Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Heart Prove That True Talent Is Timeless

Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart are the musical equivalent to a bottle of wine which just gets better with age. A prime example of that would be the band’s new tour entitled the Heartbreaker Tour. It made a stop in Raleigh, North Carolina on June 22. Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience is on-board for this tour as the opening act as well as the special guest for the band’s encore.

Jason’s band definitely got the crowd out of their seats and energized as they their way through as energized set of Led Zeppelin hits ranging from “Whole Lotta Love” to “Babe, I’m Leaving You”.  A short change-over took place and Heart soon took to the stage, not losing the momentum already provided to them by Bonham and his crew. You know it’s going to be a special night when a band opens with one of their biggest hits and Heart did just that with a blistering version of “Barracuda”. That definitely got the rest of the crowd out of their seats.

The hits just seemed to be endless as “Heartless” was next and followed by “What About Love” and then “Magic Man”. Nancy took over lead vocals on a beautiful cover of Elton John’s “I Need to Turn to You” as well as a mandolin flavored version of their number one hit “These Dreams”, which was stunning. It was also very nice to hear some newer music from their latest work of art Fanatic performed live. “Alone”, “Even It Up” and “Crazy For You” also made an appearance on this particular night as well. “Walkin’ Good” and “Dear Old America” were included in their set, with the latter providing one of the more powerful and moving points of the night for those who were paying close attention to its content.

The encore saw Jason Bonham and some of his band mates join Heart on stage for a Led Zeppelin tribute. To kick it off, Ann and Nancy came out to center stage and performed an acoustic version of “The Battle of Evermore” which set the bar for what this encore was going to be like. It was beautiful and powerful with their amazing voices accompanied by an acoustic guitar and a mandolin. The rest of the band joined them for the rest of the encore which included a kick-ass version of “Kashmir” as well as an outstanding version of “The Rain Song” which provoked even more goosebumps.

The night closed with what I was hoping would be the closer, which I am sure wasn’t too much of a surprise for many who were there. Nancy plucked the opening chords of “Stairway to Heaven” and you could sense this was going to be something pretty amazing. I am sure lots of us have seen the clip of the Kennedy Center Honors where Heart came out to salute Led Zeppelin and performed one of the most amazing versions of “Stairway to Heaven” that many have ever witnessed. Would they be able to recreate that magic again? Well, they did bring a choir out on stage with them in Raleigh and although Zeppelin wasn’t there, it was as close as you could come to recreating that magic at the Kennedy Center.

It was an amazing night of music and a very powerful performance by all who were involved. For me, it was somewhat spiritual for me as you don’t go to a concert too many times and have church break out. Ann Wilson’s voice has not faltered a bit over the years and it almost sounds stronger than ever. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know if I have ever seen the sisters look or sound better. They seem to be so happy and alive on-stage as well. I have seen Heart quite a few times throughout their career and this particular stormy night in Raleigh, NC was hands down the best performance that I have ever by them. As a fan of music and great performers, I feel fortunate to have witnessed something so special that night.

Night Ranger Rock The Martinsville Speedway

There were many times as a teenager in the 80s that I would crank Night Ranger’s Dawn Patrol or Midnight Madness in my bedroom and have my own mini concerts. If you would have told me back then that the band would be playing a special concert in my hometown in 2013, I would have told you that you were completely insane. Well as crazy as it all seems, that actually did happen recently without the aid of Marty McFly or Doc Brown.

Night Ranger was announced to headline the Celebration 2013 event in Martinsville, Virginia on July 3. It was the first time that a rock act topped the bill as country acts were generally the star attraction. Mother Nature was not a happy camper early in the day as rain poured down almost all day long and posed a threat that the event may not even happen. I’m not sure if Mother Nature had an urge to break out her spandex and aquanet, but the skies cleared an hour or two before show time and the rain held off and it turned into a pretty amazing night.

