At first glance, reproducing the look and sound of the Swedish pop music group ABBA doesn't seem like such a tough gig. Throw on a couple of blond wigs, memorize the lyrics of "Take a Chance on Me" and throw in a glockenspiel, and you're good to go.
But you'd be wrong. Gary Raffanelli has spent a large portion of his professional life making ABBA come to life, and it's one of the biggest challenges he's ever faced.
"People think of it as bubble gum music, but it's not," said Raffanelli, who is the creator and lead performer for the group Abbacadabra, an ABBA tribute band which will be performing Saturday, May 23, in Harrah's South Shore Room. "It's the hardest music I've ever had to perform."
Underrated? Sure. When people talk of the great music groups, ABBA rarely gets mentioned " despite the fact that the foursome is No. 3 in all-time record sales, behind only the Beatles and Elvis Presley.
If you're surprised, you probably weren't paying close attention to the 1970s. ABBA was a humongous party band sensation (the group broke up in 1983), and had a massive and loyal international following.
And their talent wasn't lost on Raffanelli, a music and stage producer from Reno who has created and produced shows for casinos throughout Nevada.
"One day I was called in by a casino to share some of my ideas for shows," Raffanelli said. "So I gave them a few ideas, and they liked them. But as I was getting up to leave, one of them said 'Do you have any more?'
"At the time (2002) I had an old ABBA tape in my car, and I happened to have been listening to it on the drive to the meeting. So I decided to bluff " I pitched them an idea for an ABBA tribute show. They loved it."
As he talked, Raffanelli fell in love with the idea himself. So the next day he began working on the show, beginning a process that would take 2 1/2 years before this new ABBA could take to the stage.
"I realized that the idea would be successful even as I was sitting in that meeting," Raffanelli said. "But I didn't realize how much work it would be. There was 2 1/2 years of research and development and practice; I didn't think it would be that hard."
Raffanelli has a marked resemblance to ABBA lead singer and keyboardist Benny Andersson, and is also a musical veteran on piano, so that part was easy.
"I hung pictures of Benny in my studio, and people have remarked that it seems a little egocentric of me to hang pictures of myself in my own studio. So I have to say 'It's not me! It's the real Benny.' "
Next was the rest of the group. Fred Sampson came on as ABBA's Bjorn Ulvaes, Sandra Selby is Agnetha Faltskog and Christine Shelton plays Frida Lyngstad. The supporting cast (voices, drums, etc.) include Cindy White, Jeanene Raffanelli (Gary's wife), Joihn Esler, Kent Gochnour, Joe McKenna, Aaron Anderson and Garrett Raffanelli (Gary's son) " a veritable ABBA Army.
"The music runs through my head all the time," Raffanelli said. "It's been a huge passion of mine to get it correct. It's now a part of my blood."