My mama doesn’t like to hear this, but when it comes to classic rock and roll, I am an old hippy, and in my estimable opinion, a great critic. I just happen to be the odd one that has developed a decidedly conservative bent in my advancing years.
In the last week, we attended two distinctly different rock concerts. We took our son and his squeeze to see the Kings of Leon, one of his favorites. If you haven’t heard of them, it’s probably because you are not a Millennial or a Generation X’er. You more than likely have heard a few of their songs as they did have some radio hits. Lead singer and front man, Caleb Followill has a rather unique voice with great range. Three brothers and a cousin, all named Followill, make up the Kings of Leon (named after their grandfather), which I found interesting for its configuration. I imagine cousin Mathew, who plays lead guitar, has broken up a few fights among the brothers.
I may have possibly been the oldest person in the audience. My son was enthralled that we arranged this event for him though, and then actually went to the show too. (I can assure you that would not have happened if it had been rap.) We had 3rd row seats, but due to the outlandish and ghastly mosh pit in front of the stage I was relegated to watching the concert on a giant monitor. I’m simply not paying money for a seat and then stand throughout the concert…my knees, back, and constitution won’t allow it.
The band has talent, I will give them that. I have one of their songs, Sex on Fire, in my play lists. I understand from junior that the oldest brother, drummer Jacob Followill, is the head of the band, and in that regard, runs a tight ship. Brother Jared plays bass and from my perspective, seems to be the most musically inclined of the family. But like most bass players, he fades into the background, adding little other than musical acumen. Cousin Mathew appears boyish, short in stature, baby-faced, wild haired, a little more active, albeit stiffly, on stage…as if not quite in tune with the act.
Sorry son, but from the perspective of someone that has been going to rock concerts regularly since 1972, I was not captivated...and I wanted to be. It has nothing to do with their musical talent, as they are legitimate rockers and have the chops to back it up. My problem is that this performance was mailed in and no performer can afford to be labeled as such. Those boys need to develop some personality, or at least shown us some Friday night. They stuck strictly to the songs that sold for them, and they stayed stringently within the radio format of the 3-4-minute time limit per song. There were no soaring guitar solos, no extended drum thumping; no cover songs, they stayed too close to script, never going outside the boundaries of their recorded song. The show was just too tight. And although it has become somewhat of a tired joke with the older rockers, there was no encore. The boys played their last song and left the stage. They were in their jammies on the plane home before we got out of the parking lot.
Contrast that act to last night’s REO Speedwagon concert. I will try hard not to let the fact that the venue’s air conditioning system went down on a day when the temperature outside reached 108 degrees, cloud my judgement. Smell 2,500 bodies packed into a small arena with no air and get back to me. I had managed to get front row seats for me and the missus. Nobody standing in front of me this time! My knees could literally touch the circular stage, which slowly rotated throughout the show.
First off, given the extreme heat, I was astounded these guys, which range in age from 64 to 72 years old even came out to play, unlike many prima donna entertainers today. Not only did they play, they performed hard and managed to unleash a few surprises.
Sadly, the diminutive and difficult lead singer Kevin Cronin has lost the power and range of his voice, and he sounds frail. The missus asked me on the way out if there was a problem with the sound system because of the way his voice was barely discernible above the music. His penchant for a 65-year-old-man walking and running on his toes with his little black and pink sneakers and straight jeans cuffed at the bottom was just plain… irritating. He still works it hard though, prancing around the stage ala Mick Jagger, but regrettably, he is just no Jagger.
The lone original founding member, 72-year-old Neal Doughty, stands in the corner playing organ, and adds little to the music or the show. It seemed to me he played his organ with his right hand (which he oddly stared at most of the night) and held on with his left, as the stage reached speeds of well up to one mile per hour. Other than being a founder, his contribution to the band is weak. Organs don’t do much in live rock and roll either, folks.
Bassist Bruce Hall is an enigma to describe. At 64-years-old he is muscularly built, a “mans-man,” clad in black, shirt sleeves rolled up to reveal powerful arms. He sports a face that looks it was cleaved off the side of a mountain it is so chiseled. He stomps around the stage as if he owns it, totally in sync with the rest of the band as a bass player should be. And yet, here is this straight mane of bleach-blond hair to the middle of his back, which he swings gracefully throughout the show, as with practice. He sung lead to my personal favorite REO song, “Back on the Road Again,” superbly, which came as a nice surprise.
Now we come to the meat and potatoes of the band. Other than my sweat glands, these two were the hardest workers in the room that night. Drummer Bryan Hitt, at 64-years-old, is as good as any thumper I’ve seen with the possible exception of the late John Bonham of Led Zepplin lore. Hitt can rock, doing so with unlimited energy. He was the first one out and the last to leave. It was worth the price of admission just to watch him play, particularly with the view of our close seating position. Due to the rotating stage, we often viewed the backside, which put us virtually right on the drummer’s seat, pounding away. Another interesting feature I found was his close resemblance to Alice Cooper, a fellow rocker and noted Phoenix resident.
Lead guitarist, Dave Amato, is a wizard at his craft. Top 25, maybe? Overlooking the patch of shag carpet plastered to his lower lip, the man struts around the stage exhibiting true musicianship, allowing the crowd to hear and observe real guitar skill up close. He also would flip picks to adoring women who were rudely standing in front of the stage. Formerly with Ted Nugent, Amato is considered the newcomer to the group having been there only 28 years. For one of their encore’s Amato played guitar for a cover of Nugent’s famous “Stranglehold” song, which he sang with perfection. Regrettably, when Cronin introduced Amato he just couldn’t resist throwing in a barb about Nugent’s conservative politics.
I was disappointed they didn’t play their very first hit, “157 Riverside Avenue,” which had developed into a great interplay between Cronin’s voice and the late Gary Richrath’s guitar. Maybe Cronin’s weakened vocals and Richrath’s demise might have restricted that act, but Amato could have picked it up.
All in all, I came away impressed. The heat was unbearable (over 100), and yet this group of “old guys” came out and hit it with everything they had, improvising where they needed, and extending songs with skilled musicianship. They didn’t complain about the heat, as did the warm up (pardon the pun) band, Paul Gurvitz Army. They had this crowd of mostly us old rockers on our feet, or even canes (I counted 3) most of the night… except for me sitting un-waveringly in the front row where no one dared to tread. They also belted out a nice Tom Petty tune with surprising clarity during their encore. Cronin sounds more like Petty now than himself! With the possible exception of Doughty, I couldn’t have had shown that much energy in that heat and I’m four years younger.
That is what a professional rock and roll outfit is all about.