I was recently asked who I thought was the best ever American rock and roll band. A tough question to be sure. While many artists come to mind, if you want to see a textbook definition of what great, pure, American rock and roll sounds like live, then you should attend a Cheap Trick concert. In their opening act appearance for Boston on Friday night, July 25, 2014 at the Comerica Theatre in Phoenix, Cheap Trick once again proved that they are the epitome of American rock and roll.
The Rockford, Illinois quartet of guitarist Rick Nielsen, singer/guitarist Robin Zander, bass player Tom Petersson and drummer Ben E. Carlos (now replaced in live shows by Nielsen’s son Daxx Nielsen) didn’t exactly explode onto the scene back in 1977 when they released their debut self-titled album. Despite solid material on their first three albums, it took a live album, 1979’s “Cheap Trick at Budokan,” for American audiences to truly discover the band.
After almost 40 years of continuous touring , sixteen studio albums and songs such as “Surrender,” “Dream Police,” and “I Want You To Want Me,” Cheap Trick is now engrained into American pop culture. Need proof? The Simpson’s Kwik-E-Mart owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is known to sing “Dream Police” and his version can be heard in a preconcert tape along with other references to Cheap Trick.
As they have for the majority of Cheap Trick’s countless live performances, Nielsen manic chords opened “Hello There” the perfect concert opening song. Zander, dressed in a red and black uniform, stepped forward to the center mic and asked the audience “are you ready to rock, are you ready or not?” Most were, the majority of the crowd on their feet. But this was a crowd who came primarily to see Boston, so the normal frenzy one might see at a Cheap Trick concert wasn’t quite as prevalent this evening.
For the next sixty minutes, Cheap Trick barely came up for breath as they crammed in as many songs as possible, thirteen in all, plus a bass solo by Petersson. Had Nielsen not changed to a different guitar for every song, they might have been able to do fourteen. But the loss of one song was well worth it to see what outrageous guitar Nielsen might be playing next.
The crowd remained on their feet for “Big Eyes” and “California Man,” many silently mouthing the words but grooving to the beat. One thing about the members of Cheap Trick, they never stand still. Nielsen, Petersson and Zander covered the stage from side to side, Nielsen throwing out countless guitar picks. Nielsen’s guitar pick budget must exceed the gross domestic product of many smaller countries.
It’s common to hear one of Cheap Trick’s long, hard rock jam songs in their set and this night it was “Need Your Love.” The song that ends the “Dream Police” album saw Zander handle the falsetto and tremolo vocals the song demands, Nielsen blaze on some guitar solos and Petersson drive the song with his twelve string bass. If you know Cheap Trick only from their song “The Flame,” well then welcome to the world that is the real Cheap Trick.
Nielsen introduced “Borderline” as a song from “Next Position Please, an album produced by Todd Rundgren, that only three people bought. If that was the case, then those three people must have told three more, who told three more, etc., because many in the audience were back up dancing.
It was then time to showcase Petersson. First, his solo showed his underrated ability on his twelve string bass guitar. It is Petersson who is credited as being the first performer to ever use a twelve string bass. Then it was Petersson’s turn as front man as he took over lead vocals for “I Know What I Want.”
“Baby Loves to Rock,” and Cheap Trick’s latest single 2009’s “Sick Man of Europe,” followed. Despite the give it your all attitude Cheap Trick was displaying onstage, the audience was content to sit back and take it all in.
But the audience came back to life for “That 70’s Song (In the Street)” which Cheap Trick had contributed to the opening credits of television’s “That 70’s Show.” Nielsen pulled out his “caricature guitar,” the double necked one where the necks are his legs and the body of the guitar his body. That the guitar can be played at all is amazing. That the guitar can be played like Nielsen plays it? Astounding.
The crowd responded to the song’s chorus when Zander asked them if they were “all alright.” Indeed the crowd was all, alright and they showed it by loudly singing “every single night,” from the next song up, “Dream Police.” Even the Boston fans knew “Dream Police.”
Given their tight time schedule, Cheap Trick had to close things up quickly and did so with “Surrender.” The audience danced and sang along, piercing the air above them with their fists. Many sang loudly about themselves, “Mommy’s alright, Daddy’s alright, they just seem a little weird.” It was what rock and roll is all about.
Cheap Trick again displayed why they have been so influential to so many bands that have come after them. Motley Crue, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day, Foo Fighters and Kings of Leon are just a few bands who cite Cheap Trick as an influence.
Robin Zander still remains the ultimate front man, working the audience, playing off his band mates and hitting all the notes he’s asked to hit. Rick Nielsen may be rock’s clown, throwing guitar picks out into the audience, pulling out a variety of guitars, many humorous, or cupping an ear up to hear the audience, but the fact is, he still is an incredible guitarist. He’s also written an amazing catalog of timeless hit songs.
Tom Petersson is a revolutionary bass guitarist, incorporating a twelve string bass into a rock and roll rhythm. The drumming of Daxx Nielsen, who has unstoppable energy, is exactly who you want to pound out the beat of each Cheap Trick song.
Even if you don’t consider Cheap Trick as America’s best rock and roll band, you have to concede that they remain one of the best definitions of an American rock and roll band. Sixty minutes with Cheap Trick is plenty of time to show that.
Set List: Hello There | Big Eyes | California Man | On Top of the World | Need Your Love | Borderline | Tom Petersson bass solo | I Know What I Want | Baby Loves to Rock | Sick Man of Europe | That 70’s Song (In the Street) | I Want You to Want Me| Dream Police | Surrender