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 recent show at Canno’s Swiss Tavern in Lynbrook, the band played no LPs, yet cranked out segments from Pete Townshend’s rock opera, Genesis’s “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” and the Beatles’ “Abbey Road.” Keyboardist Mark Bonder opened the show with 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.
Wonderous Stories’ library features many relatively obscure songs, but is peppered with enough more-familiar tunes. At Swiss Tavern, these included John’s “Honky Cat,” Traffic’s “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys,” Pink Floyd’s “Run Like Hell,” David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and Yes’s “Roundabout,” the latter sung by frequent guest vocalist Laura Press.
While band members are faithful to the recorded versions, sometimes uncannily so, they still take enough liberties with the covers that express their particular styles. When, for instance, they wrapped up Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s “From the Beginning,” a light acoustic song that fades out, the band instead abruptly broke into the booming, drum-driven end of Santana’s “Oye Como Va.” Their one constant, however, is their spot-on, tight precision, a quality all the more incredible considering their disdain for rehearsals.
“We’re able to do this because these are all songs we grew up listening to,” says 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 classic Genesis tunes. “And we’d always have some people who would tell us, ‘I can’t believe you’re playing that stuff,’” Forgione recalls.
In 1993, he and McCann formed a trio with Chris Clark, the band’s original keyboardist, who introduced much of the technical, intricate progressive rock like Yes. After adding a drummer, the quartet played 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 for a Yes song). More recently, Bonder has filled in when Clark has performed on Broadway. But when Bonder, Martinez and Williams joined the band, each brought more cover songs, 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,” says 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 remembers.
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 recalls, “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 “The Wall” and “Dark Side of the Moon,” which they performed at Heckscher Park before some 4,000 fans this year.
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, Jugs-N-Strokers in Merrick and the Jones Beach boardwalk band shell, where 3,000-plus fans showed up for a show at summer’s end.
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 between sets at the Swiss Tavern gig. “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 with a medley of vintage Genesis songs, including “Watcher of the Skies,” then it plunged into the overture to “Tommy.” From there it tackled “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” from Abbey Road, one of several requests from the crowd.
Some audience members asked for a few Doors songs. Before embarking on “Break on Through,” McCann, bass in hand, tells his band mates he has never played the song before. Williams walks him through the chord progression, then turns to Martinez. “Do you know it?” he asks the drummer.
“Sort of,” Martinez says — and the band proceeds to play the tune as if they’d been doing it for years.
To learn more about Wonderous Stories, visit the band's Web site at www.wonderous-stories.com.
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Copyright © 2007 Joseph Kellard