An Interview with Under the Streetlamp: Pure Illumination
NEW MUSIC JUNE 7, 2013 BY: KEVIN YEANOPLOS
History is rife with foursomes that have greatly impacted life as we know it. The Ghostbusters…the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles…the Flintstones and Rubbles…well okay then, maybe not.
But there are those four tremendously talented musicians that sing timeless classics like “Hey Jude” and “Twist and Shout.” That would be Michael, Michael, Chris and Shonn of course – otherwise known as Under The Streetlamp.
The remarkable quartet combines the vocal talents of four lead singers –Michael Cunio, Michael Ingersoll, Christopher Kale Jones and Shonn Wiley – to bring rock and roll, doo wop and Motown classics to a new generation of fans and remind the original fans why they liked the great music in the first place.
All four members of Under The Streetlamp have appeared at one time or another in the hit play Jersey Boys. So whether it’s a Broadway show, a riotous comedy routine or just a couple of hours of classic music that you’re after, UTSL is the cure for any and all entertainment fevers.
Most musical groups are lucky to have one gifted lead singer. But UTSL’s fantastic foursome displays every delightful note of their respective vocal genius each time they hit the stage, earning them a growing legion of loyal fans.
The musical gang of four was kind enough to spend some time with me during their recent U.S. tour, chatting about their wildly popular performances and their inimitable onstage chemistry.
The music industry encompasses a wide variety of artists, some performing purely for the enjoyment of their audience, others performing primarily for themselves and everything in between. Given the immense popularity of the affable quartet, it’s easy to figure out where they fall in the spectrum.
“I’m sure the guys are gonna have some other opinions on this,” offered Jones, “but I think that we probably veer more to the side of doing it for the audience. We certainly have moments where we’re getting lost in the music. We certainly take the music very seriously and try to do it as well as we can. But our goal is to make sure that people have a great time.”
Added Cunio, “Without the audience, we have no reason to exist whatsoever. The music is wonderful, but that’s just the excuse that brings us all together to share whatever the evening is, whether it’s the comedy, whether it’s the dancing. It’s the excuse to all get together and have what we like to call ‘this party.’ We think of ourselves as hosts to the party. But what is a party if nobody shows up?”
Wiley had his perspectives as well. “It’s kind of a give and take, you know? I tend to enjoy the music and enjoy the reaction from the audience. So it’s kind of a back and forth. If they’re having a good time, we’re having a good time. And like Cunio said, it becomes this organic party on stage that exists in the evenings.”
That sound that you hear is a collective “amen” from any and all of the concertgoers that have been lucky enough to witness a UTSL “party.” This music fan enjoyed the between-song banter almost as much as the music.
Ingersoll provided this gem at one of their shows. Finishing up a run of classics with The Turtles’ “Happy Together,” Ingersoll related a story about a young fan’s request for “The Sheep Song.” After a few muddled moments, the youngster cleared up the confusion with a declarative, “You know, baa, baa, baa, baa.”
After witnessing their multitalented brilliance firsthand, the artists’ thoughts on their astounding versatility came as no surprise.
“We’re entertainers,” declared Cunio. “We all come to this band with different backgrounds. Obviously, we were all in Jersey Boys, so at some point, music continued our careers together. But the thing that separates us from other groups is that multidimensional aspect. The fact that there is banter and there is storytelling and there is dancing and there is singing. It’s not just one strength.”
“The other thing that separates us from other groups is that we have four different lead singers. Most groups that do this just have one lead singer that they rally around. I personally don’t think that one is more important than the other. And if we didn’t have all three in the balance that we do, we’d just be a cover band as opposed to a national touring group that’s fortunately gaining an audience very quickly.”
Fortunately for the audience, the luminous double duo is exposing new fans to some fantastic old music, such as Cunio’s matchless rendition of Etta James’ “At Last.” Said the genial Cunio, “We have multi-generations of people in our audiences. So certainly some of the younger audience members are discovering music for the first time.”
“What’s fun for us is allowing people that grew up with and lived with this music to feel like they’re discovering it for the first time all over again. And we bring to it a youth and an exuberance and a freshness while doing our very best to stand on the shoulders of those that came before us by maintaining the integrity of the original arrangements.”
“But we bring our own special blend of whatever you want to call it to the table. And whether they’re actually hearing it for the first time or just feeling like they are, that’s the highest praise that we can get. When people say ‘You’re better than Botox’ because of how young you make them feel (laughing), that’s not a bad thing.”
It certainly can’t hurt that Streetlamp’s setlist is jam packed with timeless music. But as the quartet alluded to, interpreting such influential melodies brings with it a certain undeniable responsibility.
“We don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” professed Ingersoll. “I don’t think that’s what people are coming for. I don’t want to have a version of ‘Blue Moon’ that sounds so esoteric or Caribbean. We tried it once (chuckling). It didn’t work out so well. We don’t want to sound like Phillip Glass does ‘Blue Moon.’ That doesn’t do anything for us.”
“But at the same time, we have a great three piece horn section and a lot of these songs were recorded with just a rhythm section. So the very nature of our band’s make-up changes the sound and in some way makes it fuller.”
“We’ll play with the tempo or we’ll cover songs that were recorded by females – those things make it musically interesting for us. But we don’t want people to have to reach to say, ‘Oh, I know that song’ or ‘Oh, I love that song.’ We want to deliver our version so that Streetlamp has a sound. But we don’t necessarily want to turn it on its head.”
