Neal Schon of Journey rocking the Madison crowd! - photo by Mary Sweeney/sweeneysphotography.com
First, I must make a few disclosures in advance of this concert review. In a nutshell, I honestly did not know what to expect. My personal years of digging the band Journey were circa the ‘Infinity’ and ‘Evolution’ albums, so… late 1970s… geez, almost 40 years ago now. By the time they became a mega-huge pop band in the early 80s, my tastes in music had changed toward the more aggressive and/or more esoteric. Most of the Journey hits on classic rock radio were songs I truly disliked at the time they came out, since they directly flew in the face of my angry-young-man/anti-commercial attitude and lifestyle. However, we all age, and as a result we mellow out… one can’t stay an angry young man forever. Indeed, I now often find myself scouring the used record bins to reacquire LPs that I had in my youth that had been sold back in the hardcore punk rock days.
So, here I was on the evening of Tuesday, March 28, attending the Journey and Asia concert at the Coliseum in Madison as a member of the press. I had many ponderances and tried to avoid speculations. I wondered if there was still an audience for this type of concert in Madison, especially at a venue the size of the Coliseum, whose heyday was many decades earlier. I wondered if I would enjoy myself, or be caught in a quagmire of revulsion being lumped in with the members of my own generation that never went down the path of expanding their musical or artistic horizons, and never experienced anything alternative-whatsoever in their lifestyles. I wondered whether this concert would have energy and appeal. Generally speaking, I was wondering what I was getting myself in to.
And so… (cue Bugs Bunny) “tonight what heights we’ll hit, on with the show, this is it!”
Enter the Memorial Coliseum, now tagged with the corporate name of a major Midwestern energy company. My first thought was, hey, there are people seated in every row and every section of this approximately 10,000 seat arena… it looks like it should be a pretty full house tonight! The overall atmosphere was one of excitement and anticipation, and it looked like the majority of the attendees were dressed up for this occasion. Granted, most folks in my age group don’t see several rock concerts a month like I do, so no doubt this event was a special rarity for many.
Promptly at 7:30 the lights went down and a massive fluorescent orange image of the Asia logo filled the stage area. To ample applause but without fanfare, the four-piece immediately kicked into “Wildest Dreams” from the 1982 debut Asia album. To illustrate the lack of fanfare, keyboardist Geoff Downes spent most of this selection with his back to the audience. New member Billy Sherwood (a guitarist/singer/songwriter in his own right, and the current replacement for Chris Squire in Yes) is filling the HUGE shoes left behind by the recent passing of founding member and legendary vocalist/bassist John Wetton. This night found Sherwood to be confident, animated, and in fine voice.
Asia stuck to their debut album for the next two numbers, “Sole Survivor” and “Time Again”, which both showed off young guitarist Sam Coulson’s impressive skills. Coulson’s ability is way beyond his years, as he tossed off tight dexterous lead guitar lines, punctuated by chunky and driving rhythm work, which fired up the Madison crowd. He certainly didn’t give the impression of any sort of doubt in his ability to fill the guitar role of a player of Steve Howe’s pedigree!
Next on the set list was “Don’t Cry” from the second Asia release, which went in to a thunderous Carl Palmer drum solo full of opportunities for crowd participation. Palmer is also the onstage spokesman for Asia. With all of the tragedies that the prog rock/fusion domain has encountered in the past couple years, notably the deaths of Palmer’s ELP band mates Greg Lake and Keith Emerson, it did the soul well to see Palmer not only playing the living daylights out of his drum kit, but also radiating a joyous and sincere relationship with both the listening audience and his current musical compatriots.
After a brief keyboard interlude by Downes, Palmer mentioned Wetton’s passing, and huge graphic of the late bassist’s smiling face filled the projection screen. Wetton’s composition “The Smile Has Left Your Eyes” was performed with emotion in dedication to Asia’s fallen front man. The only downside of this touching moment was the distraction of several late-comers to the show, interrupting the concentration and enjoyment of those who had the common sense to arrive on time.
With shrieks of acknowledgement and pleasure, Asia wound down their short set (43 minutes!) with two of their biggest hits, “Only Time Will Tell” and “Heat Of The Moment”, which got all the gathered faithful out of their seats to sway and sing along with the songs that left a big impression on their younger days. My only speculation regarding Asia’s relatively brief set time was that the stage had to be reconfigured for Journey’s presentation. It wasn’t like the other gear was already set up as a back line… the stage crew moved out Asia’s set-up and assembled Journey’s in rather efficient fashion.
During intermission I noticed that indeed the Coliseum appeared to near capacity, and chatted with some of the folks seated nearby since my companion had left to get situated in the designated photography area. Everyone I spoke with were congenial and excited for more professional rock entertainment. I noticed that the alcohol stands were obviously doing brisk business, and the guy next to me commented that prices were $6.00 for either a beer or a mixer, which really isn’t too bad for a major event. At any rate, the baby boomers were out enforce this evening, dressed to the nines, and ready to party like it was 1983 all over again. And on a Tuesday night even!
