Way back in America’s bicentennial year (1976, for those of you who are either too young to recall or lousy at math), Jethro Tull recorded a concept album entitled Too Old to Rock and Roll; Too Young to Die. The record’s theme reinforced the notion that rock music is a young person’s game. (Remember The Who’s “My Generation” — “Hope I die before I get old”?)
Last evening, the Pirate Queen and I — along with several thousand fellow members of our chronological demographic — spent four blissful hours testing that theory, as ’80s rock fossils Night Ranger, Foreigner, and Journey cut loose with the hits at Sleep Train Pavilion in Concord.
The last time I attended a show at the aforementioned venue, it was a cold, stormy night almost exactly 20 years ago, when KJ and I huddled on the lawn in a pouring rain to hear local favorites Huey Lewis and the News. (Rock historians will recall that as the night music impresario Bill Graham died in a helicopter crash, on his way home from that very concert.) I don’t even think Sleep Train, the furniture chain that’s now the name sponsor of what used to be called simply Concord Pavilion, even existed then. I know this for sure — the long uphill trek from the parking lot to the amphitheater seemed less steep and distant when I was in my late 30s.
By the time we found our seats at ten minutes before the scheduled showtime, opening act Night Ranger had already taken the stage. (Apparently they neglected to make allowances for their now slower-moving target audience.) Still, we managed to hear 95% of a sharp-edged set that included the band’s most familiar tunes — “When You Close Your Eyes,” “Sing Me Away,” “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” and prom-night legend “Sister Christian.” The band also busted out a credible cover of Damn Yankees’ “Coming of Age,” a nod to the band bassist and singer Jack Blades co-founded while on hiatus from Night Ranger in the early 1990s. The set concluded with “(You Can Still) Rock in America,” complete with flags and red-white-and-blue graphics.
Of the evening’s three acts, Night Ranger most resembled the lineup most famous under the name. All three of the band’s founding members — Blades, drummer/vocalist Kelly Keagy, and lead guitarist Brad Gillis — were on stage, and in top form. Keagy even stepped out from behind his kit for the opening of “Sister Christian” (which he wrote for his younger sister). Blades remains the energetic frontman he’s always been, and Gillis’s powerful riffs found a worthy match in those of relative newcomer Joel Hoekstra.
Night Ranger’s kickoff performance earned an enthusiastic three-and-a-half tailfeathers out of a possible five from your Uncle Swan, even though I’ve never really been a huge fan of the band. The Pirate Queen’s assessment was more subdued — “too rock and roll for me,” she opined as the stage was being reset for Foreigner. (Yes, “too rock and roll” sounds oxymoronic to me, too.)
When Foreigner launched into their set with “Double Vision,” I whispered to the Pirate Queen, “There’s not a single member of the Foreigner I remember on stage.” (“I wish you hadn’t told me that,” came the terse reply.) Indeed, the only original member who’s still with the band — guitarist Mick Jones — has missed much of the group’s current tour due to health problems, leaving what basically amounts to a flashy cover band performing under the Foreigner logo.
Not that Faux-reigner doesn’t put on one heck of a show — they certainly do. Former Hurricane lead singer Kelly Hansen represents a total departure in both vocal quality and stage presence from Foreigner’s original vocalist Lou Gramm (to my sensibilities, Hansen both looks and sounds a lot like Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler), but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. While he trades Gramm’s sweet tenor for a husky heavy-metal growl, Hansen’s a lot more fun to watch than the relatively laid-back Gramm ever was. (He also deftly handled a technical glitch when his wireless microphone went dead during the opening verse of “Head Games.” He probably thought someone was playing… oh, you’ll figure it out.) Hansen’s favorite foil, multi-instrumentalist and Tom Jones doppelganger Thom Gimbel, seemed to have a blast bouncing from rhythm guitar to saxophone (mostly notably for a ripping solo on “Urgent”). Mick Jones’s stand-in on lead guitar, Bruce Watson (formerly of Rod Stewart’s backup band), did a nice job handling the familiar Foreigner repertoire.
