Rita Harvey's "Heart Like a Wheel" Would Make Linda Ronstadt Proud

NiteLife Exchange
October 21, 2018

By Michael Barbieri

For those of us of a certain generation, the songs of Linda Ronstadt burn brightly in our memories. In her show Heart Like a Wheel: A Tribute to the Music of Linda Ronstadt, the wonderful Rita Harvey delivered those songs in a performance that would've made Ronstadt herself proud!

Rita Harvey is no stranger to the cabaret scene, having performed two solo shows, I Know These Things and Letting Go, to rave reviews. This versatile singer/actor also has some serious theater credits to her name. She made her Broadway debut as Christine Daae in The Phantom of the Opera and performed in the Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof, starring Alfred Molina, Harvey Fierstein and Rosie O'Donell. Her regional theater credits include roles in Fun Home, Next to Normal, and Sweeney Todd. She's also appeared in operas like La Nozze Di Figaro and Die Fledermaus and has performed with stars like Betty Buckley, Ben Vereen, Rita Moreno and Michael Crawford.

I've been a fan of Linda Ronstadt since the mid-70s, and when I saw that Harvey would be doing a tribute show at The Green Room 42, I knew instantly that I wanted to see it. And I was not disappointed! The evening began, appropriately enough, with Ronstadt's first hit single, "Different Drum," by Mike Nesmith. I was struck immediately by Harvey's strong vocal that seemed a cross between rock and Broadway. That segued into "Heat Wave," by the team of Holland/Dozier/Holland. Here she busted out her true "rocker chick" - strong, confident and smoothly in control. Her excellent band - Dave Tesar (piano), John Cariddi (guitar/backup vocals), Charlie DiScarfano (drums) and Dan Walker (keyboard/backup vocals) - kicked into high gear, backing Harvey with a solid, yet well balanced, rock and roll sound. And as a finishing touch, Harvey delivered the final "woo-oo-ooh-woo-oo-oo" in a perfect, bright head voice. A great way to start the show!

After telling us of her love for Ronstadt's music, of Ronstadt's 38 top Billboard hits, and her ventures into different musical genres like country, rock, folk, American Standards and even operetta, Harvey launched into one of Ronstadt's best known radio hits, "Blue Bayou," written by Roy Orbison. And while Harvey didn't have the same "cry" in her voice as Ronstadt's, her version was absolutely beautiful and her delivery of the final ethereal high note was perfect! Country music was Ronstadt's first love, so we heard "Love is a Rose" (Neil Young) and "Silver Threads and Golden Needles" (Jack Rhodes & Dick Reynolds) with hot harmonies from her guitar and keyboard players.

Those numbers were followed by a huge favorite of mine, Ronstadt's mega hit, "When Will I Be Loved" (Phil Everly). The terrific a cappella harmony break at the very end spread musical joy throughout the room, which made the song an audience favorite as well. The more uptempo rockers, like Buddy Holly's "It's So Easy" and "That'll Be the Day," as well as Ronstadt's only Number 1 hit, "You're No Good" (Clint Ballard), were incredibly close to the original recordings, both in arrangement and feel. Still, Harvey managed to make every song her own; the vocal in "You're No Good" was more refined than the original, with less of Ronstadt's well-known guttural growl, and more of Harvey's own legit sound. Ronstadt loved ballads, and said she would've done an entire show of them, but was afraid her audiences would fall asleep. Harvey's glorious renditions of "Long, Long Time" (Gary White), with its soaring vocal, and her plaintive, emotional delivery of "Heart Like a Wheel" (Anna McGarrigle), showed that she was as adept with the ballads as with the rockers. And while the latter song was written in the country style, it could fit easily into any contemporary cabaret show. Jimmy Webb's "The Moon's a Harsh Mistress" has long been a favorite of mine and here Harvey proved herself to be a fine actor as well. Her moving performance of the song captured the sorrow, angst and longing of one whose great love is just out of reach - always unattainable.

In 1980, Ronstadt surprised audiences by taking on the role of Mabel in Gilbert & Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance. For Mabel's "Poor Wand'ring One," Harvey demonstrated her own impressive soprano range with gorgeous coloratura runs bolstered by some funny business with her musicians singing as her "sisters!" We were also treated to "What's New," one of the pop standards from the album of the same name. While Harvey didn't have the darker undertones of Ronstadt's voice, her rendition was absolutely lovely, with the electric keyboard providing beautiful texture and an orchestral feel to mimic Nelson Riddle's big band sound. Oh, and I did hear that cry in her voice during this number!

Ronstadt has been called the most successful female singer of the 1970s and the first true woman rock and roll superstar. Although she retired in 2011, we will always have her songs. Indeed, everyone at Rita Harvey's show knew nearly every selection she sang—tapping their feet, bobbing their heads in time with the music and even singing along occasionally. One of the loveliest moments came during Harvey's closer, the iconic "Desperado," penned by Don Henley and Glen Frey of the Eagles. As Harvey sang "You better let somebody love you...," the audience echoed the phrase back to her exactly as the backup singers do on Ronstadt's recording. The show felt like Harvey's gift to her audience and that moment was the beautiful ribbon on top. I hope Heart Like a Wheel returns soon. This is one I would definitely see again!