The Boston Phoenix November 16 - 23, 2000

[Music Reviews]

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Two extremes

Gary's Judas; Nuno's Mourning Widows

by Brett Milano

Boston Rock Opera It's probably too soon to get sentimental about Extreme, who broke up just four years ago. But it's worth remembering that, before the success of Godsmack and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Extreme were some of the biggest rock stars that Boston had. Not that that made them any more fashionable at a time when an earnest, mainstream rock band was about the worst thing you could be. They had their biggest hit, "More Than Words," in 1991, and we all know what rock smelled like that year.

Extreme's frontmen aren't too sentimental about the band either. As it happens, singer Gary Cherone and guitarist Nuno Bettencourt were both playing in town last week, and both have their minds on new projects. Bettencourt was at Axis Wednesday to launch his as yet unsigned new band, Mourning Widows. And Cherone, who's now halfway between a humbling spell with Van Halen and the launch of a new solo project, is back on familiar territory, singing Judas in Boston Rock Opera's production of Jesus Christ Superstar -- a project he first became involved with in 1994, when did Jesus.

As I watched this year's production (which runs through this Saturday at the Massachusetts College of Art's Tower Auditorium), my first impression was how far it's come since the show was first done in the late '80s, upstairs at the Middle East. Those early Superstars were in part an irreverent send-up, with Zulus singer Larry Bangor putting some high camp into the Jesus role. But it's gradually become more of a Broadway-style production, as faithful as it can be to the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice original. A group of A-list local players led by keyboardist Suzi Lee put a slightly rockier slant on Lloyd Webber's score. And though the singing is fine all around, with Cherone working the title song for all it's worth, it's the emotional conflicts that drive this production, with director John Whiteside playing up the romantic triangle involving Chris Mascara's tormented Jesus, Valerie Forgione's sexy/vulnerable Mary Magdalene, and Cherone's eternally conflicted Judas. "I love that the show portrays both men in their humanity," Cherone explains over espresso at Cambridge's 1369 Coffeehouse. "People think of the betrayer, the stereotypical angry Judas, but in this play you're meant to feel empathy. That's the biggest challenge, aside from the keys of the freakin' songs."

Now that he's been on big arena stages, can he really find playing a small theater a challenge? "Believe me, I'm as insecure as the next guy. I really sweated last night at rehearsal, because there were only four people in the audience -- when it's a big crowd, it becomes more abstract. And I'm working with people who've been part of Superstar since way back, like Peter Moore [Pontius Pilate] and Mick Maldonado [Caiaphas]. And John Surrette [Peter], who's kind of my friendly rival from Malden -- he was in Boys' Life when I was in [pre-Extreme band] Adrenaline, so he was a Mod and I was a Rocker."

Still, even getting killed on stage can't be any harder than some of the shows Cherone played with Van Halen. He made two albums with that band, though only the first, 1998's Van Halen 3, got released. They were nearly through with a follow-up that was being produced by Madonna's Patrick Leonard last year when Cherone suddenly exited, with no explanation. "It was time," he says. "There was never a definitive moment, but the writing was on the wall. They sensed my unhappiness and I sensed . . . I'll say their misdirection. I wish them the best and I know that rumors are flying. If Dave [original VH singer David Lee Roth] comes back, awesome. If not, they'll land on their feet.

"I never expected to be in that band in a million years. When I went to the audition, I thought, `This is great -- I get to sing `Jump' and then I'll go back to Boston.' But we hit it off and I still love those guys, there's no dirty laundry there. The only problem was with the fans' expectations. I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn't personal, but really it was personal. It probably got to me a little bit. I didn't move like Van Halen and didn't look like Van Halen, and I had to go out there every night with the margin of error being pretty slim."

It probably didn't help that the set was heaviest on David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar songs. "That was my idea," he points out. "In fact, I did the set list. They were willing to do Extreme songs, but I didn't want to play those with anybody else. I figured that I joined a band that was 20 years old, and I couldn't ignore 20 years of hits if I didn't want to get lynched."

