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Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Jul. 13, 2022 3 weeks ago

FST cabaret brings the jukebox hits with a modern twist

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"Rock & Roll Reignited" is taking on some of the songs you love best at Florida Studio Theatre. And bringing them back to the future.
by: Spencer Fordin A+E Editor

Jared Mancuso and Nick Gallardo have sharpened their act in more than 150 cities.

Sarasota offered them a chance to settle down.

Mancuso and Gallardo are the driving forces behind "Rock & Roll Reignited: With Not Fade Away," a show that brings roots rock songs into the present day and reimagines what they can sound like.

Here, playing in the intimate John C. Court Cabaret, they’re working six nights a week and they can see every face, some singing along. And because they have the opportunity to play in one house for two months, they’re seeing their show evolve to a new level.

“We’ve been working toward something like this for years,” says Gallardo. “So when it comes, you relish in it and the advantages you’re taking from it. This is eight weeks of consistent stage time, and we’re bettering ourselves just by being here. It’s cool to have that consistency because that’s where new ideas come from. We’re more cohesive now.”

Gallardo and Mancuso have been exploring the classic roots catalogue together for about seven years, and they’re seen their act evolve from a tribute act to a renaissance.

The pair, joined by bassist Aurora DuBois and bassist Mike Gallardo, play songs from legendary artists like Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis, and they show the audience the way the music has influenced subsequent generations of artists.

At one point, in fact, they had a part of their show where they would play a rootsy sounding song and then ask the audience who wrote it and when. The punchline: The song would probably be from 2016 or 2017, but it would sound like a time gone by.

The main thrust of this show, though, is the music that has been playing from jukeboxes for much of the last half-century. With a modern touch here or a little tweak there, a song that has been familiar for most of your life can feel totally revitalized and renewed.

The intimate confines of the John C. Court Cabaret are serving as the backdrop for "Rock & Roll Reignited." (Photo courtesy of Destiny Jackson)

“There’s something very cool and honorable about playing the songs how they were played first and foremost,” says Gallardo. “But there is immense growth when you’re able to infuse yourself into the music and then bring it authentically into the future.”

“They were just like picking up their guitar, playing in a chord and going for it,” adds Mancuso. “We grew up listening to a lot of '80s and '90s music. You start to see more arrangement happening. The bass cuts out here.

"The guitar is doing this flourish instead of a standard chord. What we’ve done is taken that idea with the songs and said, ‘What if we cut out here? What if we add this guitar lick here?’ That’s what in our imagination is reigniting it.”

Both Gallardo and Mancuso say they’ve spent some time thinking about why the early songs in the rock and roll canon still resonate with people. In some ways, they say, it is about the simplicity and the purity of the music. But it’s also about the way it was delivered; people gathered to watch the "Ed Sullivan Show" or waited to hear their favorite on the radio.

Today? Well, people can stream whatever they want whenever they want.

“You were forced to plant yourself there,” says Gallardo. “It’s almost romantic. It’s cool to think that people took the time to say, ‘We’re going to sit next to the radio and listen to this song.’”

Gallardo, whose cousin Mike is the drummer for the Sarasota shows, said he grew up in a family much like the one portrayed in the movie Selena. Everyone sat around playing music, and everyone was encouraged to pitch in however they were able to contribute.

Mancuso also had an early love affair with music and theater, and he says that he was playing shows in Manhattan with early bands when he was just 14 or 15 years old.

Now, as mature performers, Mancuso and Gallardo are also developing another show, "Forever Everly," that takes a unique spin on tribute acts. They explore the career of the Everly Brothers, but instead of it just being a straight concert, they’re accompanying a documentary.

That show was first performed in January, and it’s waiting to be fleshed out when Mancuso and Gallardo have some time after their Florida Studio Theatre residency.

“There’s moments where the video is playing them performing and we’re making the noise,” says Mancuso. “And the audience goes wild for it. I knew going into it that we were doing something very different. A lot of the time, audiences coming to a tribute show think they’re going to get a full band. It was the first time we ever did a show where we didn’t say anything to the audience, and they stood at the end and were cheering for more.”

That's the connecting tissue of the two shows they're working on.

The songs are alive, receptive to tweaking and reinvention. So is the audience.

When Mancuso and Gallardo look out at the crowd on any given night, they’re never sure they’ll see. They might see students drawn to the songs through their own journeys of discovery, and they might see people alive when they were first played on the radio.

That keeps things interesting, but honestly, Gallardo and Mancuso are filled with gratitude to be able to play the music they love and to bring joy to people across the country.

“We just survived a pandemic both physically and emotionally. That was a beast to get through," says Mancuso. “That was a scary time, but our hearts are so in it."

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