Twelve years and 90 pounds ago. That is how long it has been since I last saw Def Leppard. I am not the only person in Nashville, Tennessee who can mark the passage of time in belt loops. Nostalgia is a bitch.
Rock critics and hipsters can make all the snide remarks they wish about a Journey/Def Leppard show, but in this era of three dollars per gallon gas and the perpetual tale of woe told by the concert industry, Journey and Def Leppard sold out the 17,000 seat Starwood Amphitheatre. Validation? Maybe not, but it does say something.
The two veteran rock acts played sets of nearly equal length on a warm, humid, breezy night at Starwood (which is, by the way, the best outdoor venue I have ever seen a show at). Journey played first with Def Leppard following.
Def Leppard is a major segment of the soundtrack of my middle school and high school life and my notes reflect it. I took two full pages of notes during Journey's set. I did not need that for Def Leppard — I know these songs. I needed no notes to remember them. That and well…I got in that time machine Guster speaks of (you just knew Guster would have to figure in to this review at some point) and remembered the good parts of being young again. My teenage years were no more traumatic than anyone else's, yet they were not the highlight of my life. The constant joy throughout my life has been music. Def Leppard was, at one point, a significant part of that.
"Let's Get Rocked" is clearly not filled with profound life statements but I defy you to come up with a better phrase to open a show than, "Do you wanna get rocked?" Besides, the song is inspired by The Simpsons. I am not sure why "Make Love Like a Man" is still getting played at all, let alone second in the set but it still gets a big reaction. The Adrenalized song is a bit of a jokey number (some would say hokey). I never thought of this as a grand statement, but even in my youth it was a mission statement I could support! Hormones.
"Promises," from Euphoria, would have been a massive hit had it been written and released six years earlier. It is more or less a re-writing of "Photograph" but it is catchy nonetheless. It becomes clear after three songs these guys can still replicate those FM harmonies. As the piercing opening notes of early hit "Bringin' on the Heartbreak" ring out, I shudder as I wonder how many of the younger members of the audience heard this first as a Mariah Carey song.
Guitarist Phil Collen is still playing shows without a shirt — something I could not dare try at present. Drummer Rick Allen still plays barefoot. Joe Elliott, while certainly not fat, looks softer than he did a few years ago. He does, however, hit the high notes in "Foolin'" better than I do these days. "Hysteria," the title track to the monster album that introduced me to the band, sounds as anthemic as ever.
The band is touring to promote a new album, Yeah!, an album of covers. Two songs from that album are performed back-to-back: "No Matter What," the Badfinger classic and David Essex's "Rock On." "Rock On" opens with a not-really-a-bass-solo from Rick Savage. I have never liked this song much but Def Leppard's take is better than most — certainly better than that abortion from Michael Damien. From "Rock On" we move to "Rocket" and the beginning of a mini-suite of the band's strongest material that takes us to the end of the evening.
"Photograph" is the song where the decades seem to have most caught up with Joe & Co.'s ability to hit the high notes. The band segues directly into "Armageddon It" and then into "Animal" followed by main set closer, "Rock of Ages."
If you are recounting through the list of hits, the encore should be obvious. "Love Bites" used to bring out the cigarette lighters. Chalk one up for public health? There were far fewer swaying cigarette lighters than what I remember from years past. "Pour Some Sugar on Me" was never my favorite Def Leppard song, even when it dominated MTV and radio. It still isn't but I am likely in the minority. The crowd was completely energized by the song and it sent the band offstage with electricity still buzzing through the crowd — always leave them wanting more.
That, I suppose, is an interesting place to segue to Journey's preceding set. Over the course of the evening they played damn near every song a fan would want to hear. The sequencing of the set list seemed a little odd. "Lights," "Open Arms," and "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'" came in the middle of the set. That looks to me like the way to close the show (with "L, T, S" perhaps being replaced by a different uptempo, but still) and leave the crowd on their feet. Journey, instead, opted to close with "Be Good to Yourself" and "Separate Ways."
The show opened unexpectedly with Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain performing "The Star Spangled Banner." That led into "Any Way You Want It" and the introduction of the replacement for the replacement lead singer. I was amused to find out some people in the audience did not know that Steve Perry has not been singing with the band for years now. Journey and Perry parted ways in 1997 and his clone, Steve Augeri, joined the band. Augeri bears some physical resemblance to Perry and a frightening vocal similarity. Augeri and the band have been touring ever since. On the current tour, his voice gave out and rather than canceling the gigs they replaced Augeri with Jeff Scott Soto.
Jeff Scott Soto, a former singer for Yngwie Malmsteen.
Don't worry. It's not as bad as you think. Soto has decent chops and the band has a secret weapon: ex-Bad English drummer Deen Castronovo. Soto handled the uptempo numbers and did a respectable job. You have to hand it to the guy — he has had no success as a solo artist and he is playing with (can you believe this) the 29th best-selling act of all time and he held his own. Some singers might have been intimidated by the prospect. Soto came out and put a lot of energy into his performance and seriously, he's not bad. Like Augeri, he can sound quite Perry-esque at times.
The real revelation of Journey's set is that the most Perry-esque voice in the band belongs to drummer Castronovo. Drummers are not supposed to sing and they are surely not supposed to be able to sing well. It's in the rulebook somewhere! Only a handful of them are audacious enough to test this rule and you may count Castronovo among them. You might hear about Journey hiring a new drummer and moving Deen to the front if Augeri's voice does not mend soon.
Other than the rotation of lead vocalists, the rest of the show is pretty much what you would expect, Cain alternating between keyboards and rhythm guitar and Neal Schon's searing guitar work. Schon, a terrific guitarist who was sometimes held back by the poppier leanings of the band, flashed his skills and re-created some of the most (over)played guitar moments in FM rock radio history. The solo at the end of "Who's Crying Now?" (with Castronovo handling lead vocal) sounded perfect in tone and note.
Everyone knows "Lights" which means the entire audience sang along. Half of them thought they were singing harmony. They weren't, but that didn't stop them from trying or enjoying the experience. "Open Arms" was greeted even more enthusiastically. Unfortunately, the power ballad was an invitation for the old folks to make out. Old people sex. Eeeew. I'm still too young to not be scarred by that!
Journey was better than I expected but I have a feeling a healthy Steve Augeri would have made an even bigger difference. Def Leppard and I have aged a bit since we last saw each other but enough of those years melted during their performance to make the reunion a happy one. Journey might have been slightly better at re-creating the album sound of their songs than Def Leppard but it was Def Leppard that seemed more able to energize the crowd.
The Wife To Whom I Am Married loved Def Leppard (her first time seeing them) but found Journey to be "cheesy." Some of the music is a little on the dramatic side for my taste but this is one of those times when the age difference (six years) between the two of us becomes apparent. I was young when Journey was at their commercial peak but I remember these songs. She was anywhere between zygote and toddler stage when some of these songs were first performed. She knew more of them than she thought she would but they do not hold a particular meaning for her.
Some songs stick around long enough in the collective noggin that it no longer matters if they are any good or not. Popular and good are not mutually exclusive. Even when they do compete it is hard to say that neither has virtue. Whether or not the songs are any good matters less when they are tied to vivid memories of better days, different days, and younger days. Consider this: how many people in that audience became first-time parents because of "Open Arms?" You do the math. For better or worse, this music is more than the soundtrack to a generation. It might have spawned a generation.