“More stars than there are in heaven!” crowed Peter Zaremba, lead singer of the Fleshtones, taking a cue from MGM’s famous slogan of the 1930s and ’40s as he boisterously extolled the cast of performers taking part in Friday night’s tribute to the garage-rock of the middle and 1960s. The salute took the form of a semi-reconstruction of the 1972 compilation album “Nuggets,” put together by the Wild Honey Foundation as one of its annual autism benefits at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, with the original compiler of “Nuggets,” Lenny Kaye, on board as emcee, resident historian, cheerleader and intermittent singer-guitarist.
There was something at least half-serious in Zaremba’s MGM-invoking statement: it was a hell of an intergenerational cast coming together to perform these 32 rock ‘n’ roll chestnuts. Yet, in invoking the golden age of Hollywood celebrity, Zaremba was being a wise guy, too. You’d definitely have to consider yourself part of the rock cognoscenti if you knew most of the “stars” on the bill — or know a plurality of the songs in the set list, for that matter. When it was released in ’72, “Nuggets” as an album was about a kind of nostalgia for the very recent past of the ’60s, but unlike, say, the “American Graffiti” album, which came out a year later and celebrated a slightly earlier era, it wasn’t about hits still well familiar from oldies radio — which didn’t need to be dug up, right? But the “Nuggets” ethos wasn’t anti-hit, either. It just celebrated the rougher and rowdier side of ’60s rock, the bands that were mostly a little too rugged to chart more than one hit, if they managed even that. They stood in for all the burgeoning garage bands forming across America that were stars in their own right, for just as long as it took to get a rehearsal in before dad got home and needed the carport.
The cast of dozens for Friday night’s three-and-a-half-hour show was a terrific mixture of artists who have been recognizably influenced by ’60s groups like the Seeds — for instance, Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles — and, like, actual Seeds. In the past, the annual Wild Honey shows, which usually celebrate a single artist or album, have occasionally been able to bring in one of the artists being saluted: John Sebastian and Richie Furay performed throughout the tributes to the Lovin’ Spoonful and Buffalo Springfield, respectively, prior to the pandemic, and Garth Hudson did an incredibly memorable turn during a Band salute a few years earlier. But doing a tribute to a compilation album offered a chance to bring in a bunch of guests who, however active they may have stayed, might not have faced quite such a devoted, roaring crowd in decades.
“People always ask me, ‘What’s your favorite song on “Nuggets”?’” said Kaye. “Well, this is… and we have a real Seed!… to play that famous, famous keyboard solo.” That was Daryl Hooper, showing up to play “Pushin’ Too Hard” in the first half, with current Seeds touring singer Paul Kopf taking the lead. That was a tease of what was to dominate the middle part of the second act, as, almost back-to-back, elders of garage-rock took the stage: James Lowe of the Electric Prunes with “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night,” Jim Pons and John Beck of the Leaves with “Hey Joe” (their version pre-dated Jimi Hendrix’s, not to mention a Patti Smith version Kaye is more than a little familiar with), David Aguilar of the Chocolate Watchband with “Let’s Talk About Girls,” Kenn Ellner of Count Five with “Psychotic Reaction,” and Love guitarist Johnny Echols (joined on vocals by Dramarama’s John Easdale) with “7 & 7 Is.”
The show’s producers also brought in some artists who date back to the “Nuggets” era, even if their own most famous material might’ve been too sugary to include on such a rough-hewn collection — like Ron Dante of Archies fame, who did Michael & the Messengers’ “Romeo & Juliet” (a 1967 record that peaked at No. 129, as the program notes helpfully reminded us), and Evie Sands. The latter cult favorite earned herself two covers — of the Magicians’ “An Invitation to Cry” and Sagittarius’ “My World Fell Down” — both during a section at the beginning of Act II that had Brian Wilson’s latter-day right-hand man, Darian Sahanaja, playing keyboards and that a full complement of strings on stage. (Orchestration was allowed in garages, too, once they started being built big enough to allow for station wagons. OK, not really, but as Kaye remarked, there was room in the movement, and in this show, for “kind of the pop section of garage-rock.”)
You don’t always know what you’re going to get when you start getting performers on stage who are in their 70s and even early 80s who may not have been keeping up a tour regimen, so of course it was rewarding to see how much on their game some of these ’60s artists were. Special props for bringing the swagger to to Count Five’s Ellner, who rocked a proper cape, and the Chocolate Watchband’s Aguilar, who was so convincing in turning back the clock with a young rocker’s lust for girls that it felt good to remember the Alex is not within 500 feet of a school. For pure dexterity, meanwhile, it’s hard to beat Wayne Kramer, who, dressed all in white, reestablished himself as an older generation’s Tom Morello for a few jammy minutes in the Act I-closing “Baby Please Don’t Go,” with the Alarm’s Mike Peters handling the vocals and then standing back from the fireworks.
