Growing up, I always looked forward to the annual showing of "The Wizard Of Oz" on television. Dorothy and Toto, the Munchkins, the hot witch with the big smile - all of this holds a special place in my heart, even to this day. Well, as we all know though, times change. It's now about every five years that "ER" or "Grey's Anatomy" might back down to a showing of the classic film. Most kids don't know who the hell Dorothy is these days, and Toto is now a band instead of a dog. I find Rik Emmett to be a rock 'n' roll Wizard Of Oz. When he was fronting the classic rock powerhouse trio Triumph, he was regularly supplying me with tunes that began to shape my young life. "Fight The Good Fight," "Lay It On The Line," "Magic Power" - all of them, songs that shaped and molded me. But it's been a while . Emmett has been active in recent years with solo outings, but that's kind of like a showing of "The Wiz" instead of "The Wizard Of Oz." Diana Ross and M.J. were smokin', no doubt, but it's not exactly what I had my heart set on. So when I heard The Rik Emmett Band was coming to the House Of Blues here in Chicago, I was really curious as to what I might be in for. Going to the website kind of scared me, I'll be honest. Rik is up for bushels of awards for a Jazz project he is doing with fellow guitar player Dave Dunlop. Now I am a fan of the Jazz genre, but I don't want to see "Lassie," if you know what I'm saying. What was I going to get with this intimate House Of Blues performance? Stools and acoustics or blazing electric licks? I figured that whatever I got would be worth my time, so I dialed up the biggest Triumph fan I know, and we were off to see the Wizard.
We arrived at the eclectically decorated yet posh House Of Blues and settled in for the opening band to come on at 9 pm. Tonight it would be The Last Vegas that would wind up the crowd. As the curtains opened to reveal the band, it felt like the place was suddenly raining hammers. This band was a smoking hot tirade of tight, aggressive, groove heavy tunes that were reminiscent of bands like Aerosmith (back in the day) and The Black Crowes. Now, with an opening act like The Last Vegas getting this audience pumped up, was it even possible for Emmett to come out and play acoustic Jazz tunes? I don't think so
During the 35 minute intermission, I decided to quench my thirst on a Budweiser from the HOB bar; little did I realize that I would need to refinance my house to do it. Alright folks, $3.00 for a can of beer and I feel uneasy, at $5.50 I feel raped and pillaged. But I digress
With my blood still pumping from The Last Vegas set, I was more than ready for Rik to rock out and roll on. As the curtain parted to reveal an aged and smiling Rik Emmett, the sound reverberating through the room was not acoustic Jazz - it was rock and roll. A short jam found its way to the Triumph classic "Lay It On The Line," and with this, a rock show was underway. Emmett would fire off three consecutive Triumph songs to start the show. The second song of the evening was the title cut from the classic "Allied Forces" record, and it made it very clear that we were going to be rocking for the entire set. This was a set that saw Emmett and his band play Triumph hits like "Somebody's Out There," "Hold On," and my personal favorite "Fight The Good Fight" among others. The excitement of hearing these great Triumph songs was overwhelming. Being that I never got a chance to see Triumph live, I knew this was as close as I would ever get to experiencing these songs in the live setting. Emmett has lost a lot of his high voice with age, but he did a wonderful job of adapting the songs to his current range. One thing Emmett has not lost though is his guitar playing abilities. This guy is a real rock guitar virtuoso. As he traded licks with his latest partner in crime, Dave Dunlop, who was also absolutely brilliant, you could see that Emmett was extremely thrilled with having a second guitar on the stage. With Triumph being a trio, Emmett never got to trade solos with another player, and from the look on his face on this night, he loved the companionship. Things like commenting; "This is where I get my ass kicked" just before it came time for Dunlop to solo, was something that really drove Emmett to perform even better. The two collaborated on many pieces, including an acoustic song peppered with a Latin flavor that was simply delicious on the ears, and also a feverish version of "All Along The Watchtower." After playing the latter, Emmett proclaimed his love for Bob Dylan by saying, "He may not have the greatest voice in the world, but the guy sure is a helluva songwriter."
Emmett would showcase his other band members as well throughout the night, allowing each of them a lengthy solo period, and introducing them at least two or three times during the set. It was obvious that he was pleased with his players, and why shouldn't he be. Hearing this group cut into the emotional "Ordinary Man," another winner from Triumph's "Allied Forces," it was clear that this cohesive unit was finely tuned.
It was time for the set closer and Emmett would pour a bit of his heart out in a story for this one. He told of a time as a child when he would sit and dream about playing music for a living. As he spoke of this passion of his, you could feel the emotion stir within him. There was never anyone more thankful to set foot on a stage than Rik Emmett. And as he told his audience that music truly was the "Magic Power," the set was pleasantly sealed with a classic rock kiss.
This might not have been "The Wizard Of Oz" on a plasma screen in high definition, as the original Triumph lineup is long dissolved and Rik's high tenor is not so high anymore, but it sure was satisfying. I guess you could say that it was "The Wizard Of Oz" playing in black and white on the old Zenith; but, you could still find the yellow brick road and it still lead directly to the same Wizard behind the curtain.