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Open arms: Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen.

Photo: Julia Zave

Hello There

By Erik Hage

Journey, Heart, Cheap Trick

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 24

It seemed strange to see the legendary Cheap Trick, with all the original members intact, playing to a half-empty band shell and an outdoor crowd that was essentially still arriving and milling about. A couple songs in, as if to announce themselves to those reared on TV, they played “In the Street,” the Big Star song they had recorded as the theme for That ’70s Show. Yet there they were: Robin Zander, a little ragged but hitting the high notes; Bun E. Carlos, every music nerd’s favorite drummer; Rick Nielsen, wielding his multi-armed guitar and dressed in black suit, tie, shades and baseball cap (an outfit as recognizable as Angus Young’s schoolboy getup); and eternally youthful bassist Tom Petersson, playing what is essentially a 12-string bass that often doubles as second guitar.

Zander ditched the cowboy hat, let out his long blonde tresses, and—body stiff and face scrunched up with exertion—bravely hit all the high notes of “The Flame,” a song that seemed to align Cheap Trick with the two other acts on the bill. If you’re like me, Cheap Trick were the band you came to see, and you remember them for such power-pop classics as “I Want You to Want Me,” from one of the all-time great 1970s live LPs Live at Budokan, and “Surrender.” But for the proletariat milling about in Journey Frontiers tour T-shirts that they have somehow managed to nurture for two decades (presumably by not washing them very often), Cheap Trick were best known for a few power ballads that stuck them in the same camp as the other two bands, who also first took root in the 1970s.

Thankfully, the Trick pulled out “I Want You to Want Me” and killed it, showing that the band were at their best when wielding a hard edge. “Surrender” hit all the right spots as well, and the band closed out their short set with a mighty “Dream Police,” with Journey’s Jonathan Cain adding keyboards. (Journey’s newish drummer, Deen Castronovo, pitched in on vocals.) Cheap Trick seemed to be just gathering heat, just hitting their stride—with Bun E. Carlos sounding like a cannon battery—but that was it: the end. No encore, no nothing.

As night fell and the crowds became too thick to walk through (a security staffer told me they predicted 20,000 that night), Heart provided the true surprise and revelation. The band’s sound was cavernous and strong, and Ann Wilson turned in one of the best vocal performances I’ve ever seen at SPAC, powerfully belting and soaring. She even hit a passage of high notes and an emotional crest on “Alone” that prompted a spontaneous roar from the crowd. Like Cheap Trick, the band were best on the edgier, older rock tunes (“Barracuda,” “Magic Man”). They also pulled out the Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me,” and the dramatic, bombastic dynamics seemed perfectly suited for the kind of muscle Heart were wielding.

Journey, despite being the headliner, were, for me, the curiosity of the night. After having just witnessed two bands with crucial members still in place, it was strange to see yet another lead singer fronting Journey. And so, like some Roman gladiator version of karaoke, Arnel Pineda became the third guy to have to stand before thousands and sound just like Steve Perry.

But, wait: This is a classic story. Prior to Journey, Pineda, from the Philippines, was leading a popular cover band in that country and applying his elastic tenor to dead-on takes of Sting, Robert Plant, and, of course, Steve Perry. (Talk about Dickensian pathos: As a child, he had even been homeless on the streets of Manila after the death of his mother.) Guitarist Neal Schon, desperate to get Journey back together after “Don’t Stop Believing” closed out the life of The Sopranos, discovered Pineda on YouTube. (And when Arnel sings that particular song, you know he feels that shit.)

So how did Pineda sound? Well, great. Of the post-Perrys, he’s clearly the best. With long, black locks, and looking a lot younger than his 40 years, he ably yelped the battery of hits. Schon and the other members even seemed to lay pretty hard into things, as if Pineda had revived something in them. There was only a small crescent of doubt in my mind: that somehow he lacked Perry’s emotional colors and soul; that at times, it was more like a really good imitation. (He did have more masculine physicality than Perry, prowling the stage and leaping about.) But at the end of the day I really don’t have a stake in the whole conversation; so, well done, Journey.

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