Also on hand from the first “Nuggets” generation was Billy Vera, who performed a song he wrote but did not record at the time, “Don’t Look Back,” recorded by the Remains in 1966 and included on the original “Nuggets” album in ’72 despite not charting. (He gave a lengthy and entertaining speech about the hexed commercial life of the song and how he never made money off it, despite multiple covers, until a Robert Plant version finally surfaced on a boxed set in the early 21st century.)
Besides all the aforementioned, the cast held one other legitimate “Nugget”-bearer: Kaye himself, who, as a youth, under the nom de plume Link Cromwell, recorded a pretty terrible (yet great) would-be hippie anthem called “Crazy Like a Fox” in 1966, co-written by his pro-songwriter uncle to cash in on the counterculture craze. (Sample anti-employment lyrics: “While they’re getting sicker / ‘Cause ulcers come quicker / I’m having me a real good time.”) Kaye said that it was a good thing “that song wasn’t a hit. I would have had a drug habit by ’69 and five Lamborghinis. I would’ve discovered Jesus in the early ’70s and gone through years of being homeless. Instead I’ve had a different life, and it’s been pretty good.” Patti Smith and we will vouch for that.
It was a Kaye’s partner in satellite broadcasting, Zaremba, a fellow host on “Little Steven’s Underground Garage” on SiriusXM, who’d be most likely to be proclaimed by acclamation as the most vivacious performer of the night. He was the only guest of the evening to be awarded three numbers, and he earned them all, with moves like Jagger and growly vocals to match the visible sinew, knocking off a trio of better-known “Nuggets” classics — “Dirty Water, “Little Girl” and “Talk Talk” — in quick, sleazy succession. Kaye obviously holds Zaremba in high regard, introducing him as “the singer from a group that continues the ‘Nuggets’ tradition on for the next half-century and really continues the spirit of this music,” and his faith was well-placed in thinking the singer could pull off both the liveliest and grungiest gold there was to be mined out of the genre.
Opening the second half after intermission were seemingly unlikely bedfellows Hoffs and “Weird Al” Yankovic, the latter a swirl of curls as he added accordion power licks to the Mojo Men’s “Sit Down, I Think I Love You,” kicking off the sweeter section of the show before things got dirty again. Hoffs returned sans accordion for the Strangeloves’ “I Want Candy,” probably more familiar to the under-65 portion of the audience through its ’80s Bow Wow Wow cover. Aside from maybe Zaremba, Hoffs is probably the artist you’d most want to hear sing a whole set of her own of this material (and she came close, with the ’60s covers album she did once upon a time with Matthew Sweet).
But that’s not to disparage all the other next-generation and generation-after-next artists that did justice to these songs throughout the 220 minutes of music: Peter Case (or as Kaye called him, “the soul of Plim himself”), doing the Knickerbockers’ “Lies,” representing the more British Invasion-leaning side of garage-rock, with something that seems like it should have been a Plimsouls cover staple, even if it wasn’t. Andrew Sandoval and Chris Price, also giving props to the power-pop leanings of the movement with “Sugar and Spice.” All Day Sucker getting cocky with “96 Tears,” the tune that Kaye said frustrated him for decades, due to never being able to license it for a “Nuggets” collection till last month’s vinyl boxed set. The Three O’Clock conflating Todd-hood with godhood by reviving the Nazz’s “Open My Eyes,” noted by Kaye as the most deceptively hard-to-cover song from the classic “Nuggets” catalog. Cindy Lee Berryhill doing the honors of reintroducing a hippie novelty song, “Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl?” — which, she explained for the benefit of younger attendees, was a long-hair celebration, not a non-binary-knocking tune. And actor (“Valley Girl”)/singer Cameron Dye honoring incoming Rock Hall inductee Al Kooper with a cover of the Blues Project’s minor but memorable 1966 “No Time Like the Right Time.” The famous “Liar Liar,” meanwhile, became a duet, due to Nicholas Guzman taking the main vocal part but Tom Kenny, of “SpongeBob SquarePants” fame, being a necessary addition to contribute the chorus falsetto (and some seaworthy dancing).