After a quick 20 minute intermission, the house lights dimmed again and by the high pitched screams you’d have thought John, Paul, George, and Ringo were walking on to the stage that was bathed in fluorescent black lights. The excitement was contagious, and as Journey launched in to their humongous MTV-era hit “Separate Ways” the Coliseum was suddenly ground zero for complete pandemonium. Needless to say, nobody was in their seat at this point, and almost everyone stayed on their feet throughout Journey’s entire 110 minute show.
The opener was succeeded by a somewhat more obscure Journey song, “Be Good To Yourself”, from the 1986 ‘Raised On Radio’ release. At only two songs in, I was succumbing to abandon due to the infectious Journey formula. Yes, it’s true, this jaded old punk rocker’s head was bobbing up and down and I’m pretty certain my grin was threatening to split my face in two. Current vocalist Arnel Pineda was constantly all over the stage, seemingly in attempt to make direct contact with all 10,000 in attendance. And probably best of all, the sound was near perfection for a “large shed” show. It was loud, but not too loud for the room. Every instrument and vocal was clearly heard without any distortion whatsoever. In fact, it’s fair to say that the woman right behind us screaming and whistling with mad hysteria was probably more of an issue to our hearing than what was coming out of the P.A.! But, as I said… some people don’t get a chance to get of the house very often.
On April 7, Journey will be inducted in to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame at the Barclays Center in New York City. Two members have been with Journey since it’s inception in 1973: bassist Ross Valory and guitar player Neal Schon, who began his storied career with Santana. I immediately was drawn to Schon’s guitar work at this concert, and his playing truly had me thinking that sparks would shower from his fret board leading to spontaneous combustion of his instrument. At 63, Schon looks youthful, fit, and healthy, and his attire of denim shirt, leather vest, and shades lent a casual laid back vibe to his onstage presence. A delay-laden guitar solo section with swirly psychedelic lighting projections led in to a hammering version of “Stone In Love”, which found broad smiles on all five band members. There was no question that they still loved playing these songs and were still having a great deal of fun performing in front of their fans.
Speaking of fun with a capital F-U-N, “Anyway You Want It” kicked the proceedings into hyperspace overdrive, which was no simple feat given the already stellar energy level! Arnel was still running about like a man possessed and ended the final sledgehammer chords of the song with a huge jump in to the air. It was as if he achieved lift-off!
Neal Schon came to the mic, acknowledging the passing of Asia’s John Wetton, and asked for the complimentary cell phone lights from the audience as he dedicated “Lights” from 1978’s ‘Infinity’ album to Wetton’s memory. The Coliseum lit up, and again I found myself instinctively singing along, with every lyric somehow tattooed in to my subconscious all these years later. I just couldn’t help myself anymore, I was caught up in the moment, and Journey had me helplessly in their spell. I also want to mention that every component of this group was equally balanced in excellence: Jonathan Cain’s keyboards were always classy and emotive, even dramatic at times, and the rhythm section of Valory and longtime drummer Steve Smith were 100% uncompromised and locked in to the pocket.
In brief, “Open Arms” brought back teenage roller rink memories, and “Who’s Crying Now” showcased another virtuoso Schon guitar solo. But then, the band launched in to two of the evenings hardest rockers and somewhat deep archaeological digs in to their catalog. “Chain Reaction” from ‘Frontiers’ (which had just reached it’s 33 year anniversary) had Arnel strutting with his mic stand and making cocksure poses reminiscent of Freddie Mercury. “La Do Da”, one of my own personal favorites, took the crowd by surprise, and even had them missing some of the sing along cues… although I knew them! “La Do Da” led into another head-turning solo feature: Steve Smith’s uncanny drum solo, spotlighted by jaw-dropping synchronicity between his snare drum and bass pedals. I’ve always wondered how drummers could control their hands and feet in such a way that enabled perfect rhythm but yet every appendage is doing it’s own independent thing. This drum exposé was the perfect example of this type of bewilderment on my part. It may sound cliché, but I was stunned and amazed! It’s no wonder Arnel referred to him as Steve “Machine Gun” Smith.
When you’re a guitar hero of Neal Schon’s caliber, and you’re days away from being inducted in to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, you do not merely get one solo feature segment in a concert, you get at least two, so the subsequent bluesier guitar solo characterized by impeccable sustain and technical ability, was of no surprise to this reporter. The moon and clouds imagery projected on to the big screens created a mysterious mood, especially as Schon went into a more digitally processed and artistic sound, which led straight in to “Wheel In The Sky”, featuring Jonathan Cain on 2nd guitar.
The ballad “Faithfully” provided a touching moment for all of the couples in attendance to renew their vows, and the bombshell of “Don’t Stop Believin’” initiated the mass hysteria and general reckless party atmosphere that had been in the air all night, especially with Arnel wearing a UW Badger cap and running in to the front seating sections. Not to mention the massive confetti bomb which blew tissue debris in to every possible section of the auditorium.
Journey’s encore set consisted of “Escape”, and “Lovin’ Touchin’ Squeezin’”, which featured a guitar / vocal mimic conversation between Schon and Arnel. The group stuck around to be individually introduced, and thank the fans for their unwavering support as they approach their induction date. In conclusion, I think the age-old adage can finally be put to rest: you CAN teach an old dog new tricks! At least THIS old dog found out that he can still surprise himself once in a while. I’ll be the first to admit it… Journey ROCKED!