The low point was probably a Great Woods appearance where Cherone lost his voice and had to stop the show after four songs. "I go backstage and my brother says, `Gary, man, you wouldn't want to be in the audience and hear what they're saying about you -- "Bring back Dave! Cherone sucks!" ' So I asked my brother, `What did you do?' And he says, `Oh, I joined in.' Thanks a lot, man. There's a Cherone for you."

With a solo album just wrapped up, Cherone expects to be back on the circuit early next year, and he plans to keep a Superstar song or two in his set. "I just want to get out and play on any level. I'm getting back to feeling uninhibited with my writing. The new material spans everything. Some of it is techno/industrial, and there's some Nick Drake folk as well." And an Extreme reunion? "It's not out of the question. We're all friends. There were touring offers last year, but no one was really interested. Our getting together is always in the future, and not the near future."

"I am so not there," is Nuno Bettencourt's reaction when the subject of Extreme is brought up. He's backstage at Axis where his new band, Mourning Widows, are about to make their local debut. Bettencourt hasn't lost the lean rock-star look that he had in the Extreme days, and he's become an even more hyperactive speaker. "Musically, mentally, spiritually, I have no want for Extreme. And believe me, I've been asked. The day Gary was out of Van Halen, the phone started ringing. I'm sure I'd love to play with the other guys again, but that's for later, when we're older. I'm still way too hungry to do that now."

Still, Bettencourt has one Extreme connection in his life: his manager is former Extreme drummer Paul Geary, who's also Godsmack's manager -- and as such, arguably the most successful Extreme alumnus. "When he was in the band, I always saw in his eyes a passion for management. And he's perfect because I know him so well -- there's no games to be played between manager and prima donna singer of band."

There's another irony there, since you might figure that Godsmack's brand of high-testosterone rap/metal knocked more traditional hard-rock bands like Extreme off the map. "To my mind, it was the alternative scene that really knocked Extreme out," Bettencourt says. "Kurt Cobain single-handedly gave everybody the wake-up call -- and for the good, I believe. He brought everybody back to the basic power of songwriting. Now a lot of people in the genre that I was in looked on that as crap, but I looked on it as genius. He inspired me to sing and to do things more my way."

Bettencourt's 1996 solo album, Schizophonic, bore out the Nirvana influence and was a real surprise for the few handfuls of people that heard it. Growing away from his old band's mainstream rock, Bettencourt went to an edgier kind of songwriting and a more tune-oriented, less guitar-heavy approach while holding onto the best of Extreme's funk and prog-rock leanings. But the album came out on A&M shortly before that label got absorbed into Interscope as part of the Seagrams/Universal merger. "I'm proud of that album, but it wasn't my idea," he now says. "There was a lot of label pressure, trying to make me into this Clapton kind of singing guitarist. There were a lot of good songs, but that's all it was -- a diary of a bunch of songs. It was a bit too eclectic. So in a way I was relieved when the label fell apart-- I was afraid that if it did well, I wouldn't be able to do the kind of band I wanted to do."

Indeed, he sounds like a man on a mission to put his new band across. He didn't even mind my suggestion that the name Mourning Widows sounds just a bit Spinal Tappish. "Really? I was thinking more of something like the Blushing Brides, but hopefully a little more poetic."

The band, a power trio with his bass-playing nephew Donovan Bettencourt (who at 25 is only nine years Nuno's junior) and New Yorker Jeff Consi on drums, have already released two albums in Japan. "I'd call it a heavy funk band -- not so much a funk-rock `Walk This Way' thing but a more traditional funk thing. Though you'll probably hear it and say, `What the fuck is he talking about?' "

Not the case, though you really wouldn't mistake the Mourning Widows for anything but a rock band. Their set at Axis proved that they know their way around a backbeat, and Bettencourt's always been good with big, meaty riffs -- it's funky, but more in the heavy vein of Led Zeppelin's "Trampled Underfoot" and, yep, Aerosmith's "Walk This Way." After a fling with Nirvana-style alterna-rock, this band return to the same reference points that helped define Extreme -- the above bands and Queen being the most obvious -- with a Beatles-derived sense of songcraft that wouldn't fit in the current metal world. It's very much a '70s throwback, but one that's really starting to sound good again.

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