The band came out to the stage a few minutes early to do a pre-show accapella version of the National Anthem. They returned a few minutes later with instruments by their sides and ready to show those in attendance that can still rock in America. The hits were plentiful as the evening progressed and the crowd loosened up and rose to their feet and began to have fun. Lead vocalist/bassist Jack Blades delivered such classics as “When You Close Your Eyes”, “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me” and “You Can Still Rock in America” as the band really hit the stage running on all cylinders and never slowed down.

The twin guitar attack of original member Brad Gillis and Joel Hoeskstra (Trans-Siberian Orchestra/Rock of Ages) put on a clinic for the fans as their combination of blistering leads and outstanding showmanship showed those in attendance an element that is sorely missing in live shows today. Drummer Kelly Keagy is also a co-lead vocalist and he actually stepped out from behind the kit several times to take center stage to deliver some of his well known vocal contributions including “Sentimental Street”, “Sing Me Away” and of course, the power ballad “Sister Christian”.

There were a few surprises thrown in as well for the fans. Guitarist Brad Gillis played briefly with Ozzy Osbourne after the death of guitarist Randy Rhoades. To acknowledge that period of Brad’s career, a blistering version of “Crazy Train” was performed. The solo that Brad layed down was spot on and makes you wonder why he doesn’t get more credit for his skills on the axe. Also, Jack Blades was also in the spin-off project Damn Yankees which featured Ted Nugent, Styx guitarist Tommy Shaw and Michael Cartellone. The band performed two of their hits as well including “Coming of Age” and the power ballad “High Enough”.

Overall, it was a pretty amazing night of rock and roll. The showmanship and comradery between all five of these guys on stage is some of the best that you will see. The guys are definitely having a blast up there and it’s very contagious as you watch them. The 80s and the whole “hair band” period, which I don’t consider Night Ranger a part of other than being around during those years, seems to take a beating. You know, some of those beatings are justified as there was a lot of crap out there as the market became oversaturated, but the fact that these guys are still active and being creative after 30 plus years says something.

Night Ranger: Still Love Rocking The Masses

We’ve all been guilty of doing karaoke and breaking out some 80s classics, especially the power ballads. If you haven’t belted out “Sister Christian” by Night Ranger once or twice, then you better add that one to your setlist. Night Ranger was one of those bands who came along in the 80s as the whole “hair band” era was taking off, but they never truly fit into that category. They were more substance over style, but they were definitely staples of MTV especially when their 1983 album Midnight Madness exploded.

Lead singer Jack Blades left in 1989 and formed Damn Yankees and the band attempted to continue on but eventually folded, even though attempting to carry on with a new lead singer. Blades returned in 1996 and all five original members began work on a new album. After a few personnel changes, original members Blades, guitarist Brad Gillis and drummer Kelly Keagy remain and joining them are guitarist Joel Hoekstra (Trans Siberian Orchestra/Rock of Ages) and keyboardist Eric Levy round out the band. The band’s more focused than ever and having the time of their lives. I caught up with lead singer Jack Blades before a recent show and we reminisced about the past and looked ahead to their creative future.

Johnny: Just a few miles from here, I used to crank Dawn Patrol and Midnight Madness in my bedroom on vinyl and here you are in my hometown to perform a concert. This is just so surreal for me as a fan of the band. Now, of course, you guys are playing a Nascar race track tonight. Is this a first for you ?

Jack Blades/Night Ranger: This is actually our third one; we played Ontario and Richmond, Virginia. 

How different is it to do one of these?

Jack/NR: Oh man, I love it! Tonight is a little different because the other two were actually before the race or whatever and it’s been massively amazing. It was pretty wild! 

After being a fan of the band for 30 years, I finally got to cross you off of my concert bucket list last year when you played with 38 Special. Now, either all five of you deserve an Oscar for Best Actor or you are having a blast up there on stage.

