George Frayne may wear the tag of Commander Cody, but the original Commander Cody & the Lost Planet Airmen were always greater than the sum of their parts. Still are.
Audiences were reminded of that for the first time in 25 years when Cody & the Airmen reunited in full assemblage for two sold-out nights at the Ark, one of the most venerable institutions in their old hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The band was recognized in its 1970s heyday as perhaps the greatest bar band of its era, but Cody and company never really received their due as one of the original “alternative country” or “Americana” bands. Combining the tongue-in-cheek pathos of songs such as “Seeds And Stems Again Blues” and “Mama Hated Diesels” with first-rate musicianship and a love of everything from boogie-woogie and old-time rock ‘n’ roll to dirty R&B, Cajun music and old country weepers, the group was a spiritual ancestor to the roots-based boom of subsequent decades.
The point at the Ark was to find out whether they could still do it. And the answer was a resounding yes. There were a few missed cues at the Friday show, likely attributable to the fact the group was limited to three hours practice before Thursday’s show, but there was still an undeniable chemistry among the members.
Some of the players’ skills have matured beyond where they were when the group disintegrated amidst a pile of bills and record company disenchantment in 1976. Guitarist Bill Kirchen has established himself as a touring performer and recording artist with his own trio, but it was rewarding to see him again in the context of part of a larger group. While he still does the “Hot Rod Lincoln” runs as well as ever, there were a few times when he let out a blistering series of riffs more fiery than anything I’ve heard from the early Cody years.
Billy C. Farlow, meanwhile, played the same character he has inside or outside of the Airmen — Billy C., the Alabama Wildman who’s never had too much fun. Farlow may be in his 50s now, but he still appears to live his identity as rock ‘n’ roll star and bluesman. Close your eyes and you couldn’t tell the difference between him singing in Ann Arbor and on the We Got A Live One Here! album.
Fiddler and sax player Andy Stein (a musician on “A Prairie Home Companion” for eleven years) and pedal steel guitarist Bobby Black provided reminders of just how talented they are, while drummer Lance Dickerson and bassist Buffalo Bruce Barlow seemed as tight as ever. Guitarist and vocalist John Tichy held his own onstage even if his voice was a little ragged by the second night, a solid testament given that he’s spent most of the past two decades as an engineering professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, not as a professional musician.
Which brings us to Frayne, the Commander. While he’s had the advantage of recognition that goes with his name association, he’s also had to bear the weight of knowing he would probably never have another band that could match this one, although some of the individual players have been with him at times.
Time seems to have taken the biggest toll on Frayne, particularly the aches and pains that still plague him as a result of a 1980s car accident. But when the lights went on, Frayne shook off the perpetual limp like an NFL quarterback and gave the audience what it came for.
That meant plenty of boogie piano, but also a few distinctive trips into the spotlight — sliding over to center stage, turning around to drummer Dickerson and guitarist Kirchen as if he were Johnny Unitas calling a play, then giving a variation on the intro into “Hot Rod Lincoln” (“My daddy said, ‘You disgusting hippie, you worthless degenerate, you dangerous drug fiend…University of Michigan undergraduate’”), before roaring through the group’s signature song.
The rest of the repertoire was typical Airmen fare such as “Seeds And Stems”, “Don’t Let Go”, “Too Much Fun”, “Lost In The Ozone”, “Mama Hated Diesels”, “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke!” and “Riot In Cell Block No. 9″ — songs that are still in the performers’ veins after all these years.
The reunion shows, done with virtually no publicity beyond mentions on a few web pages, drew a rabid crowd of fans from North Carolina, Maryland, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Massachusetts and beyond. If the band was trying to determine if its members still liked playing together, or if there might be enough audience interest to justify at least a small-scale reunion tour, the answer seemed to be yes on both counts.