Cheap Trick, Def Leppard, Poison: Nissan Pavilion, Bristow, VA 7/12/09

Cheap Trick.  Poison.  Def Leppard.  It’s an odd billing to be sure.  Poison and Def Leppard seem reasonable enough, with careers that rode the hair metal explosion of the 80s to multi-platinum success, but Cheap Trick, an 80s power ballad aside, were churning out power pop gems (that continue to influence bands today) five to ten years earlier than their tour mates.  Oddly enough, the tour’s oldest band chronologically is its youngest spiritually and that is part of the magic that still makes Cheap Trick matter.

Cheap Trick, despite a boat load of artistic credibility, fell into the opening slot on this tour.  They also, being odd man out genre-wise, got the least excitable reception.  The crowd was still fairly light for their set and was mostly made up of the 35-45 year old set trying to relive their partyin’ teenage years before putting the suit back on Monday morning.  As a matter of fact, "Welcome to the Jungle" and "Highway to Hell," played over the PA between bands, got louder cheers than Rick, Robin, Tom and Bun.  But the odd thing was that the crowd, while younger than the band, was really too old to appreciate Cheap Trick.  Despite their age, they play with a hunger and passion that elude most rock bands decades younger.  Sure, they played the big hits, "Surrender," "I Want You to Want Me," "Dream Police" and "The Flame," but they also went out on a limb with a couple off of their just-released album, The Latest, (coupled with a joke from Rick that they were short enough that no one needed to use it as an excuse to get a drink). 

You see, Cheap Trick didn’t get old.  They still play with the excitement of a young band and that was simply lost on the part-time rockers that made up the majority of the crowd.  To Cheap Trick, every show is important and even playing before Poison to a crowd celebrating the days when hairspray rather than rock ruled the airwaves, they played rock n roll the way it was meant to be played, with exuberance that finished up in a blast of unrestrained cacophony.  There was no smoke, no fire, no bombs, just four guys doing what they’ve done so well for over three decades and doing like they were still young and hungry.

While Poison’s reception was much warmer, that reflected the sad state of the crowd more than the band’s performance.  Poison is a text book rock band.  They have the poses, the have the smoke and fire and they have the…well, they don’t really have the songs, but no one seemed to care.  There was nothing genuine about Poison’s performance.  CC Deville and Ricki Rocket combined devoted almost 10 minutes of my life that I’ll never get back to solos that merely exhibit their mediocrity.  As a matter of fact, CC DeVille is actually a considerably worse player live than in the studio, hard as that is to believe.  His riffs are disjointed attempts at flash that merely show his failure to understand the most basic musical concept of melody.  Rocket’s solo showed off the size of his kit more than his meager skills.  Bret Michaels even plugged his Rock of Love "reality" show.  I suppose that’s appropriate, because, like their set it’s both a fake and a trainwreck.  The bottom line is that Poison’s show was a lot like CC’s hair:  It seems big, but you don’t have to look that close to see there isn’t much there.

While Def Leppard didn’t have the energy and enthusiasm of the opener, they made it quite clear why they have always been a top band in their genre in more ways than just sales.  Def Leppard’s set, with video screens and smoke that was far more elaborate than Poison’s handful of flames and flashpots, was not a ruse to hide behind, but a quality bit of the arena rock that they perfected in their heyday.  Their set drew heavily upon those days, but wasn’t pure nostalgia.  They played a couple new songs (including one as the encore) and significantly re-arranged "Bringin’ on the Heartbreak," probably the highlight of their performance. 

While Joe Elliot’s voice did show some age, especially on the acoustic "Two Steps Behind," the band was tight and professional.  They lacked the spontaneous combustion of Cheap Trick, but the well-oiled machine they’ve become over the years makes for a great performance that at least puts the music on par with the performance.  Each component of what they do, though carefully constructed, is part of a cohesive and concerted whole.  Sure, it caters to the past, but in a much more creative and fearless way than I would have expected.  Their photo montage during "Photograph" made that trip down memory lane more interesting.  A similar approach during "Rock of Ages," featured photos of rock n roll greats, from their inspirations like Ian Hunter to those who made their mark in an entirely different way like Kurt Cobain, that was actually respectful and humble.  While Def Leppard found success in the same puffy-haired, image-first scene as Poison, they also transcended it.  Unlike Poison, who is only about the show, Def Leppard is equally about the music and that is why they, despite being past their prime, are still quite a fine rock band.  But they’re still no Cheap Trick!

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