Song can wait, 20 whole years

Portland's Nu Shooz revisits top-40 dance hit 'I Can't Wait'
by: COURTESY OF NU SHOOZ, “It’s not like we retired and started parking cars,” says John Smith of the careers he and Valerie Day have built since 1986.

Valerie Day and John Smith have had little trouble moving beyond their former lives as rock stars and the heady days of 1986 when their band, Nu Shooz, raced up the pop charts with the hit 'I Can't Wait.'

Day, a Portland native, has collaborated with some of the city's top jazz performers, fronted a '40s-style big band, taught voice and co-founded a nonprofit organization that promotes music in schools.

The multitalented Smith has worked as a producer and composer, creating soundtracks for a number of independent films.

The two also are raising a son in their Irvington home.

But a chance occurrence convinced the married couple that the perfect vehicle for delivering a fresh distillation of their varied musical experiences was right where they parked it 20 years ago.

Wednesday night, the couple will join friends and musical colleagues in celebrating the release of a CD single featuring an unplugged version of 'I Can't Wait' that was recorded earlier this year. Though there will be no live performance at the event, a reconstituted, acoustic Nu Shooz, stocked with some of the top pop and jazz players in town, will make appearances in coming months, including a December gig in which the group will open for blues rocker Jonny Lang.

Day says she and Smith were finishing up a benefit concert at the Pittock Mansion two years ago, playing a 'jazz thing,' when guests began clamoring for their 1986 hit.

'You can't do the song without a band,' she remembers thinking. She and Smith went ahead with a stripped-down version anyway.

'It was magic,' she says. 'People were crying and stuff. It was so shocking to us how cool it ended up being. The song held up on its own.'

It wasn't long before a connection was made in Day's mind.

'A little thought bubbled up,' she says. 'We thought, 'We can go ahead and experiment with these songs.' If a song is a good song, it should stand up no matter what clothes you put on it.'

'She sold me on the idea of connecting Nu Shooz to who we are now musically,' Smith says.

Taking their time to assemble a musical team that would include bassist Dave Captein, trumpeter Paul Mazzio and Oregon Symphony cellist Una O'Riordan, the couple went into the studio in February.

Day and Smith aren't overly sensitive about how a reworked, 20-year old pop tune might be judged. She imagines a skeptic's response: ' 'They're recutting the hit they had in the '80s? That's really pathetic. Don't they have anything better to do?'

'We just had fun doing it,' she says.

The new band, which will include a horn section, two cellos and a standup bass, will make its debut on the radio show 'Live Wire' next month. Smith says the new music is anything but the work of a stale reunion act.

'It's not like we retired and started parking cars,' he says. 'We're technically better than we were 20 years ago. In that way, I feel more qualified.'

'I'm not really worried about it because these musicians bring so much to the table,' Day says.

The singer, who's been backed by as many as 17 musicians at a time in recent years, admits she can get wistful for the those weeks in 1986 when the only singles her band's No. 3 hit failed to dislodge from the top of the charts were by artists like Whitney Houston, Madonna and Prince.

'Singing in front of a big band, those guys can push a lot of air,' she says. 'That's a lot different than a stack of Marshalls. I do miss the funkiness of what we used to do.'

Still, Day says, revisiting the past has brought back happy memories.

'It's been a really great experience,' she says, 'having to go up in the attic and get all this stuff and look at it again. We always felt really grateful that people loved it the way they did.

'We weren't as bad as we thought we were. We were actually kind of cute.'

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Nu Shooz CD Release and Listening Party

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 25

Where: Aura Restaurant and Lounge, 1022 W. Burnside St., 503-597-2872

Cost: $5