Fairfax Journal
Friday, June 2, 2000
Still smiling 
By LOU KING Special to The Journal 

For an hour or so last week, I was the envy of many a local music fan, at least those who remember the Unicorn Times. In a ramshackle club north of Baltimore (actually, more like a glorified garage) I got to watch a reunited Happy The Man rehearse songs it hasn't played on stage since 1979. 

The scene was a recent practice session in preparation for a much-anticipated reunion show Thursday at the State Theatre in Falls Church, Va. 

Although the band still has many die-hard fans in the area, some sort of primer is warranted for the out-of-touch: Happy The Man was a five-piece art-rock ensemble that got its start at Madison College (now known as James Madison University) in Harrisonburg, Va., then moved to Northern Virginia. The group released two albums on Arista, a self-titled debut in 1976 and "Crafty Hands" in 1978. 

Although the band was wildly popular in this area and elsewhere, and considered by many to be the equal of such blockbuster acts as Yes and Genesis, circumstances conspired against immediate fame and fortune. By the time the band had finished recording its third album ("Third: Better Late Than Never," which was finally released in 1984), the members had gone their separate ways. 

But the buzz surrounding the band, however it may have waned over time, never truly died out. Guitarist Stan Whitaker had eventually relocated to Los Angeles, where he was playing with the progressive rock group Tin Jinn. While playing progressive music festivals on the West Coast, Whitaker met young bands from France and Italy that practically deified Happy The Man. Not long after that, he discovered a number of Web sites devoted to his former band, and festival
promoters started inquiring about a possible reunion. 

Also, unbeknownst to the band, the small specialty label One Way Records had responded to overwhelming demand by reissuing both "Happy The Man" and "Crafty Hands." 

Meanwhile, the rest of the band was scattered around the country. Saxophone and keyboard player Frank Wyatt was running a successful woodworking business in Galax, Va., while bassist Rick Kennell was involved in music production and business management and living just outside New York City. Drummer Ron Riddle - who played on "Crafty Hands" but never toured with the band - was busy working on film music in his Ithaca, N.Y. home, after a playing career that included stints with Blue Oyster Cult and Stuart Hamm. Was the desire still there? 

"[Getting back together] had come up a bunch of times in the past, but there was always something that kept it from happening," Kennell said from his New Jersey office. "This time around, everyone just said, `Hey, this could happen.' Even though we had three different drummers that we recorded with, we all pretty much agreed that we liked the `Crafty Hands' incarnation of the band, and Ron was really enthusiastic to do it. I think he really wanted to get out of his basement." 

One sticking point was finding a replacement for keyboard player and original member Kit Watkins, who expressed no desire to perform on stage. The solution was David Rosenthal, a Berklee-educated musician and Happy The Man fan who has played with Billy Joel, Cyndi Lauper and many others. Rosenthal was such a big fan that he made transcriptions of Happy The Man songs back in his school days, which he showed to Whitaker and Kennell when the three met years ago. 

"I never got to see the band when they were around, and now the first time I do, I'll be playing with them," Rosenthal said. "It's pretty amazing." 

After nearly a week of rehearsals, the band was sounding pretty close to its vintage self. Thursday night's performance will include old Happy The Man classics and some brand new material. The band is being pretty secretive about exactly what it will be playing, but allows that it used an informal e-mail fan poll to help narrow down the set list. 

There's also talk about releasing a new album some time later this year (and even about recouping some royalties still owed the band by Arista), but for right now, the band is pretty willing to let things happen as they may. 

"This has always been the kind of band that, when we were ready, things just fell into place," Whitaker said. 

For Happy The Man, it looks like that kind of patience is beginning to pay off. 

Happy the Man performs Thursday at the State Theatre, 220 N. Washington St., Falls Church, VA. Tickets are $15. Call (703) 237-0300 for details. 

The band's Web site (www.happytheman.com) also has details about upcoming shows, photos from the old days and more.