Full disclosure: I’ve seen Cheap Trick in concert 10 times in the last decade, and nine of those performances were in different ZIP codes. Why? Because they’re one of the best live acts out there. For a band that made its name on a live album originally released just for Japan (1978’s Cheap Trick at Budokan), CT has endured as that Great American Warhorse, still playing hundreds of dates a year to their dedicated followers.
The thing you need to understand about a CT show is that it’s about the music. Yes, the band’s look has been relatively unchanged for decades (though singer Robin Zander now channels a futuristic sequined Dream Police outfit echoing the group’s 1979 LP of the same name), it still sells those white-on-black T-shirts splashed with the infamous CT logo, and even though guitarist Rick Nielsen’s son Daxx took over as touring drummer for co-founding clubber Bun E. Carlos in 2010, none of this has affected the quality of the music. These days, the band’s sole extravagance, if you can call it that, is a customized stage that’s at least 40 feet wide and deep (which is negotiable, apparently, if they’re asked to open for the original lineups of Led Zeppelin, the Who, the Rolling Stones, or Little Richard).
On July 24 at East Rutherford’s Izod Center, CT opened for Aerosmith as part of the latter’s Global Warming tour. Both bands were huge in the late ’70s and had a similar resurgence a decade later thanks to heart-tugging (some would say manufactured) ballads. While Aerosmith has continued to sell records and pack arenas around the world, Cheap Trick has settled into a comfy utility player: clubs, theaters, casinos, state fairs, motorcycle rallies, and the occasional Big Act support gig.
Jersey is a rock stronghold, and the nearly 20,000 fans in attendance that night were just beginning to trickle in at CT’s 7:30 p.m. start time. The next hour was tailor made for those old school fans, covering CT’s 1977-1980 prime. The time machine took off with “Way of the World,” “Hello There” and “On Top of the World” from albums four, two and three, respectively. From the opening chords, Robin’s mighty, ageless voice grabbed those in mid-text and refused to let go.
While most opening acts gladly coast on frozen setlists night after night, no two Cheap Trick shows are alike. The band aired their hit cover of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” with Aerosmith guitarist Brad Whitford guesting as Robin crunched a few chords himself. On their own, Rick and bassist Tom Petersson make a lot of noise, wringing a big sound from the guitarist’s famed collection of Hamer axes (many of which are currently on display at the new Rick’s Picks museum exhibition in his native Rockford, IL) and Tom’s sparkling 12-string bass.
These two made “Baby Loves to Rock”—from 1980’s criminally underrated All Shook Up—louder, punchier, and more spontaneous-sounding (something made abundantly clear in the group’s previous five live albums). In concert, the band constantly prowls the stage, and Rick’s such a ham he’ll fluff a note or three so long as it entertains someone in the rafters. “I Know What I Want,” another twisted love song from Dream Police featuring Tom’s bone-dry vocal delivery, segued into “Need Your Love,” one of the band’s epics with slow burn guitars, swooping sonic dynamics, and Daxx positively swinging on the skins. Originally found on At Budokan, it sounded so good in front of an audience that the guys were unable to top it in the studio when cutting Dream Police.
The lights went out again for a moment or two before a soothing swirling sound reminiscent of the band’s prerecorded introduction wafted through the hall. Was there a soundboard malfunction? Or was the show already over, giving the OK for a beer run? Nope. It was “Stop This Game,” the lead cut from All Shook Up, and new to this fan’s ears in a live setting. In recent years a good chunk of All Shook Up has been revisited by the band in concert, and these tunes, while not as familiar as CT’s ’70s staples, show a range the band hadn’t turned in on record before or since (a credit to the album’s original producer, Sir George Martin).
How to follow that up? Go back to the start. Kind of. “Sick Man of Europe” was the only “new” song of the night, hailing from 2009’s The Latest. But the buzzing guitars and brash, retro-rocker vocals (“We ain’t Haight or the British Invasion / This ain’t the Nazz, it’s self-preservation”) could have been slipped into CT’s debut (in fact, the title itself alludes to an early incarnation of the group).
By this point the arena was nearly full, the perfect time for the band to finish up with a trifecta of Trick anthems that brought the house to their feet and kept them there. So much has been written about “Surrender,” “I Want You to Want Me” and “Dream Police” that I’m not even going to attempt to add atop that cherry. What I will say is that Rick held back on hauling out his legendary (and heavy) five-neck guitar until the very end of the show, and Robin’s performance of “IWYTWM” was surprisingly impassioned (he’s gotta be sick of that one by now, right?). He even shouted “I love you!” before blowing the audience a kiss as those familiar final notes rang out.
After the lucky floor section was showered with fistfuls of guitar picks, CT wound things down with “Auf Wiedersehen,” a dark basher that borrows lines from “All Along the Watchtower” and makes the word “suicide” a blast to sing. Without skipping a beat, the guys bid us “Goodnight,” with Robin declaring, “That’s the end of the show / Now it’s time to go.”
It wasn’t, really. Aerosmith still had its own two-hour burlesque to burn through. But you know what? Between their giant video screen, trio of cameramen invasively lensing their every move on stage, and extreme isolation from each other (save for the showbiz-y interactions between frenemies Steven Tyler and Joe Perry), Cheap Trick felt like more of a band. Maybe it’s the fact that they’re made up of friends and family, maybe it’s the fact that their egos have always been firmly in check and tongues firmly in cheek, maybe it’s the fact that they were stars abroad long before “The Flame” hit the airwaves, but Cheap Trick are one of the greatest veteran bands out there, regardless of whether they have a new release, are playing for a hometown crowd, or have something to prove. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, are you listening?
Cheap Trick perform Friday, Aug. 31 at 9:00 p.m at the Borgata Music Box, 1 Borgata Way, in Atlantic City, NJ. For more information and tickets, click here. Visit the band online at www.cheaptrick.com.
Article by Justin Tedaldi
Visit Justin’s National Music Q&A page for Examiner.com here.