An evening of non-stop hits was the obvious promise of a concert bill featuring classic-rock radio staples Foreigner and Styx. And, with ex-Eagles guitarist Don Felder providing an opening set mostly comprised of his former band’s classic tracks, that’s exactly what was delivered on July 3 when the “Soundtrack of Summer” tour hit the Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden, N.J.
As the concert was sponsored by Philadelphia classic rock radio station WMGK, it also was billed as the station’s 2014 edition of its annual “Let Freedom Rock” event, which always hits on or around July 4 to celebrate our nation’s birthday.
But whatever you call it, this was one helluva show. Packed nonstop with beloved hits played by (mostly) the original artists, this was a classic rock fan’s dream show. And the packed house that turned up at the Susquehanna Center on July 3 loved every hit-packed minute.
The show was actually kicked off by Musician Impossible, a Philly cover band that was the 2013 winner of WMGK’s House Band contest. They were the right band to open this show, not only due to their local hero status, but also because their set list included ambitious renditions of classic rockers such as Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” and an especially impressive recreation of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” that probably won the contest for them.
At 7 p.m. sharp, just as the ticket said, Don Felder hit the stage for a set packed with hits from his former band—which he jokingly referred to as “The Seagulls.” Felder hit the ground running with a spirited take on “Already Gone” (recorded before he was a full member of the band, although Felder did play on the original 1974 record), moving on to “One Of These Nights,” “Those Shoes” and “Witchy Woman” (a track that he didn’t originally play on, but certainly performed countless times onstage with the band).
Felder did one song from his current (and very good) solo CD Road to Forever, “You Don’t Have Me,” which held up well in a set of immortal radio classics—and he did another solo track, this one better known: his stoner anthem “Heavy Metal (Takin’ a Ride)” from the sci-fi cartoon for adults Heavy Metal (also memorably used on the South Park episode “Major Boobage.”)
The songs do sound different with Felder—who only sang lead on one Eagles track, “Visions” on One of These Nights—handling all the lead vocals, but as I said when I reviewed his Aug. show at Havana in New Hope, Pa., he’s a capable and likeable singer. He may not be as polished as former bandmates Don Henley and Glenn Frey at the mic, but he has heart and soul, and a smooth, likeable voice that covers the familiar songs well. You’ll recognize them when Felder sings them, but I appreciated hearing something slightly different applied to these classics.
Kudos also should be given to Felder’s stellar band. With one exception, it was the same lineup that backed him up when I caught his show in September—keyboardist Tim Drury (who backed up the Eagles in years past), bassist Shem von Schroeck (Kenny Loggins), drummer Scott Devours (Roger Daltrey, The Who!)—with guitarist Greg Suran (Goo Goo Dolls) the only change from the 2013 lineup.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: These guys are amazing. Not only do they recreate Eagles’ pristine instrumentation with great precision and feeling, but the group vocals are astoundingly good. Every harmony part you ever heard on an Eagles record is there in full fidelity. von Schroeck, in particular, is a great asset to the band with his high harmonies, put to best use in the lesser-known, harmony-driven Eagles deep track “Seven Bridges Road,” the acapella intro of which just soared.
As a guitarist, Felder is unapproachable in terms of Eagles material. He was the main component of the band’s guitar sound throughout his tenure with the group, and onstage he not only re-created the parts, hitting every note—he also replicated his sound on the early records. No one on the planet can play those licks better than “Fingers” Felder, and judging by the audience response, his work was greatly appreciated.
Felder’s set hit a peak with a hard-hitting version of “Life In The Fast Lane,” but the energy shot through the roof when Styx guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw joined Felder onstage for his set closer, “Hotel California.” Shaw and Felder (along with Foreigner vocalist Kelly Hansen) recently collaborated on a new version of this classic dark anthem (co-written by Felder) for a charity CD tied to this tour, and it was cool to hear Shaw sing some verses and play a guitar lead in the closing section. They brought the house down, but the best was yet to come.
I’ve seen Styx many times before—first in 1990, and then twice in 2003—and each time, I found the band to be a surprisingly mighty live entity. These days, Styx continues to tour heavily on the strength of their hits-filled back catalog.
Of course, the big pink elephant in the room with Styx—in a similar situation to that of Journey and Yes in recent years—is the replacement of founding singer/keyboardist Dennis DeYoung by Lawrence Gowan.
Gowan is hardly the “new guy” in Styx. He’s been in the band since 1999, when DeYoung was unable to tour for health reasons. Since becoming a permanent member, Gowan has been a big part of Styx’s resurgence as a powerhouse live band. DeYoung’s tendencies towards theatricality (how can we forget Kilroy Was Here and “Mr. Roboto”?) and schmaltzy ballads (“Babe,” “The Best Of Times” and other perpetual prom themes) were dropped in favor of a more guitar-driven rock emphasis anchored by Tommy Shaw and the only founding member still in the band, James “JY” Young.
Since Styx hasn’t put out a studio album of new material since the excellent, underrated Cyclorama in 2003, the band delivers nothing but classic hits in their sets these days, and that suited this show perfectly. Classics were what the crowd was expecting, and that’s exactly what Styx delivered—with a few surprising, appreciated diversions into deeper tracks.
Styx opened big, welcoming the audience to “The Grand Illusion.” Gowan did a great job with the lead vocal. He’s not a vocal ringer for DeYoung and never tried to be, but his range is similar, he nails the phrasing, and certainly is a compelling performer. On keyboards, the man is a monster. Using only one keyboard (that’s perched on a pedestal that spins, making for some truly compelling showmanship by Gowan), he hits all of the parts.