Jack Blades/Night Ranger: Oh yeah, it’s the real deal man. At this stage of the game, we want this to be fun. We’ve proven who we are and we don’t have to prove anything anymore. We’ve been doing this for 30 years now, so at this point, you wither get out there and have fun or why even do it at all? You know what I mean? That’s our attitude right now and we actually genuinely have fun out there and how can you not have a great time? I mean, we look out at the audience and we see all those people singing along to all of our songs and they’re smiling and rocking out. It really makes for a great interactive evening.

It’s also very contagious from the fans point of view. I mean, if you’ve been having a crappy day and you come to a Night Ranger show.

Jack /NR: That’s the end of the crappy day! (laughs)

Exactly! Reality may come crashing down the day after, but one of your shows if definitely an escape from all the “stuff” that may be going on in their lives. You guys never seem to slow down, even when it comes to new material. I know a lot of bands from the 80s just do the whole nostalgia thing and don’t record new material, but not you guys. You put out two great studio albums so far in the 2000s with Hole in the Sun in 2007/2008 and Somewhere in California in 2011, plus the 12 Strings and a Drummer: Live and Acoustic release.

Jack/NR: Actually, that was 24 Strings and a Drummer.

Oh my god, I am sorry; I can’t believe I got that wrong.

Jack/NR: That’s ok, you were 12 strings off. (laughs)

Wow, I was only half on my game for that one. Well, what I was going to ask was if there are any plans on another studio album of new material?

Jack/NR: We’re actually in the middle of cutting a new album. We’ve got about twelve songs recorded and it will be finished by the end of the year and will be released the beginning of next year.

Wow, I had no idea that you guys were even working on a new one, much less that close to having it finished. I loved the last two and I can’t wait to hear what you have in store for this one.

Jack/NR: Thanks man, you know it’s really fun right now. I’ve always felt that you have to keep creating, whether you are an artist, photographer, painter or whatever you do, when you stop creating is when you start dying inside. You know what I mean? We’re just going to keep on creating until we can’t anymore. 

Earlier, you mentioned that you had been doing this for 30 years. In October of this year, Midnight Madness turns 30. (Note: This was a huge album in the band’s career and contained the hits “You Can Still Rock in America”, “When You Close Your Eyes” and “Sister Christian”) Are you guys going to do anything special to commemorate that?

Jack/NR: Yeah, we’ve thinking about doing the whole album. You know, maybe do a few special shows and perform the album in its entirety. That would be pretty surreal! Jack/NR: Yeah, I think it would be pretty cool.
Speaking of cool things, you guys are taking part on this year’s KISS Kruise. I know this is your first time on that one, but have you ever done any of the other rock cruises that are out there?

Jack/NR: We did a Monsters of Rock cruise last year or two years ago; I can’t remember exactly when that was. We’re looking forward to doing the KISS one; we know those guys and go way back with them. In fact, our first tour in December of 1982 was with KISS. They were still wearing the makeup and they had Vinnie Vincent with them on guitar. 

Oh wow, that was right near the end of the original makeup era.

Jack/NR: Yeah, you’re right; it was the Creatures of the Night Tour.

Speaking of that first tour, Kelly (Keagy) was the very first drummer who I ever saw with his drumkit turned sideways like that. How did that originate?

Jack/NR: We were an opening act and we didn’t have a lot of room on the stage. There were already the three of us up front and if we put his drums in front of the headliners drums, then we literally had no room up front to move around some nights. Since Kelly sings lead a lot for us, we thought why don’t we just put him sideways and put our keyboards at the other end. It really didn’t happen by design, it happened more by convenience and for expediency sake and that became our thing.

One last quick question because I know you guys have to go get ready. What’s the biggest difference touring now as opposed to back in the 80s?

Jack/NR: I think right now we’re having a lot more fun. Now, back then it was pretty crazy and pretty wild and stuff like that, but we’re a lot less severely medicated right now (laughs).I love it because we’re really experiencing everything this time around and really enjoying it.