The fourth and last in our week of concerts was, in some ways, the most important of all. Although one or the other of us has some level of affection, even if in a cheesy way, for everything we saw last week, two of them were more “serious” than the other two: Cheap Trick (me), and, for Rhea, this finale. Even on that level, there was one difference: Cheap Trick has never disappointed me on a stage; they are unquestionably one of rock ‘n’ roll’s great live attractions. Rhea’s pick, on the other hand, was a bit more of an unknown quantity.
Apparently, Mr. Big hasn’t toured in America in about fifteen years. This is not something I would have known outside of being the one to be with Rhea, seeing as how I’d completely forgotten about the band shortly after their irritating hit single “To Be with You” had disappeared from the airwaves in the wake of Nirvana. Rhea and I have somewhat different tastes in cheese: mine is centered more on the AOR acts of the late ‘70s through the mid ‘80s, whereas Rhea’s all about the hair metal that followed in the next era. Most hair metal does nothing for me. I’m not saying that to be cool in any way – hell, I just admitted to liking Foreigner three entries back, for Christ’s sake – but more as a matter of fact. For me, as the hair went up, the need to write decent, memorable songs went down proportionately. Hell, I’d probably rather look at Sebastian Bach than Lou Gramm myself, if I were in Hell and forced to have to make that choice, but I also know that I’d rather hear Gramm sing his far more memorable catalog. I’ll also take this moment to point out that I’d sell both of ‘em out in a heartbeat in order to save the Mekons, lest you all think I somehow lost my mind sometime during Hurricane Irene.
Anyway, back to Mr. Big. Rhea insisted that they weren’t just another hair metal band, that their music was of more importance to her than that. It had more substance, in her opinion. That, in turn, means something to me: while I was hardly impressed with the one song of theirs I knew, I take the opinion of the woman I’m going to marry very seriously…except when she’s talking about Poison. Rhea was all excited when the show was announced; she had never seen the band during their heyday. That excitement turned to a bit of disappointment when none of her “rock ‘n’ roll friends” – the kind of folks who would go to see Sebastian Bach – showed much interest in this one. Naturally, I did what any kind of lover should do: “Darling, I’ll go with you.”
I don’t know what I expected of the band, quite frankly. I only cared that they be as good as Rhea had her heart set on them being. The build-up was staggering: we arrived at BB King’s not too long after the doors had opened, and there was already quite the crowd inside. “Who knew?” I muttered to myself. And what a crowd it was, split evenly three ways between Japanese tourists (Mr. Big is apparently still an arena-level attraction over there), middle-aged wanna-be guitarists, and dirtball hair-farmers seemingly unaware that 1989 has long since come and gone. There was a palpable, disturbing racist undercurrent to all of this: get your slanty eyes outta my Camaro, I typed into the notepad on my cell phone, and that about sums up the vibe given off by a lot of these washed-up (albeit certainly not recently washed) American rocker-types.
All of this crowd-watching was then rudely interrupted by what had to be the single most clichéd opening band I’ve ever seen. I’m not even sure they had a name; they may just have been called Opening Band, and if they were not, they should have been. Plenty of tattoos, probably really meant it, man, but ultimately the same hook-less punk-metal yammering that opens 80% of gigs in Manhattan. Call me an old man if you must, but I’m just fine with the fact that I go out of my way to miss more and more of this stuff as I age.
Shortly after that, the headliners hit the stage. Rhea was enchanted from minute one: after about the third song, she turned to me and said “You know, I could go home now if I had to and be satisfied.” I could tell just by watching her that this band was doing what it needed to for her, and that made them okay in my book. At the beginning of the show, I was hardly sold: I thought the singer had a good voice, but that the endless noodling simply wasn’t for me. Don’t get me wrong: what these guys can do with their instruments is impressive, and nothing that I’ll ever have the talent for, but I’m neither a Guitar Player subscriber nor a Dream Theater fan for a reason. By the twentieth or so bass solo, I was fairly bored with it. By about halfway in, I started to soften a bit: “you know”, I thought to myself, “you rarely see this sort of chops-or-die playing applied to what is essentially pop-hard-rock.” I’m still not sure that I think it’s a great idea, mind you, but it is fairly unique to this band. When they hit on a bit of songwriting that clicked, which I felt happened about every third song or so, it made for a sound that really was something different. Maybe not “for me”, as it were, but I saw Rhea’s point: this was hardly some third-rate Poison wanna-be.
Ultimately, none of the preceding criticism matters one whit. Rhea –a fan going in – thought the band delivered and then some, and that’s the real test. This band, fifteen years after the fact, kept an old fan absolutely dazzled over the course of a two hour performance. Really, what more is there to be said about their quality? One thing I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is that you can only judge something against what it is meant to be. You can no more look down on a band like Mr. Big for not being as “cool” as, say, Radiohead than you can blame, say, Bon Jovi for not sounding more like Motörhead. You can prefer one style to the other in either of those analogies; difference of opinion is what makes the world go around, but you can’t blame an otter for not being a dog. Mr. Big’s job is to deliver their instrumentally self-indulgent catalog with precision and aplomb; according to the big fan I watched them with, they did just that. Credit where due.
On a more personal note, I walked out of BB King’s a very happy man: an old hair-metal band had done right by my baby. How many men ever really get to say that? Seriously, though, what better way to end our week of questionable listening than having learned that the answer to the biggest question of it all was resoundingly positive?