From that exciting opener, the band—consisting of Shaw, Young, Gowan, drummer Todd Sucherman and bassist Ricky Phillips—moved on to energetic, spot-on takes on the classic “Too Much Time On My Hands,” “Fooling Yourself (Angry Young Man)” and “Lady.” But then the set took a left turn into a mini-set of relatively obscure Styx songs, beginning with the proggy epic “Suite Madame Blue” from the 1975 album Equinox. That album’s opener, “Light Up” (an anthem to guess what?) followed, and I was especially glad to hear this one live. It’s a great slice of early Styx with high harmonies and lots of spirit, and they nailed it. “Superstars” from The Grand Illusion (1977) came next, and again, it was nice to hear a less-familiar but equally worthy song in this set.
Then it was back to the hits, and Styx pummeled the audience with back-to-back classics: “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights)” (on which Felder returned the favor and joined the band onstage for some exciting guitar interplay) and perhaps the ultimate Styx song, “Come Sail Away.”
Gowan has traditionally done a solo piano intro to “Come Sail …”—frequently touching upon other songs, including surprise covers—and this night was no exception. He used this time to address the fire that had broken out the previous night on the band’s tour bus (the band wasn’t in at the time, fortunately), citing popular jokes going around the Internet such as the one about “rubbing two Styx together.” This turned into a spontaneous take on The Doors’ “Light My Fire” that built up to the big number, which certainly was the best singalong of the night (everyone in the place raised their voices to chime in on the line “To carry on!”)
That showstopper ended the Styx set proper, but when the band came back on for an encore, they delivered a one-two punch of “Rockin’ The Paradise” and what may be the ultimate Styx hard rocker, “Renegade.”
A few random comments about Styx:
• Far and away, they had the most impressive staging of the night. Amazing lighting, a cool set design with multiple levels for a changing visual dynamic, pyro, excellent video footage synced up with the songs—visually, Styx had it goin’ on.
• Styx drummer Todd Sucherman is amazing. Seriously, we’re talking Neal Peart-level here. He’s elevated the drum role in Styx to a whole other level.
• Shaw and Young, the backbone of the band since its 1970s heyday, are a rock-solid guitar team.
• Gowan is quite a showman—not only a consummate musician, but the way he spins the keyboard around, jumps off it, moves around the stage … all of the members of Styx are fun to watch, but he may be the most fun.
• Even if you think Styx’s music is cheezy, check them out live. They’re a lot more powerful and hard-rocking than they get credit for.
Styx was certainly the band no one should have followed at this show—in fact, I wondered why they weren’t top-billed—but Foreigner had the unenviable task of following them.
Styx and Foreigner have shared bills many times over the years, and that makes total sense; both bands are firmly in the melodic rock genre, have had a ton of hits, and get constant play on classic rock radio stations around the country.
When Foreigner took the stage, I was surprised to see founding member Mick Jones wasn’t there. I’d heard Jones had health problems that took him off some of the band’s recent tours, but that he had recently rejoined the band’s tour.
But as the current lineup of Foreigner kicked in with “Head Games” with Jones’ touring replacement guitarist Bruce Watson and no Mick Jones, I was taken aback. I’m cool with bands that don’t have every original member anymore (few do), but if there’s not even one original member up there, it’s questionable at the least to use the band name, don’tcha think?
Fronted by lead singer Kelly Hansen (who replaced founding vocalist Lou Gramm in 2005), Foreigner bounded through solid versions of “Cold As Ice” and the ballad “Waiting For A Girl Like You.” Then Hansen introduced the heart and soul of Foreigner, Mick Jones. “OK,” I thought, “Now this feels like a Foreigner concert.” The band cranked out an energetic “Feels Like The First Time.” Next, “Urgent” with longtime utility player Thom Gimbel expertly re-creating the original’s sax solo.
The next song was a clear highlight of the set, and probably my favorite Foreigner song ever: “Starrider,” the space-rock saga sung by Jones. This live presentation featured lasers and an extended Jones guitar solo in which he coaxed some soaring lines out of his Les Paul.
Next came an extended build-up to the anthemic “Juke Box Hero“—a clear crowd favorite, and the set closer.
For the encore, Foreigner offered a special treat: “I Want To Know What Love Is.” As the band normally does, it selected a local choir to give the performance a gospel-y feel. Through a radio station contest, The Cherokee High School Concert Choir from Marlton, N.J. was selected to do the honors, and they did a masterful job with this very soulful and heartfelt rendition.
The final song of Foreigner’s set, and the entire show: “Hot Blooded.” A great ending to an amazing night of music.
Some thoughts on Foreigner:
• Kelly Hansen does a great job singing the band’s songs. He sounds exactly—exactly—like his predecessor, Lou Gramm. And he’s an energetic, strutting rock frontman. But I couldn’t help noticing as I was close to the stage taking photos that he looks just like Steven Tyler of Aerosmith. I’m not the first to cite this. He even moves like Tyler. But he sounded great.
• Bassist Jeff Pilson (formerly of Dokken) did a fine job with the bass lines and harmonies, but his onstage posturing felt a little over-the-top at times.* I sure wish they did “Dirty White Boy.”
• Some folks may feel that Foreigner isn’t Foreigner without Gramm (just like Journey without Steve Perry, Yes without Jon Anderson, etc.) and I get that, but for me the main criterion is: Does it sound good? With Hansen at the mic, and it sounded good. It sounded like Foreigner. And the crowd ate it up.
• Again, I think Foreigner had an excellent set, but they faced a tough task following Styx, who brought the house down.
So, that’s my take on the night. Great show, three great acts (with a cool local opener), tons of familiar hits—it’s hard to be dissatisfied with this concert. If you can catch a concert on this tour, you’ll know virtually every song, will enjoy the ones you don’t, and have a true classic rock blast.
The Soundtrack of Summer Tour starring Styx, Foreigner and Don Felder continues to make its way through the U.S. I recommend checking it out. Click here for further info.