Foreigner at 40: Still Feels like the First Time

by Greg Lemen on August 28, 2017 in Entertainment, Music, Living Texas, Austin,
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What kind of birthday party starts with “Rock and Roll” involves the “Dream Police” and ends feeling “Hot Blooded?” Check it and see, that would be the blistering event that unfolded at the Austin360 Amphitheater in the Central Texas heat on August 20th, 2017. Foreigner’s 40th Anniversary tour, with Cheap Trick and Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience, was a showcase for the new Foreigner 40 album (40 hits from 40 years: 1977 to 2017), a reunion of musician friends and a celebration of songs that encapsulated Led Zeppelin I to Foreigner 4.

Jason Bonham, breaking levees and drum sticks. Photo by Greg Lemen.

With the thermometer popping before the show like a fever of a hundred and three, Jason Bonham, son of the late Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, started the musical chairs meltdown. Having spent 3 years as Foreigner’s drummer, Bonham kicked off the first act this night rising above his drum kit adorned with the symbol of the three interlocking rings often used by his father and stated, “Thanks to the old man for teaching me the drums.” Opening with “Rock and Roll” Bonham, a sizeable fellow, powered his mates who performed early classic hits from his father’s band’s repertoire dating back to 1969 through 1975, including “When the Levee Breaks,” “Black Dog,” “Immigrant Song,” and “The Wanton Song.”

Always a test of vocal range and fortitude, attempting to sing Led Zeppelin songs can end in tragic disgrace – ask any karaoke kook – unless of course you are front man James Dylan who belted out all nine tracks without a crooner’s crack. Discovered almost ten years ago on YouTube when Led Zeppelin considered a reunion tour and needed a Robert Plant substitute, Dylan did not disappoint. Wearing sunglasses with a black shirt and a shaved head, matching Bonham, the two looked more like the uninvited kids who would give you a bloody nose and a fat lip outside the party, although they totally offered a “Whole Lotta Love” with deep respect and admiration for the original.

Rounding out the band, guitarist Tony Catania handled Jimmy Page licks with a cherry sunburst Gibson Les Paul pumping through Marshall amps as Page has been known to do. He milked the amp up close for feedback and to assist with the hypnotic howls in “Ramble On” inviting the pitter-patter of Bonham’s drum rhythm to join forces “for such a pleasant stay.” Bassist Michael Devin thumped the vacillating rhythm that joins in after the long acoustic intro in “Over the Hills and Far Away” and set the stage for Dylan to howl, “You really ought to know-ow-ow-ow-ow!” This group breathed new life into the music of Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and John Bonham and conjured the same memories “How years ago in days of old, when magic filled the air.”

The magnetism of Robin Zander and Cheap Trick. Photo by Greg Lemen.

Rock & Roll Hall of Famers Cheap Trick, with the stage designed in their typical black and white checkers, showed up ready to play the game and entertain. Having played over 5,000 shows over the last 40 years, selling 20 million records worldwide in the process, the original three members plus newish drummer Daxx Nielsen – son of lead guitarist Rick – greeted us with their sub-two minute solicitation, “Hello There Ladies and Gentlemen” with that punchy, rhetorical question, “Are you ready to rock?” The fans responded by jumping to their feet and going nuts for the guitar picks Rick Nielsen flicked towards their faces as party favors. Gleefully agreeing to that song’s other query, “Would you like to do a number with me,” the crowd was wrapped like a gift in seconds.

As fast as they pounced on stage and ran through classic hits such as, “Ain’t That a Shame” (a Fats Domino cover), the sexy “I Want You to Want Me,” the romantic, heart-breaking admission “The Flame,” and the iconic “Dream Police,” Rick Nielsen, the flamboyant, underrated guitar-magician, quickly pulled his stock of rare guitars out of thin air: the famous back-breaker with 5 necks, a checkered Flying V, a Les Paul with an Explorer headstock, and a mustard-yellow, box-shaped “Rockford” Hamer adorned with what looked like South Park cartoons of the band members at play (which matches the album cover of 2006’s “Rockford” album). Other guitars came and went as fast as the vinyl album sliced through the air that Rick chucked into the front rows from his bag of never-ending, not-so-cheap tricks.

The charisma(and guitars) of Rick Nielsen. Photo by Greg Lemen.

Nielsen and bassist Tom Petersson formed the band in 1973 in Rockford, Illinois. Robin Zander joined early on and the trio is keeping Cheap Trick original, although touring without former drummer Bun. E. Carlos who retired from the kit but remains a business partner. Petersson has been quoted as saying that when he and the rest of the founding members of Cheap Trick were just starting out in the 1970s, “We never expected a thing. Honestly, it was one day at a time. There was no master plan – not even close. All we have ever done is try to make records as great as we possibly could.”

