Wednesday, August 20, 2008

When Journey is Only Kind of Journey ... and Blown Away by Heart and Cheap Trick

If you closed your eyes last Thursday night at the Nikon at Jones Beach Theater and listened to the music blasting from the sound system, you could have sworn that Steve Perry and his bandmates in Journey were performing on the venue's iconic stage set in the water. But when you opened your eyes, there was no escaping the kind of odd sight: Four middle-aged rockers backing a young, tiny guy from the Philippines (seemingly wearing Perry's straight, sweat-soaked hair), performing for a sold-out crowd.

That's because the current incarnation of Journey features Arnel Pineda, a Journey cover band singer discovered on YouTube by guitarist and band founder Neil Schon. Pineda sounds disturbingly like Perry, with a high-pitched wale that punches the emotions of Journey's arena anthems and power ballads. The only real difference was Pineda's habit of overarticulating certain words. But short of getting Perry himself, I'm not sure you could have found a more precise replication of the band's hit recordings. Pineda ran around the stage with a permanent smile (much like Perry used to), clearly excited at the prospect of touring with his idols. It was good enough fun, although there was something a little empty in Pineda's vocals, as if he couldn't quite connect with the material because, after all, he's not Perry (even if he sounds so much like him).

Pineda was backed by Schon, founding bassist Ross Valory, keyboardist/guitarist Jonathan Cain (who joined for the blockbuster Escape album) and drummer Deen Castronovo, who has been with the band since 1998, long after its glory days had ended. This version of Journey did a workman-like job running through its hits, leaning towards the rockers and away from the slower songs (other than the back-to-back renditions of "Faithfully" and "Open Arms").
There is no way I would have attended this show had it not been for the two opening acts, Cheap Trick and Heart, but as I sat and watched the Pineda-led version of Journey on the stage, I couldn't help but remember that Perry wasn't even the band's original lead singer. The original incarnation of the band featured lead vocalist Gregg Rolie, best known as the singer of Santana's "Black Magic Woman." So there is a certain what-comes-around-goes-around aspect to Perry sitting on the sidelines while Pineda performs for 15,000 people every night.

Then again, the Rolie-led Journey put out three albums without much success. When Perry joined the band for its fourth record, Infinity (which featured radio hits "Lights," "Anytime," "Feeling That Way" and "Wheel in the Sky"), the Journey we all think of took hold. So it's hard to think of Journey without Perry. Maybe that's why Sunday's performance, while fun enough, didn't feel authentic, even with Pineda's dead-on impression of Perry. The same can be said of the selections from the band's new record, Revelation, which all sounded like Journey songs, but, like the rest of the show, seemed just off.

But maybe the real reason the Journey set felt inferior was because the band followed two much better outfits.

After a 90-minute rain delay (during which nearly nobody left, since the arena was packed), Cheap Trick opened the show with a 30-minute blast of energy. Demonstrating how they have survived pretty much intact for more than 30 years, vocalist Robin Zander, guitarist Rick Nielsen, drummer Bun E. Carlos and bass player Tom Peterson (who took a seven-year sabbatical from the band beginning in 1980) ran through a set of garage rock songs, most of which are staples on the radio. A recent Entertainment Weekly review of the new Jonas Brothers album commented that the teens were obviously heavily influenced by Cheap Trick. At first, that upset me, equating a teen pop outfit with the great Cheap Trick. But then it occurred to me that so many young hard rock bands have a lot to owe to the boys from Rockford, Ill.

Zander's vocals are as sharp as they've ever been, and Nielsen, never the most technically proficient guitarist, makes up for it with his showmanship, entertaining the crowd with his antics, which included the use of multiple guitars (my two favorites are his five-neck monster and the one that is a cartoon version of himself) and enough picks thrown into the crowd to last the average amateur guitarist for life. Peterson and Carlos are the rocks, providing the steady rhythms for Zander and Nielsen to go wild over.

Seeing Cheap Trick is a treat (no pun intended). It's a lot of fun watching these guys rock out after all these years.

But the highlight of the night was Heart's 45-minute set. When Ann Wilson opens her mouth and sings, you can't help but stare in wonder at one of the most powerful vocal instruments in rock music. Still strong and clear after all these years, Wilson's vocals make you stand up and take notice. But Heart would not be Heart without Ann's guitarist sister, Nancy (a.k.a Mrs. Cameron Crowe), who is the musical soul of the band. Taking the lead on most of the night's songs, Nancy played with joy, bopping around the stage looking like a soccer mom whose left the kids home for the night to have some fun partying at the local rock club (not far from the truth).

While Ann is the one with the vocal chops to pull off covering songs by the Who and Led Zeppelin in the set, Nancy is the one who really seemed to be enjoying herself, and whose contagious good cheer spread to the crowd.

Running through a set heavy with its 1970s hits (the 1980s pop era was represented solely by an acoustic version of "Alone" and Nancy's ballad "These Dreams"), Heart showcased its strong musicianship and catchy-hook-infused hard-rock songwriting. Forty-five minutes wasn't nearly long enough to enjoy the Wilson sisters.

Which is one of the reasons the Journey show fell a little flat for me. Watching Cheap Trick and Heart was worth braving the rain, experiencing two of the more influential and dynamic hard rock bands of the 1970s. Not surprisingly, following these two acts, everything about Journey felt a little contrived. Journey has always been a guilty pleasure for me. But last Thursday, there was a bit more guilt and a little less pleasure.

Set List
Thursday August 14, 2008
Nikon at Jones Beach Theater

Cheap Trick
In the Street (the theme to "That 70s Show," originally performed by Big Star)
California Man
I Want You to Want Me
The Flame
Goodnight Now
Dream Police

Magic Man
Straight On
These Dreams
Love Reign O'er Me (yes, the Who song)
Going to California (yes, the Zeppelin song)
Crazy on You

Never Walk Away
Only the Young
Stone in Love
Change for the Better
Ask the Lonely
After All These Years
Wheel in the Sky
Open Arms
Don't Stop Believing
Separate Ways
Wildest Dreams
Any Way You Want It
Be Good to Yourself