Steven Van Zandt can still remember the feeling when he first saw his favorite teenage group, the Rascals, reunited after four decades. "That first rehearsal literally made the hairs on my arms stand up," he tells Rolling Stone. "You had that really intense feeling of being a fan, and now after 40 years these guys, maybe the first rock band I ever saw – I'm responsible for putting them back in the same room and there they are playing together, and they still had that chemistry, that magic. It was that tingling up the spine."
That was in 2009, and now, four years later, after a successful Broadway run, the band is going back out on the road starting Thursday at L.A.'s Greek Theater.
"We're taking this as far as we can take it," says drummer Dino Danelli says, who would like to see the band collaborate with younger acts, as the Beach Boys did when they played the Grammys with Maroon 5 and Foster the People last year. "Maybe at some point bring in some new music and see what we come up with on that level. We're open to it all, and we're going as far as people will go with us."
Singer Eddie Brigati would like the quartet (which also includes guitarist Gene Cornish and keyboardist Felix Cavaliere) to get back into the studio. "I hope that as this unfolds, hopefully there's a little cherry on the cake," he says.
For now, though, when the band takes the stage, they are focused on playing 28 hits in a two-and-a-half-hour show called Once Upon a Dream. Described by Van Zandt (who co-created the show with Marc Brickman) as "a real hybrid theatrical event," the show combines elements of theater and rock & roll, mixing a 50-foot screen with actors portraying the band with the real band in concert.
Danelli admits he and his three bandmates had no idea how the show would be received, as it's so unlike a typical concert, but they've been overwhelmed by audience responses. "I've never really done anything where it stops and starts like this," Danelli says. "We had no idea when we put this thing together. We were blown away when everybody took to it the way they have. Every show has been better than the last show. We've been filling the houses everywhere, and they go through a whole series of emotions through this whole experience."
Van Zandt has bold predictions for the format. "This show is an interesting new idea that I think could be the next evolution of the concert experience," he says. "I know a lot of people are starting to copy our model, starting to integrate various biographical elements into their concerts. I think that's what you're gonna see over the next five years – a whole evolution that makes the concert experience a little bit more entertaining and more informative. Every older band has a story, and by telling the story you put the songs in context."
One thing the Rascals were sure of when Van Zandt first approached them was they didn't want to come out and play an oldies show. Both Cornish and Brigati credit Van Zandt with making the band feel appreciated again.
"Steve Van Zandt has really put this together correctly, dealt with all our separate concerns and whatever residual situation we had in our minds," Cornish says.
Brigati is even more effusive in his praise of the E Street Band guitarist. "Saint Steven the brave, who wrestles alligators for a hobby, is giving us this opportunity, this gift," Brigati says. "And he believed in us, quite frankly, more than we did at the time. His intention was pure, and he fought for a long time just to get us to listen to him. He won me by his integrity, by keeping his word."
Through Van Zandt's conviction he has given his childhood heroes a chance to rediscover their own heyday. "We are basically reliving our youth, in a sense. We are 68, 69, 70 years old, but onstage it doesn't feel that way. It doesn't look that way," Cornish says. "By the end of the show we're all in 1965 on Cloud Nine. The Rascals are all four at the top of our game. I'm proud to say all four of us are better than ever at this point and we're appreciating it so much. When you see the show you see the love between the guys. We love what we're doing."
Danelli agrees. "We're playing excellently – that's what I get off on," he says. "We dug things out of the catalog that we never played, ever, so that's all fresh to us and we're bringing new things to it. Half of these songs we're playing we never played before. There's a song called 'Find Somebody to Love,' which not many people know. There's a song called 'It's Love,' which hardly anybody knows, and we've made them into more modern versions. And we bring in some fresh things to our hits that we played for 40 years."
To Van Zandt, bringing the Rascals back together is just righting a wrong. "Great bands shouldn't break up, because it's some kind of divine spark that takes place, some alchemy that takes place, that should never, ever be taken for granted," he says. "And people take it for granted all the time. Bands break up. It's a real crime against nature when you do that. It should never happen. And in this case, it was really obvious these guys should never have broken up."