“Quite honestly, the audience dictates whether a tune works or not,” continued Wiley. “We’ve tried things out before and if the audience doesn’t respond the way that we hoped they would, then that tells us something. First and foremost, it goes back to the earlier point that we are in the service of the audience because without the audience we wouldn’t be on this bus (all laughing).”
Added Jones, “I also think that one thing that we do when we’re adding songs into our show is we think about the intent we have for the song. For instance, I do a number in the show called ‘She’s A Lady,’ a Tom Jones number. And the things I found most compelling as we were putting the song together and I was looking at old Tom Jones clips is what he actually got away with (laughing).”
“The song is great in itself. But by the time he was at his height and that song was really hitting, he was just doing these crazy things on stage and swinging his hips around. And we just thought it’d be fun to have a song that is fun to sing and is good musically but also unabashedly cheesy and campy that people can just get into and have a good time.”
Cunio succinctly hit it on the head by proclaiming, “In summary, our main endeavor every time is not to suck (laughing). The bottom line is if we feel any pressure, the pressure is to not suck and to keep our audience happy.”
With a foursome of peerless vocalists on stage for two solid hours of incomparable music and dance, keeping the audience happy is a piece of cake. Whether it’s Wiley paying tribute to his Marine Corps veteran father by perfectly channeling his silver screen dancing idol Gene Kelley or Cunio taking a startlingly soulful turn on James Brown’s “It’s A Man’s World,” UTSL aims to please – and never misses .
Cunio was even “thoughtful” enough to provide the secret to successfully sharing the stage with his fellow songsters. “We try not to let Chris sing very much (laughing).”
Wiley expanded a bit more on the band’s collaborative recipe for success. “From the beginning it’s always been equal playing time, putting sets together and making sure there was a balance to the whole evening.”
“First and foremost, us coming together and singing together only then allows us to step out. And like Michael said before, because we come from totally different backgrounds and totally different experiences, we’re able to bring something different to the table.”
“I wouldn’t be caught dead doing what Cunio does and he wouldn’t be caught dead doing what I do (laughing). It gives us opportunities to showcase what makes us unique as individuals.”
“Again, it goes back to the very first point you brought up,” added Ingersoll, “and that’s that we are in service of the audience. So when we’re researching music for our next PBS special and we come across a song we’re excited about, immediately we know, ‘Oh, that’s a Cunio song’ or ‘That’s a Chris song.’”
“We know what each of our strengths and weaknesses are and we’re honest with ourselves and each other about that. And that simply allows us to choose the right person to ‘drive the train’ for that moment.”
“The audience is going to be the winner there, you know? It’s really important for us to have each song in the right hands each time because we’re trying to create the best evening we possibly can for anybody who buys a ticket.”
For Under The Streetlamp, creating the best evening possible has largely revolved around drawing heavily from the Great American Songbook. And given the dearth of contemporary timeless music, the group’s set list is effectively “limited” to older classics – not a bad thing by the way.
Cunio provided his thoughts on the challenge. “I usually joke that there’s a reason these songs hold up after 60 years – and I don’t know that Brittany Spears will still hold up in the same way. That isn’t to say that none of the music that’s coming out today is gonna have the same value, depth and worth that the music’s had before them.”
“We came by that phrase ‘the American Radio Songbook’ because it refers to a time when radio wasn’t divided by Internet and streaming and satellite and all this different stuff. There was one station you went to hear all the hits and that’s the music we try to celebrate. That’s why I think when the audience shows up, they know the words to every song and not just one of them.”
Jones agreed with Cunio as to the importance of radio. “Another reason this music resonates is – and we touched on this a little bit – Cunio talked about when radio was king. Everyone was listening to the same music and there was something incredibly unifying about that.”
“I like a lot of contemporary music similar to Michael and I know each of us has different artists that we like. But it’s the sort of thing where there’s so many options out there now that we can all each like different artists, so it doesn’t really bring us together in the same way.”
“There is something I see wonderfully unifying about being ‘forced’ to listening to tons of different artists on one radio station. Your dad may like this one, your sister may like this one, you may like this one and your friend across the street may like that one. But you’re all listening to it and so you all know it.”
“So even if the Beach Boys weren’t your favorite, Johnny Cash was coming up next. And you knew you were gonna get something you liked. When the Beach Boys song plays, oddly it still has that same nostalgia for you because you remember the first time listening, ‘Well, it’s not my thing. But there I was with my family listening to the same thing everyone else was.’”
While a nightly repertoire of hit songs would seem to be the perfect cure for “what ails ya,” the talented performers have never taken their success for granted. “None of us expected to be doing this,” confessed Cunio.”
“If you’d asked us two years ago, we would be well on our way to doing wildly different things right now. So, the success is certainly not planned and it’s something that we’re so grateful for. I’m surprised at how much people like this music. Jersey Boys tipped our hat to that.”
“I think our own success is truly shocking to all of us and really wonderful. We’re very excited to see what the future holds. But we know that our success is contingent on this music. And if anything gives us faith, it’s that we know we go out there singing the greatest songs, material that stands the test of time. People can’t get enough of it. If that’s not a slam dunk, I don’t know what is.”
That should give us all faith. Because with night after night of resonating performances, Under The Streetlamp has breathed fresh new life into timeless music, leaving the fans dancing to the music. And to borrow from the band’s trademark refrain, retro never sounded so now.