Review and Photos by Howard Whitman
It happens every summer. Besides extreme heat, one thing you can count on is a barrage of classic rock package tours feature a mix-and-match combination of a pool of bands. You know the groups: Styx, REO Speedwagon, Def Leppard, Steve Miller, Chicago, Doobie Brothers, etc. etc. etc.
One such package hit the Giant Center arena in Hershey, Pa., on Saturday, July 15. Classic rock radio staple Foreigner was the headlining band, but the presence of Cheap Trick and Jason Bonham’s Led Experience on the bill elevated this show to a sublime converge of idiosyncratic rock and roll styles.
Jason Bonham, son of late Led Zeppelin drummer John “Bonzo” Bonham, opened the night with a too-short but amazingly powerful set of his father’s band’s classic tunes. The younger Bonham played drums with Zeppelin when the band reunited for one show in 2007, and presumably if the band ever did come together again, he’d be back at the drum stool. That miraculous notion doesn’t seem likely to happen any time soon, and as Robert Plant works in a folk/American mode these days while Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones have been relatively quiet, Bonham’s touring band is about as authentic a Zeppelin performance as we’re likely to see these days.
Lead singer James Dylan, who Bonham announced he discovered on YouTube, may not be a “Golden God” in appearance with his shaved head, but he has an incredible vocal likeness to Mr. Plant. Close your eyes and it’s like hearing the real thing singing in his prime. And while Plant, even at his peak (as documented in the live album and film “The Song Remains the Same”) didn’t always hit the high notes in such demanding pieces as “Black Dog,” Dylan hit every one, letter-perfect.
Guitarist Tony Catania has been with Bonham since the formation of The Jason Bonham Band 20 years ago, and he, too, was very adept at recreating the sound of his predecessor, in this case the great Jimmy Page. As with the best tribute band players, Catania evoked the original parts with great fidelity while adding his own personal touches here and there.
Bassist Michael Devin brought great energy to the band on bass, resurrecting Jones’s memorable bass lines while adding his own inventive fills. And at the center of it all was Bonham, who plays with his father’s muscle and intensity, but often took the drum parts further, with athletic drum fills and immense power. Bonham also took the mic between songs to introduce the next song and offer personal stories about his father and what Zeppelin music meant to him.
Bonham’s band steamrolled through Zeppelin favorites such as “Immigrant Song,” “Ramble On,” “When the Levee Breaks” (on which he played along with his father’s original drum track), and a cut-for-time “Whole Lotta Love.” Of course, as there are so many great Zeppelin songs to choose from, this band left the packed arena wanting more. Much more.
It was a cracking good opening set for the show, and when the set ended with an encore of “Rock and Roll” after less than an hour’s time, I wasn’t the only audience member who wanted more.
Cheap Trick were up next, and of all of the bands in this concert, they were the one I’ve seen the most (eight times at last count). Cheap Trick has been on a creative roll lately, having released a solid new studio album, “We’re All Alright,” this summer on the heels of 2016 CD “Bang Zoom Crazy… Hello.” And while the sets from Foreigner and Jason Bonham consisted of non-stop hits, Cheap Trick’s hour-long set mixed familiar songs with deeper tracks and even an unexpected cover.
Cheap Trick hit its customary checkerboard stage with standard opener “Hello There,” which led right into “Live at Budokan” staple “Come On Come On.” But then the band started diving deep, beginning with “He’s a Whore,” a frenetic rocker from its raw, self-titled 1977 debut album. From there, we got “The House is Rockin’ (with Domestic Problems)” (from “Dream Police”) and two songs from the new album, “Long Time Coming” and “You Got It Going On.” After another deep cut from the debut “The Ballad of TV Violence,” bassist Tom Petersson (who was hard to see under the cowboy hat on his head and bandana around his neck) did a brief solo on his custom 12-string bass (which makes a massive sound, like perpetual power chords) and then sang the band’s only cover that night, Lou Reed’s “Waiting for the Man.”
