Perhaps the biggest surprise in the concert Wednesday that had “American Idol” runner-up Bo Bice fronting seminal jazz-rock group Blood, Sweat & Tears at Musikfest Cafet at ArtsQuest Center in Bethlehem was how much Bice suppressed his personality to make his integration into the group seamless.
No longer wearing the long hair and beard that distinguished him when he finished second to Carrie Underwood on “Idol” in 2005 (it’s been replaced by a high, spiky ‘do), Bice never once focused on himself or his career.
Instead, he ably assumed the role of the group’s singer, sounding a lot like its classic vocalist David Clayton-Thomas, to whom he was compared on “Idol,” in a 90-minute, 16-song set.
That was a good thing. Bice only occasionally crossed over into imitation – far more often sounding inspired but having his own vibe.
He established his chops immediately , brassy and soulful, on the opening “Got to Get You Into My Life,” the Beatles cover with which Blood Sweat & Tears had a minor hit in 1975. The band also established its chops, as trumpet player Carl Fischer came front and center for a solo.
When it comes down to it, it’s voice and brass that make Blood, Sweat & Tears, and the lineup had both with Bice and a four-man horn section among its nine members. (The band actually was visibly cramped on the Musikfest Café stage.)
Bice attacked “Hi-De-Ho,” the band’s 1970 hit, with gusto and without reservation, even singing an a cappella snippet at the end. And on the slower “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know,” he growled and ground out the lyrics – relaxed and confident. The song also had a nice sax solo from Ken Gioffre.
“It’s a thrill for me to get to play this catalog of music,” Bice said, and introduced a “more obscure” selection, “I Can’t Quit Her,” as his favorite. And he said a over of Traffic’s “Smiling Faces” “makes your ribs rumble. You need a good rumble when you listen to Blood, Sweat and Tears.”
It was almost a disappointment, then, when Bice left the stage during an instrumental number – very jazzy – and guitarist Dave Gellis announced that former fill-in guitarist Steve Conte would join them for three songs.
With Conte, they played a bluesy “Mercy,” Bobby Bland’s “Who Will the Next Fool Be” and the minor hit “Lucretia MacEvil.” While Conte was good and interesting, the 25-minute interlude served more to show how good a fit Bice is. When he he returned for “Go Down Gamblin’,” it sounded even more like classic BS&T. Bice even did some scat-singing.
And he was even better on Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child,” nice and nuanced, and the band played well, too. And Bice did exceptionally well on “And When I Die,” near the end of the set. One of the group’s signature tunes and biggest hits, it was a good song played well.
The penultimate song in the main set was the Grammy Award-winning “Spinning Wheel.” Because it’s such an iconic vocal, it was the one song on which Bice didn’t quite measure up to the heft and growl of Clayon-Thomas, but he did pretty darn well.
And the main set closed with “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” which Bice was, indeed, up to singing.
The encore was interesting: a cover of Ides of March’s BS&T sound-alike song “Vehicle,” which Bice released as a single after “Idol.” It was a strong song, and Bice owned it – every bit equal to the original vocal. Guitarist Dave Gellis, who was good all night, also shone.
The closing song was surprising: The Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider,” which retained the southern rock vibe of which Bice is so fond, but adding Blood, Sweat & Tears’ jazzy element. It was an interesting, and good, interpretation that finally showed what Bice has added to the band.
“Blood, Sweat & Tears,” Bice shouted several times during the night in tribute to the band, as if to remind the nearly full audience it was about the band and not him. But Bice did that far better by finding his niche in the group’s music.