Monday, 6 June 2011

Summer of Gigs #3 – Journey (with Styx and Foreigner) at Wembley Arena

AOR, at times the most reviled, but generally the most melodic of all rock genres, never dominated the UK charts as it did Stateside, but Saturday night at a packed Wembley Arena proved it still reached a significant audience, as we were treated to three of the premiere AOR acts of all time all in the space of a single evening. All three bands demonstrated how they rose to the top of the genre, with their classics easily standing the test of time, even if they are mostly performed by different singers these days – all of whom deserve praise of the highest order for filling some gigantic arena-sized shoes with apparent ease.

Kicking things off was a short, sharp 45 minute set from Styx, megastars of the late 70s/early 80s in the US and Canada, but whose only significant UK hit was power-ballad Babe, a song that vanished (some would say thankfully, but I wouldn’t be one of them) from their sets at the same time as it’s writer (and band founder) Dennis DeYoung vanished from the band. DeYoung’s replacement, keyboardist/vocalist Lawrence Gowan, commanded attention with his energy, leaping across the stage and even atop his keyboards at one point. As with the other ‘replacements’ he was able to make his own mark on the material whilst staying true to the sound of the original recordings. Tommy Shaw’s lead vocals weren’t quite as strong, but were still decent and the band’s vocal harmonies were sublime.
Given the time-constraints the setlist was almost perfect, the exception being the decision that JY (second guitarist James Young) have one of his songs showcased, Miss America in this case. Oh well, he is an original member...the only other slight negative affecting their set was the fact that dregs of audience were continuing to arrive right the way through it, inevitable for a 7pm start I guess, even on a Saturday. It certainly didn’t detract from the band’s performance and they were very well received - I’m certain they acquired more than a few converts. Opener The Grand Illusion, Come Sail Away and Renegade were all highlights of a far too short set, but so it goes with package shows (ahhhh, a little bit of poetry there for ya!)
Next up were Foreigner, the only band in this dream lineup that I’d seen before (three times – each in a different country, oddly enough, even though I’m not a particularly big fan) and as a result the excitement levels dropped slightly for me during their hour-long set. This was due only to familiarity – as always they played like the consummate professionals they are, and with Kelly Hansen and Jeff Pilson on board they are vocally a match for any band you’d care to name. They also stuck to their strong suit – the rockers, so only I Want to Know What Love is (which garnered a rapturous reception) and a few early technical difficulties broke the flow. Double Vision, Head Games, Urgent and Juke Box Hero were all as superb as ever – it’s just a pity they felt there was no room in the set for at least one song from their recentish studio effort, Can’t Slow Down.
Finally the headliners stormed the stage and immediately took things to another level entirely (and it’s not as if the bar hadn’t been set high as it was). Separate Ways was the perfect set opener, and having four of the first 5 songs originating from the Frontiers album (even if it took 25 years or so for Only the Young and Ask the Lonely to actually be included on the album…) was a surefire way of keeping the crowd happy.
As with Foreigner, nobody was left in any doubt as to what Journey had come to do – i.e. rock! Keyboardist Jonathan Cain seemed to be on second guitar almost as often as he was on keyboards, especially for the new material (from literally brand new and – judging from my first few listens – brilliant album Eclipse). Four songs were aired from Eclipse and while the reception to those songs didn’t match that given to the old favourites, applause was far more than polite. The selections chosen were pretty much spot on, and certainly it was new song Chain of Love that remained stuck in my head on leaving the venue at the end of the gig.
Special mention must go to Arnel Pineda, whose discovery by guitarist Neal Schon via youtube is one of the oddest (but also best) things to happen to any band in history. While he conversed with the crowd more than I’d expected, it’s clear that he is still not entirely comfortable with that aspect of the job, which is the only factor preventing him from being the consummate frontman - but he can still work a crowd and his energy and the passion and power in his voice cannot be denied. Here’s hoping he remains Journey’s singer for the rest of their career, and the fairytale is not ruined by the ugliness that Journey’s past vocalists have experienced.
By way of a breather he handed lead vocal duties over to powerhouse drummer/vocalist Deen Castronovo for Mother, Father, so we actually had TWO band members making it look like singing a la Steve Perry is easy (it isn’t – I’ve checked!).
The band toned things down for just a few ballads, which sadly included Open Arms (But again, judging by the response they had no choice but to play it), but the set was expertly constructed to feed in a new song or a ballad at just the right time, before everything built to a climax with Don’t Stop Believin’ the smash that has had so much new life given it in recnt years, and made Journey a household name again (or for the first time for those of us not from North America!). Surprisingly perhaps – and pleasingly, certainly – there weren’t great numbers of Glee fans in evidence in the crowd, sitting impatiently for 4 hours to hear the one song they knew – a scenario I had feared – in fact the median age of the audience was amongst the oldest I’ve ever seen at a gig. That’s fine, made me feel young… 
All in all then a fantastic night, with maybe one song per set that I could have lived without, not bad going at all for a show running well past the three hour mark. The only real disappointment is that for the European dates of the it’s Night Ranger rather than Styx on opening act duty, whereas we Londoner’s get a full Night Ranger gig later in the month – I may yet eat these words (unlikely though...) but I’d far rather have had 45 minutes of Night Ranger and be anticipating a full Styx gig, but you take what you can get!                 (10/10)

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