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Van Wezel show brings a yuletide hue

'Under the Streetlamp: Hip to the Holidays' offers good old-fashioned rock 'n' roll Christmas.

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  • | 10:20 a.m. December 4, 2019
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Every holiday season, along with those boxes of ornaments, we pull out those same festive tunes that we and our parents grew up with, and we pass them to our kids and grandkids.

Something similar has happened in rock ‘n’ roll. The music of rebellious youth has been around for more than 60 years. Every generation puts its stamp on the genre, but there are some songs that never fade out. You can find entire families grooving to them.

“We call it the American radio songbook,” says Brandon Wardell, a cast member of Under the Streetlamp, which plays from that songbook in what Wardell describes as “a celebration of the Golden Age of rock ‘n’ roll.”

Wardell and fellow singers Eric Gutman, David Larsen and Shonn Wiley take the stage in shimmering jackets that harken back of the doo-wop groups of the late 1950s and early ’60s, when the radios of every teen in town were glued to the same couple of spots on the AM dial.

The show includes hits of that era by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, The Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison and others, then it follows the musical lineage to the Beach Boys and The Beatles, up through ’70s acts with The Eagles and The Doobie Brothers.

This time of year, the group adds some seasonal classics into the mix.

That’s a holiday treat for Wardell. He grew into adulthood in show business by starting as a roadie for his musician dad. But at 44, he’s a family man prone to homesickness when he’s on the road, especially during the holidays. Two years ago, Sarasota became home, when he and his wife, actress Sarah Glendening, decided to raise their daughters, Wendy and Dinah, in Glendening’s hometown. Her parents still live here, and Wardell’s parents have moved here, too.

“Just the fact that in the middle of a long stretch of me being in Rhode Island and Connecticut, in Michigan and all over the place, we will also be coming here,” he says. “My little girls get to see the show. And my wife gets to come see the show, my family, my parents. It just it’s really fun to be home and have it be a safe place.”

Wardell instantly recants, laughing — maybe “safe” isn’t the right term. Family can be a tough crowd.

Brandon Wardell performed once before at the Van Wezel, but Thursday will be his first time taking the stage since  he and his family became Sarasota residents. (Klint Lowry)
Brandon Wardell performed once before at the Van Wezel, but Thursday will be his first time taking the stage since he and his family became Sarasota residents. (Klint Lowry)

“I always dread my older daughter, Wendy’s, reaction because she’s starting to be cool,” he says. He can see the sour expression and hear her saying, “I don’t know, Dad,” if something is off, especially if he screws up “Rockin’ Robin,” one of his girls’ favorites.

The song is a good example of what “Under the Streetlamp” is all about. It was a hit for Bobby Day in 1958. Then Michael Jackson had an even bigger hit with it in 1972. The instrumentation is a little different in each, and Day’s and Jackson’s voices were nothing alike. But the essence of the song is the same.

That’s the approach “Under the Streetlamp” takes. It isn’t a tribute show; they aren’t trying to “be” the Four Seasons or the Beach Boys on stage. Wardell says the best comparison they’ve come up with is that it’s like how the Rat Pack did their Vegas shows, carrying on as stage-amplified versions of themselves.

Under the Streetlamp doesn’t try to imitate the recordings, but it doesn’t go too far afield.

“We always talk about being in service of the song,” Wardell says. “We take the core of what the song is, and we just try to make it our own.”

Wardell believes that core is level of emotional honesty that is what makes them enduring.

The holiday portion of the show includes “Run, Run Rudolph,” “Christmas Time is Here,” “8 Days (of Hanukkah),” a doo-wop version of “Ave Maria” and “Please Come Home for Christmas,” which Wardell says is one of his favorites from the holiday set because he remembers his father singing it when he was a kid.

Next week, it’s Wardell turn to be the singing dad for the holidays and to play the role of congenial host to his bandmates in having them to his home for dinner and showing them the town — a welcome departure from the road routine. And he’s looking forward to this adopted community’s holiday spirit in the best way he knows how: by dusting off those familiar tunes.


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