All of the teenagers who screamed along in 1978 to the live album “Cheap Trick At Budokan” and that oft-repeated, world-famous introduction, “This next one, is the first song, on our new album,” went wild almost four decades later when a roadie cloaked Robin Zander in a sparkly Elvis-like cape and white Captain’s hat and thunderous applause ensued for the smash-hit, “Surrender,” Cheap Trick’s first single to chart in the United States. Adults now, those same screaming kids who sang, “And when I woke up, Mom and Dad are rolling on the couch, rolling in numbers, rock and rollin’ got my KISS records out,” might have some explaining to do when their kids wonder aloud to the same song if “Mommy’s alright, Daddy’s alright, they just seem a little weird.”

Foreigner employed crew members to cover the stage with a large black curtain to hide their setup until it was the perfect time to drop it and reveal that the furniture, so to speak, had been pulled back to open up the dance floor for rock star romping and booty-shaking. The secrecy enhanced the surprise and made the party wonder who exactly was jumping out of the over-sized cake? The answer was obviously Kelly Hansen, the lead singer as of twelve years ago, who acted like that sugared-up kid who ate all of the icing and wouldn’t come out of the inflated bouncy-bounce castle. With near-identical pitch to the original lead singer Lou Gramm and the energy to match the stage’s pyrotechnics that shot out of the floor, Hansen gyrated with his mic stand, slapped his ass to “Dirty White Boy,” raced into the audience, elevated on a 30-foot platform, descended and then lunged back on stage before any of the candles blew out.

Foreigner, at 40 years, has a discography created from decades of life lessons and feelings of heartache. Those agonizing, rocking rants and love ballads continue to resonate with all generations of music fans since they involve the universal theme of love. Employing seven band members to cover their greatest hits such as the confessional opener “Double Vision,” the lover’s lament “Head Games,” and the critical, scorned exe’s rebuke “Cold as Ice,” Foreigner used dual keyboards, saxophones, three guitar attacks and even flirty remarks to suck the crowd in with flattery and humor. As Hansen stated, “We have played in Africa, Asia and everywhere else, but Texas has the most beautiful women in the world, who are surrounded by some sketchy dudes!”

While the Shriners auctioned off a signed guitar and sold copies of the new Foreigner 40 CD to raise money for charity, and the local Bowie High School choir joined in for the sappy “I Want to Know What Love Is,” Hansen told the Texans to “hug someone” and “spread the love like barbecue sauce.” He even employed the people to help produce the show. Giving the fans three choices of the next song to play, the spectators screamed the loudest for “Blue Morning, Blue Day,” another moody, rhyming rebuke, with great guitar hooks written by Lou Gramm and Mick Jones, that once again accepts little blame from the rocker’s point of view and squarely accuses a lover for “What went down last night” since the accused is scolded, “Can’t you see, what your love has done to me?”

The dirty white boy, Kelly Hansen with Mick Jones, Foreigner’s founder. Photo by Greg Lemen.

English musician Mick Jones, 72 years young and the only remaining original member on stage that night, played guitar leads and keyboards throughout the entire show and has led Foreigner since its inception. He is still humbled by their success and is grateful for the fans returning the love to the stage for all of the lyrics that have been squeezed out of every breakup and testament to love, such as the soft-rock, synthesized ballad, “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” with its eerie, poppy keyboards and words which were co-written with Lou Gramm in 1981. “Juke Box Hero,” the hardest rocking song of the show, which has been certified platinum for over a million digital downloads, provided the street cred which attracted heavier rock bands, such as Van Halen back in the 80s, to respect Jones’ professional opinion and employ his producer abilities, regardless of Foreigner’s softer genre. Humbled by the audience’s reaction this night, Mick shared his musical, visionary skills again when he explained that meeting Kelly Hansen twelve years ago was, “A way toward the future that brings the songs alive again.”

Hansen returned the compliment by stating that, “Forty years is a long time but not as old as some of you m’fers out there tonight! Dig down to find that 20-year old that was once inside you, that is not on your cell phone right now, and was out with someone your parents didn’t approve of back then, as rock and roll is in your soul, and still is today!” This 40th anniversary show celebrated those recollections and the success that all bands in the industry strive to obtain: recreating musical memories night after night, for followers of all ages, and doing so with a passion, attention and energy so that the experience feels like the very first time.