The show was also occasion for a couple of reunions that may have touched a sweet spot in certain segments of the audience: Carla Olson and Kathy Valentine, who shared the original late ’70s lineup of the Textones before Valentine made her way over to the Go-Go’s, reteamed for “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” from what Kaye called “the craziest of all the bands on ‘Nuggets,’ the 13th Floor Elevators”… and he didn’t mean crazy like a fox. (As would be expected with a Wild Honey show, Roky Erickson’s nutty sound effects did not go unreplicated; this is the organization that once included a cover of “Revolution 9” in a White Album tribute show.) Meanwhile, for “Little Bit o’ Soul,” one of several numbers to feature the Cars’ Elliot Easton on guitar, the Paley Brothers — Andy and Jonathan — played together on stage under their sibling moniker for what Kaye said was the first time since 1978.
It all ended with Kaye being joined by recurring guest Peter Buck of R.E.M., and his Minus 5 partner Scott McCaughey, for “Farmer John” and then a full-cast closer of Them’s “Gloria,” with the host doing a mid-song monolog about why dudes get into rock ‘n’ roll that showed his band partner Smith doesn’t have the sole right to add a rap to that number.
Kaye added a rare wistful note to a night that otherwise didn’t stop long for a lot of sentiment: He pointed out that a lot of these groups were one-hit wonders because their members got drafted into Vietnam, and by the time they got home, if they were so fortunate, musical mores had changed. The next wave of “Nuggets,” beyond the 1965-68 period Kaye focused on with his compilation, seemed to be rooted in the planetarium, not the garage. Kaye tried to articulate, for the 5000th time, what “Nuggets” is all about, beyond the garage-rock tag he both embraces and feels is reductive: “I’m not saying it’s just confined to this genre. I’m saying that all genres, when somebody decides to pick up an instrument — be it a guitar, a sampler, turntables, whatever — I love that spirit of making music and figuring out who you would like to be and then seeing it come into reality.” “Nuggets,” the 1972 album, was a tribute to what Kaye calls the act of becoming; “Nuggets,” the 2023 tribute show, was a de facto salute to the art of remaining.
Not to be neglected amid the kudos is the giant band — or, really, assortment of semi-revolving bands — that is put or held together by on-stage musicians Andrew Sandoval (better known to some as the latter-day manager of the Monkees) and Rob Laufer with nonstop offstage help from David Jenkins and Michael Ackerman. Anyone who thought a garage-rock salute could be accomplished with any fewer musicians or less attention to detail than a tribute to a George Martin production learned otherwise at the Alex.
Friday night’s show was a benefit for the Autism Heath Care Collective. Find out more at autismhc.org or donate at paypal.me/wildhoneyfoundation. The Wild Honey Foundation’s next show will be an Oct. 1 matinee concert, also at the Alex, in which a symphony composed by Wild Honey founder Paul Rock’s 19-year-old, nonverbal son, Jacob, will be performed by musicians from USC led by Wild Honey musical director Laufer.
To read Variety‘s interview with Lenny Kaye about the history of the “Nuggets” project, click here.
The Wild Honey “Nuggets” complete setlist from May 19, 2023:
Mike Stax of the Loons: “Oh Yeah”
Cindy Lee Berryhill: “Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl?”
Paley Brothers: “A Little Bit of Soul”
Billy Vera: “Don’t Look Back”
All Day Sucker: “96 Tears”
Nick Guzman with Tom Kenny: “Liar, Liar”
Ron Dante: “Just Like Romeo & Juliet”
Andrew Sandoval and Chris Price: “Sugar and Spice”
Peter Case: “Lies”
Peter Zaremba: “Dirty Water”
Peter Zaremba: “Little Girl”
Peter Zaremba: “Talk Talk”
Lenny Kaye: “Crazy Like a Fox”
Lenny Kaye with Paul Kopf and Daryl Hooper of the Seeds: “Pushin’ Too Hard”
Paul Kopf of the Seeds: “It’s-A-Happening”
Carla Olson and Kathy Valentine: “You’re Gonna Miss Me”
Mike Peters and Wayne Kramer: “Baby Please Don’t Go”
Susanna Hoffs, “Weird Al” Yankovic and Owen Elliot: “Sit Down, I Think I Love You”
Tom Kenny: “Run, Run, Run”
Evie Sands: “My World Fell Down”
Evie Sands: “Invitation to Cry”
Susannah Hoffs: “I Want Candy”
James Lowe of the Electric Prunes: “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night”
Cameron Dye: “No Time Like the Right Time”
Jim Pons and John Beck of the Leaves: “Hey Joe”
David Aguilar of the Chocolate Watchband: “Let’s Talk About Girls”
Kenn Ellner of Count Five: “Psychotic Reaction”
The Three O’Clock: “Open My Eyes”
Johnny Echols of Love with John Easdale: “7 & 7 Is”
Tara Austin and Rob Laufer: “Tobacco Road”
Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey and Lenny Kaye: “Farmer John”
Lenny Kaye and company: “Gloria”