I first saw The Rubinoos perform in 1979, when they opened a concert for Elvis Costello & the Attractions. And while I remember enjoying their set quite a bit, I can’t say I’ve really thought of them much over the years — partly because they’re based in California, and have been inactive at times
But they teamed up with The Bongos for three shows in New Jersey this month, and I saw the last of them, Oct. 22 at the At the Tabernacle series in the Mount Tabor section of Parsippany. And I was very impressed by what I saw.
I remembered them best — really, I remembered them only — for their infectious power-pop hit, “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” and assumed all of their material was in this vein. Boy, was I wrong: Their set at the Tabernacle included this song, of course, but also ranged from swaggering hard-rock (“Rock and Roll Is Dead”) to surf-rock and spaghetti western instrumentals (“Stingray,” “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly”), a jazzy ballad (“Life in the Slow Lane”), snappy a cappella pop (“Mr. Sandman”) and sumptuous doo-wop (“I Only Have Eyes for You”).
They’re an amazingly tight band, with a charmingly down-to-earth frontman (Jon Rubin) and a dynamic lead guitarist (Tommy Dunbar, who happened to be celebrating his 60th birthday that night).
They performed second at this show, after The Bongos did so at the Wonder Bar in Asbury Park, Oct. 20, and Mexicali Live in Teaneck, Oct. 21. During, their set, they brought up The Bongos for a buoyant cover of Badfinger’s “No Matter What,” with Bongos frontman Richard Barone and Rubinoos bassist Al Chan (the “new guy” in the group, with only 36 years under his belt) splitting lead vocals. The two groups had performed together at the earlier shows in the mini-tour, too, playing “Boys” (The Shirelles hit, also covered by The Beatles) and Paul Revere & the Raiders’ “Kicks.”
The Bongos are a Jersey-bred band (Barone introduced his group by saying “We’re The Bongos from Hoboken,” though only one of its musicians, guitarist James Mastro, still lives in New Jersey). But this was still a rare opportunity for New Jerseyans to see them, since they have not played together very often since splitting up in the mid-’80s. (They did, though, release a new album, Phantom Train, in 2013, featuring previously shelved material from the ’80s.).
The two bands complemented each other well, as they share a deep love of classic pop music, though The Bongos tend to be as dark and elusive as The Rubinoos are bright and straightforward. There is also, in both bands, a deep musical kinship between group members that can only develop through a long, shared history.
The Bongos played some Phantom Train songs (“Wildest Dreams,” “Roman Circus,” “Run to the Wild”), but also reached back to their groundbreaking 1982 debut, Drums Along the Hudson seven times. They pulled one vibrant cover from each album: T. Rex’s “Mambo Sun,” from Drums, and Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman,” from Train. Indeed, if you’ve never heard The Bongos’ music, just imagine a merger of Donovan’s lyrical trippiness and playfulness with T. Rex’s taut, propulsive rock.
The show marked the 20th anniversary of the At the Tabernacle concert series. With its pristine sound, this venue was an ideal place to listen to two bands that really do reward close listening.
Here is a video of The Bongos and The Rubinoos (maybe we should call them The Bonginoos?) joining forces to perform Badfinger’s “No Matter What” at the Tabernacle:
And here is one of The Bongos, at the Wonder Bar, performing “Sunshine Superman” and then being joined by The Rubinoos for “Boys.” If you want to hear only “Boys,” start at the 4:50 mark.