Prog rockers Babe Ruth reunite for special Summerfest show
There's a consensus among some that this year's Summerfest lineup is one of the strongest, most diverse in recent memory – and for many music fans, that may well be the case.
But it wasn't until mid-May, when the Summerfest organizers announced the last of the side stage headliners, that much of anything at this year's Big Gig piqued my interest (yeah, I'm jaded … ).
In the midst of the 50-plus bands being announced, the name Babe Ruth popped up.
Babe Ruth? Really? '70s British progressive rockers Babe Ruth? Or some young bar band who didn't realize there was already a fantastic hard rock/jazz/spaghetti western-tinged band named after the baseball icon?
A quick check of the band's website didn't immediately mention any shows. Although the group did reunite for an album, "Que Pasa," in 2006 and played some live shows in Canada in 2010, I didn't think they played live much at all for the past 20-plus years. In fact, it's been a while – 40 years to be precise – since Babe Ruth last played in Milwaukee.
I happened to run into Summerfest contract/booking manager Whit Lehnberg and was thrilled to learn, as I'm sure many fans of '70s album rock are, that indeed the Babe Ruth, featuring the band's most prominent members – guitarist Alan Shacklock, vocalist Janita "Jenny" Haan, bassist Dave Hewitt, keyboardist Dave Punshon and drummer Ed Spevok – will be in Milwaukee on Saturday, June 28 for a rare reunion performance at Summerfest's BMO Harris Pavilion.
A rare reunion achieved, as it turns out, through one man's – Lehnberg's – dogged persistence.
"We tried to get them when they did the shows in Toronto in Montreal, but it didn't work out," Lehnberg said. "We've tried to bring them here every year since, and finally, this year, it worked. It's their only show in the world, and we believe that Milwaukee will turn out for this show. They've got a solid fan base here. Frankly, there's been more talk about Babe Ruth than just about any other side stage act this year."
Turn out the fans most certainly will. The initial release of 1,250 Blue Circle reserved seats for Babe Ruth, sharing the BMO Harris Pavilion stage with REO Speedwagon, sold out in minutes. Another 1,250 reserved seat tickets will be available on a first come, first served basis starting at noon on Saturday at the Summerfest box office just inside the south gate.
I spoke with Babe Ruth vocalist Janita "Jenny" Haan from England last week, where she and the band were hard at work rehearsing for the upcoming Summerfest appearance.
"I'm so excited about coming back to Milwaukee; we love Milwaukee," Haan said. "We played our very first US concert there (in 1973) and then played the Riverside Theater in 1974. It's very, very exciting to be back with the boys again. We all can't wait to play; we're really gunned up for it."
Haan credited Lehnberg's persistence for bringing the band back to the U.S. for the first time in a very long time.
"This is a one off show," she said. "Whit's been talking with me about this for years, asking [if] we would consider playing Summerfest, and all of us are so looking forward to it. The chance for us to play together again is just awesome. We always seem to come together for these amazing events."
Asked about the band's relegation to "cult" status, Haan is somewhat philosophical on the Babe Ruth's successes and shortcomings.
"Babe Ruth has been a bit of an enigma, I think really," she noted. "We've always said Babe Ruth was ahead of its time, and the music is timeless. There's not really any band like us. We've never had the proper people taking care of us, to promote and manage the band. The band is quite capable and more than experienced to do the live work – we just love it. We just didn't have the good business team behind us to get to the level we wanted to get to."
Haan and the rest of the band remain quite active in the music business.
"I'm on three projects right now," Haan elaborated, "producing and performing with a band called The Wire Birds and recordings with Dave Morris and Paul Cobbold."
Despite the fact that Babe Ruth doesn't perform on a regular basis, Haan assures fans that they're in for a special performance on Saturday.
"I've been, actually all of us, have been putting in some hard training and rehearsing in preparation for this," she said. "The guys are all amazing musicians and because we've known each other for so long and we know the music so well, it's like riding a bike – it just clicks."
Haan said the band did a little bit of homework and asked people what they wanted to hear live, so among a few "extended and jazzy bits," you can expect to hear Babe Ruth staples like "The Mexican," "Black Dog," "Dancer," "Break for the Border," "King Kong" and, of course, the classic "Wells Fargo."
In addition, Haan said that the band plans to stick around after the show at the merchandise area to interact with fans.
"We're very excited to meet the fans and talk with people in Milwaukee – we'll be hanging out after the show – tell people to stop by and say 'hi.'"
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