, dabbled in many familiar, past FM-radio staples.
They did not necessarily stick to the ’70s, though. Sure, there were the likes of a medley of Carole King hits, a Sergio Mendez fiesta, an Earth, Wind & Fire mélange, Natalie Cole’s “Mr. Melody,” Ronnie Dyson’s/The Main Ingredient’s “Just Don’t Wanna Be Lonely” and, the cherry on the cake, The Free Movement’s “The Harder I Try.”
Yet interspersed throughout were ’80s originals by Donna Summer, two from James Ingram, along with Dionne Warwick & Friends’ “That’s What Friends Are For” and Valdez’s own 1985 classic “You.” Heck, during their Santana medley, the “Reunion” boys even threw in “Smooth,” Carlos the guitarist’s hit collaboration with Matchbox Twenty’s Rob Thomas from 1999. And as a further-back rewind, Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” and The Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life” were plucked out of the ’60s.
Amid all that cover frenzy, there were a few times when “The Greatest Hits Reunion” approached pure pleasure, when a given song was unencumbered by tiresome familiarity. Two cases in point happened to involve Albert: her sweet reading of Minnie Riperton’s carefree 1979 ditty “Never Existed Before” and her duet on “Nakapagtataka” with Alejandro, the song’s best-known solo renderer. Another was when Fuentes and Moreno delivered their classic duet, the ethereal “Umagang Kay Ganda” - which Fuentes, a Christian preacher for over two decades now, said they had not rendered together in nearly 30 years.
All in all - with instrumentalists led by the show’s musical director, resident Circus Band guitarist Rudy Lozano - there were over 30 tunes rendered in full or in part in this reunion gig. The appreciative audience, which included celebrities such as Edu Manzano, pretty much had ear-to-ear grins the entire time.
At the end of the show, the spectators even had the opportunity to sort of bring the gig home through the solo albums of some of the participating players and through “All For Love: The Greatest Hits Reunion” album, which featured an altogether different repertoire. (The Viva Records disc finds Valdez essaying “Sana’y Wala Nang Wakas”; Reyes doing “Sa Isip Ko”; “Pagdating Ng Panahon” from Castillo; Magno for “Let the Pain Remain”; Villaluz dishing out “Mahawi Man ang Ulap”; Mercado asserting “I Can”; Albert with “Hindi Na”; Fuentes covering “Habang May Buhay”; Borja for “Kahit Na”; and the concluding “Never Ever Say Goodbye” by Borja, Fuentes, Mercado, and Villaluz.)
Most audience members were busy immersed in a memory-lane trip, recalling their innocent day during the martial law years, that night exclaiming “Ayan!” (“There it is!”) upon recognition of a familiar tune. Hearing the set list’s large crop of foreign tunes, though, I could not help but long for a gig by these ladies and gentlemen with superlative pipes where they are less like interpreters and more like artists, where originality had a little more bearing than showband dynamics.
Here’s hoping that the nth Circus Band and New Minstrels reunion would be enjoyable while being a little more flattering to its singing ensembles’ artistic, beyond-cover-band capabilities. Hot flash gags not required. - Rappler.com
‘All for Love: The Greatest Hits Reunion’ is available on CDs from Viva Records. ‘The Greatest Hits Reunion’ itself is set for an encore on February 14, 2014, again at the PICC Plenary Hall.