Monday, August 29, 2011

My Week of Questionable Listening Part 1: Journey, Foreigner and the Nature of Tributes

The following begins the saga of my stay-at-home vacation week with Rhea, during which much was heard and seen.

Every area has its cool little things that only the locals know about.  Although neither Rhea nor I have ever lived on Long Island, we’ve made enough friends out there that, several years back, we got tipped off to what we’ve since referred to as the Jones Beach Thing: the ability to drag a couple of lawn chairs out to the grounds of the famous summer concert amphitheater and listen for free.  It’s a great way to spend a hot summer evening: pack a cooler with drinks and snacks, grab the lawn chairs, and set up shop.  Most of the time, the sound is no worse than it would be inside the venue, and there’s even one area where you can see the large video monitor that flanks the right side of the stage.  Especially as ticket prices continue their stratospheric rise, the Jones Beach Thing is a great way to spend a cheap summer night out – and to hear the sort of stuff you’d never actually consider paying your hard-earned for.

Like Foreigner and Journey.  Both of these former arena titans have an adequate-enough back catalog of guilty pleasures that making a killing at the summer sheds should be a foregone conclusion for either.  There’s just one small fly in the ointment: neither band currently features the distinctive singer that actually made those guilty pleasures in the first place.  Snobs and aficionados can debate what constitutes a tribute band vs. the real thing until the cows come home; what I learned last week is that so long as you can make it sound the way it should, Joe Ticketbuyer doesn’t much care, and maybe that’s as it should be.

Our mouths dropped simultaneously as we were shoed away from the main parking lot and into adjunct parking: Journey, with a small Filipino man playing the role of Steve Perry, had sold out Jones Beach.  Even the lawn-chair area was more populated than usual as we settled into our spots.  I’ve got to admit, FiliPerry (as my friend Jason can be credited with dubbing him when we first saw him a few years back) gets the job done and then some; regardless of your opinion of him, Steve Perry isn’t the easiest singer in the world to accurately impersonate.  According to Wikipedia, the real Steve Perry is currently sixty-two years old, and according to rumors he is very out of practice.  Arnel Pineda, on the other hand, hit the BIG NOTE in “Don’t Stop Believin’” like it wasn’t no thang.  I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to decide what might constitute better value-for-money in this sort of situation; the thousands who flocked to Jones Beach the other night made their decision crystal clear, singing along with aplomb and even staying relatively polite and attentive during the dreaded new songs.  Exposure on The Sopranos or Glee alone isn’t enough to pack out a place like Jones Beach; authenticity is also a part of that equation.

Before Journey, we caught the last few songs worth of Foreigner.  In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit to being more of a fan of that band than Journey, at least as far as the records they made in their respective heydays are concerned.  Journey made a string of memorable hit singles, but what lives between them on their non-compilation albums is often fairly gruesome.  Foreigner, on the other hand, left behind a string of four perfect, stupid arena rock albums back in the day.  Look, either you’ve got a soft spot for all of this Velveeta or you don’t – but if you do, for my money Foreigner’s variety of it tastes the freshest.  On the other hand, Foreigner in their current configuration present a bit more of a conundrum where authenticity is concerned: where Journey can at least boast three out of five classic-era members, Foreigner has but one.  Admittedly, Mick Jones did have more than just a hand in writing much of the group’s classic material, but he didn’t sing it.  A gentleman named Lou Gramm did; sadly, a brain tumor left the former front man in a deteriorated state both physically and vocally, but also damned lucky to be alive.  For my money, Gramm in his prime had the single best voice in all of AOR: capable of hitting the soaring notes just like Steve Perry or anyone else, but also possessed of a bit more rock-n’-roll grit than his contemporaries.  His current understudy isn’t quite the doppelganger that Pineda is for Perry; his voice is a bit lower than Gramm’s, and he’s a bit more his own man in terms of how he sings the material.  Artistically, this is laudable, but it clearly wasn’t selling to the crowd the same way Pineda’s note-for-note re-creation was.  Whereas Journey convinced me that they were, in fact, Journey, Mick Jones’ new band seemed like simply that: a new group centered around the onetime Foreigner guitarist, established to play his catalog.  There’s not a thing in the world wrong with that, but perhaps “The Mick Jones Band” would be a more honest moniker for it.

Before Foreigner, Night Ranger –who I’m told actually have their original singer, whoever he was – played, but Rhea and I were far more concerned with finishing the delicious barbeque we were having for dinner than with rushing out to the beach in time to catch them.  Thus, the one and only thing I know about them remains the same: once, years ago, I had to convince a co-worker that “Sister Christian” was neither by nor about Motörhead.  Alas, poor Lemmy, what is your price for flight?

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