And familiar it was. I don’t think there was a single number in the entire Foreigner set that’s not still in heavy rotation on classic-rock radio stations everywhere. From “Cold As Ice” and “Dirty White Boy” to “Feels Like the First Time” and “Hot Blooded,” the Foreigner soundalikes tore through hit after hit in fine style. The only weak points came with the lush ballads “Waiting for a Girl Like You” and “I Want to Know What Love Is,” which simply aren’t well suited to Hansen’s vocal style, or vice versa. As is the band’s custom, they brought on a local choir — in this case, from a Concord high school — to back up the latter song. The kids were… well… cute.
The band saved my all-time favorite Foreigner number for the encore: “Juke Box Hero.” Hansen was back in his element for this crowd-pleasing crusher, which left the audience shouting for more — despite the cheesy computer graphics that looked like they’d been cribbed from an ancient Commodore 64 video game.
Uncle Swan gave Kelly Hansen and Faux-reigner a solid four tailfeathers out of a possible five for their rousingly entertaining set. The Pirate Queen enjoyed them too, despite the disappointing lack of original Foreigner personnel.
After waiting in interminable lines for the restrooms, we were ready for the night’s headliner. Journey grabbed the audience from jump street with the pounding, soaring “Separate Ways.” I was especially curious to hear how the band’s current lead singer, Arnel Pineda, would sound live. Any doubts I might have harbored vanished during the opening number.
Pineda, the Philippine native famously hired after guitarist Neal Schon discovered him singing Journey covers on YouTube — is the real deal. His phrasing isn’t as nuanced as that of Journey’s legendary former vocalist, Steve Perry (probably because English is Arnel’s second language), but Pineda has the same power and pure clarion tone. He’s also a nonstop dynamo on stage — running, dancing, leaping. I couldn’t believe the guy is in his mid-40s. I’m only five years older, and if I cavorted like Arnel for just two songs, I’d need a good night’s sleep and half a bottle of ibuprofen.
Schon blazed through his trademark solos in rare form. I’d swear he’s a tighter player now than when I last saw Journey live 30 years ago. Keyboardist, singer, and occasional guitarist Jonathan Cain and veteran bassist Ross Valory held down their roles as musical backbone and elder statesmen flawlessly. The band’s secret weapon is drummer Deen Castronovo, who’s played with everyone from Ozzy Osbourne to Steve Vai. Castronovo brings a heavy-metal thunder to Journey’s pop-rock sound, lending their concert sound more punch and depth than I remembered.
I liked that Journey surrounded the expected hits — “Lights,” “Wheel in the Sky,” “Faithfully,” “Open Arms” — with some of their lesser-known songs from the band’s classic period, specifically “Stone in Love,” “Only the Young,” and “La Do Da.” I was okay with them salting in a couple of numbers from their new album (“City of Hope,” the first single from Eclipse, is a pretty decent song that compares favorably with the band’s vintage material), because you’ve always gotta be promoting. I longed for a few old favorites — “Anytime,” “Just the Same Way,” “Line of Fire,” and “Who’s Crying Now?” in particular — but by the time Journey plowed into its roof-raising two-song encore (“Any Way You Want It” and the inevitable “Don’t Stop Believin'”), I’d forgotten that I’d missed anything.
Journey scores a whopping four and one-half tailfeathers out of five for kicking it old school, but with Arnel Pineda’s fresh energy. (Uncle Swan docks Neal Schon half a tailfeather for that whole Michaele Salahi business. Y’know, just for the tacky factor.) The Pirate Queen proclaimed the entire show the best concert she’s seen in years, outside of Madonna. It’s tough to argue with Madonna.
Not all of the music from three decades ago holds up today — listen to any Kim Carnes lately? — but the arena rock of Night Ranger, Foreigner, and Journey still brings joy to my middle-aged ears. We had a great time reliving the glory days with this trio of iconic ensembles. It was well worth the interminable hike to and from the Sleep Train Pavilion parking lot, and a night of short sleep.
You can, in fact, still rock in America. Even if your lead singer is from the Philippines.