Monday, September 8, 2014

Foreigner - Thunder Valley Casino - Putting On The Hits In Fantastic Fashion

I'll admit that I was pretty disappointed to not see Foreigner main-man Mick Jones when the band took the stage last Friday night, but about three songs into the set, I realized that his absence did not prevent his band from putting on an absolute top shelf arena rock, greatest hits show.

Let's get a few points out of the way - this iteration of Foreigner has been together nearly ten years, and at least on tour, this is a greatest hits show (and they've had a bunch). Now, the whole classic rock band doing greatest hits tours thing can go a couple of ways. At it's worst, you've got bands filled with non-original members who have been hired for the lowest wage to crank out an uninspired show that exists only to milk fans for what they're worth. I've seen a lot of this, and I don't have to name names, but that's just the worst case scenario. At its best, you have an act like Foreigner - one original member (who did write the lion's share of their catalog), Mick Jones, who has assembled a cast of talented and inspired musicians who can play and perform not just as well as, but arguably even better than the original band.

Photo by Brad Loper
I first saw Foreigner on July 1, 1977 opening a Ted Nugent show in Cincinnati, Ohio, and in all fairness that band probably didn't get a soundcheck, and they probably didn't have their own monitor engineer, but for whatever reasons they sounded terrible. Fast forward to 1984/85 and I saw the band again, and it was again not a great show - by now it appeared that their success had went up their collective noses, and their jittery set was less than stellar. Now, Foreigner was always a singles band - they weren't often well regarded by critics who judged things by albums versus hits, but man did they ever have the hits. As a live band they were solid headliners, but they were seldom electrifying.

Foreigner today is a hard rock force of nature - You've got three bonafide LA rock legends in Kelly Hansen, Jeff Pilson, and Chris Frazier, three more great players in Tom Gimbel, Michael Bluestein, and Bruce Watson, and they are an electrifying live act. They put life into these rock classics with perhaps more power than they've ever had before.

Photo by Tim Tronkoe
Kelly Hansen has been fronting Foreigner for almost ten years, and he's become a certified rock star in the role. His voice seems to be getting stronger as he ages, and he not only hits the notes, he owns the setlist with his range, his phrasing, and his amazing stage presence. It's probably the toughest role in a band to replace, that of the lead vocalist, but Hansen has gone way past acceptability into being the genuine article, a first class rock frontman. Should Ritchie Blackmore ever again enter the foray of loud guitars and big drums, this is his guy. On this night, he not only gave a great performance, he was also hilarious as he chided the audience several times (this was a casino show, and this is rock 'n' roll, so he had to state his case once or twice) - I loved the fact that he had the balls to do so, and had more than earned the respect of 99% of the audience who cheered him on as he did. His was one of the most exciting performances I've seen this year, and I'll honestly admit that he went way beyond my expectations.

Jeff Pilson (ex-Dokken, Dio, MSG) and Chris Frazier (ex-Vai, Whitesnake) are an ass kicking, world class rhythm section. Pilson is any band's top secret ingredient. He's a truly great bassist, who often plays notes and runs that I would have loved to have heard on the original records, and his stage presence must be seen - he transversed the stage again, and again when he wasn't contributing excellent backing vocals, and he makes it easy to realize why he's such an in-demand guy. Chris Frazier is a locomotive force behind the drum kit, and his chops are  as tasty as they are forceful - he drove the band like a tank across the desert on this balmy evening in Northern California. Special mention also to lead guitarist Bruce Watson, who not only nailed all those classic Mick Jones guitar moments (a great solo, free with every hit), he also filled many spaces and gaps with great moments of his own that had me smiling throughout the night.

The hits, the hits, the hits....

There aren't very many franchises which can take to the road and play nothing but hit singles, but Foreigner lines them up, and knocks them down - from their first album back in '77, they wheeled out Feels Like The First Time, Cold As Ice, and Long, Long Way From Home, and as I stated above this band was tighter, more exciting, and more proficient than the original band ever was to my eyes and ears. A high point of any evening with Foreigner will be the huge chorus of their mega-hit, I Want To Know What Love Is, and the band had up a local high school choir to bring along the gospel as brother Hansen laid it down. Thom Gimbel's sax solo on Urgent nailed the original vibe and then proceeded to go way beyond it, and brilliantly. Like I said, I didn't have overly high expectations, but I was on my feet and singing along for the whole show (so was the rest of the sold out audience).

If you get a chance to see Foreigner, do yourself a big favor and do so. They are currently on fire, with or without their founding father - I was really looking forward to seeing Mick Jones, as he's not only a great musician, he's one of the most stylish devils in rock. If I had a criticism it might be that on an occasion or two the band got a tad cloying with the cheerleading, but I understand they're playing to the type of audience that eats it up, so there. That being said, Jones' group does him right - musically, I couldn't have asked for more - a band doing a show filled with hits, and doing them better than I'd remembered in every case. They played their collective asses off. This band is the best it's ever been.

The Setlist:

1.   Double Vision
2.   Head Games
3.   Cold As Ice
4.   Waiting For A girl Like You
5.   Dirty White Boy
6.   Say You Will
7.   Feels Like The First Time
8.   Urgent
9.   Juke Box Hero
10. Long, Long Way From Home
11. I Want To Know What Love Is
12. Hot Blooded  

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