Lead singer Robin Zander resumed his duties from that point forward, and damn, the man still sounds amazing after all of these years, still performing the songs he originated in their original keys. How many long-running bands can boast that? Singers can wane over time due to the fragile nature of their instruments, but not Zander. When Cheap Trick played its hits such as “The Flame,” “Surrender,” and, of course, “I Want You to Want Me,” Zander soared. He’s still got it.
So does lead guitarist Rick Nielsen, who may move a little slower these days than he did in the band’s late 1970s heyday, but still brings plenty of fun characterization and visual interest to the band’s performances. Switching to different guitars on what seemed like every song, Nielsen’s playing was as sloppy-good as ever. He’s never been the most precise, finessed guitarist, but his chords and solos, on top of Petersson’s solid foundation, create the wall of sound that can only be called Cheap Trick.
Nielsen’s son Daxx was spot-on as the band’s drummer, a role he has filled since Cheap Trick relieved original percussionist Bun E. Carlos from his touring duties in 2010. Daxx Nielsen does an admirable job of emulating Carlos’s drum parts and is a very talented, skilled player, but I do miss seeing Carlos up there. He was the perfect fourth character for this band. Still, for a group that’s been going for 40-plus years, having 75% of the original membership still intact is a pretty amazing feat.
Another band that’s been going for four decades is the headliner for this tour, Foreigner. Of the original lineup, only one member remains. But that original member is guitarist Mick Jones, who conceived and formed the band and was its principal songwriter and producer. The last time I saw Foreigner, in 2014, Jones was recovering from serious illness and wasn’t onstage for the entire set. This time he was, and it was great to see him looking healthy and playing spot-on guitar and keyboards with the group he created.
And while the rest of the band aren’t original Foreigner members, they’ve all been there for a long time at this point. Lead singer Kelly Hansen joined when Jones resurrected the band in 2005 and has been there ever since. The other current members, Jeff Pilson (bass), Bruce Watson (guitar), Michael Bluestein (keyboards), Chris Frazier (drums) and Thom Gimbel (sax/guitar), have all been in the band for many years, some for decades. So while this is not the original Foreigner, they sure do sound like Foreigner.
And as the headlining band, which is using this tour to celebrate the 40-year anniversary of its classic, self-titled debut album, Foreigner definitely got the best production of the night, with an amazing array of lights, pyrotechnics and other special effects that delivered plenty of spectacle to the ecstatic audience.
Foreigner’s set was a run-down of its greatest hits with few surprises, but it was exactly what the audience wanted. Kicking off with a high-energy “Double Vision,” Foreigner moved from hit to hit with ease in its well-paced set. With back-to-back hits including “Head Games,” “Cold as Ice,” and “Dirty White Boy,” it was like a classic rock radio station brought to life.
Hansen is a front man who seems to possess unlimited energy. He never stopped moving, dancing and working the crowd as he hit all of the notes perfectly on demanding songs such as “Waiting for a Girl Like You” and “Feels Like the First Time.” Does he sound like original lead singer Lou Gramm? Absolutely so. The crowd didn’t seem to mind the absence of the original voice one bit. Why? Because it sounded so good and so close to the originals.
A highlight of the set, and one of the few deeper tracks, was “Starrider,” a track that Jones sang on the original album and continues to do with the band. It’s a proggy, moody epic, closer to Gary Wright or Yes than Foreigner, and the crowd ate it up.
Wrapping up its set with a knockout encore of “I Want to Know What Love Is” and “Hot Blooded,” Foreigner left the crowd fully satisfied that it had heard all of the songs it wanted to hear, and had heard them done well, with solid musicianship and profound showmanship.
There are other classic rock packages touring this summer with the usual suspects (Styx, REO, Miller, Frampton, etc.) but this trifecta of classic hard rock is hard to beat. If you like this kind of music, this is THE show to see this summer.
Go to http://www.foreigneronline.com/tour for more information.