Rock and roll’s been alive and well in Cleveland ever since Alan “Moondog” Freed coined the phase back in the 1950’s.
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But Huey Lewis & The News reminded Ohio fans just how healthy music is—and how vigorous they still are—when they returned to town for a hundred-minute show at the new Hard Rock Rocksino at Northfield Park on Friday night.
Outside, the frigid wind bit so hard you could cry. Inside the 2,200-seater hall, Lewis and company defibrillated ticket-holders with a dynamic set that was equal parts nostalgia, nuance, and (surprise!) new material. And Bill Gibson’s kick drum was the palpitation that got “The Heart of Rock and Roll” beating anew.
Striding onstage in a dotted dress shirt and cobalt-tinted shades, Lewis steered his gang through the MTV-era hit with extra oomph, no doubt mindful of Cleveland’s significance in the lyrics, in rock history—and in his own band’s meteoric rise to fame in the ‘80s. He thrust a fist in the air when he said it, and the crowd went nuts.
The News celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the album containing that hit—Sports—last year.
Lewis attended grade school with Gibson and teamed with keyboardist Sean Hopper in a prior band, Clover, after dropping out of college and hitchhiking cross-country with his harmonica. Additional musicians—including guitarist Chris Hayes and cigarette-smoking bassist Mario Cippollina—were recruited from a rival area band to form the first incarnation of The News at the end of the ‘70s.
Written under make-or-break circumstances, Sports went on to top the Billboard Chart in Summer 1984 and yield four Top Ten singles. The album was produced by Lewis and the band, who took a gamble by withholding their master tapes from Chrysalis while the band underwent a corporate shake-up. The prescience paid off; Huey and the boys became radio and video mainstays for the rest of the decade. Lewis would go on to dabble in acting in the ‘90s and ‘00s—but always returned to the band.
If Huey’s “Hello, Cleveland!” greeting seemed predictable, he compensated with lots of funny, unscripted banter as the January 24th evening progressed. He congratulated newly-appointed Browns football coach Mike Pettine—but said he wouldn’t want the job. He polled the audience for diehard News fans by asking who’d seen them in concert before, and if anyone present attended their 1982 gig at the old Agora.
“C’mon, don’t lie!” laughed Lewis.
The first of several offerings from 2001’s overlooked Plan B, “My Other Woman” had the group clicking and the crowd pumped. Gibson was the engine that kept the News grinding out familiar favorites and beloved back-tracks like a well-oiled machine, keeping rhythm and tempo from behind a Yamaha kit overlooking Lewis. Dapper-dressed bassist John Pierce maintained a sturdy but sinewy bottom end (on both four and five-stringed instruments) from a position to the left of Gibson’s rostrum, while Hopper manned a bank of Hammonds and Korgs stage left.
“Say, can you gamble here?” Huey mused on the Rocksino name. “I’m feelin’ lucky tonight!”
The News’ three-man horn section perched on an elevated platform opposite Hopper and Gibson, with longtime rhythm guitarist / sax player Johnny Colla positioned up front in jeans and Beatle boots. L.A. session guitarist James Harrah hung out to Lewis’s left, his fluid fingers recreating—and expanding upon—riffs everybody knows on a green XOTIC guitar. The horns shined on the soulful “Doing It All For My Baby” (from 1986’s Fore!), but deferred to Harrah’s snarling lead guitar on “I Want a New Drug.”
Pop confessional “I Ain’t Perfect” dovetailed neatly with News doo-wop ballad “If This Is It,” but Harrah’s sizzling solo took the spotlight again on “Jacob’s Ladder.”
“Are you with me so far?” Lewis called for a sit-rep. The crowd roared back.
“Ah! That’s the right answer. That’s a Cleveland answer!”
Lewis paid homage to the old school sounds popularized by STAX, Chess Records, and Motown artists with an effective mid-set medley that didn’t sacrifice any of the News’s own pop-rock sensibilities. A cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Um Um Um Um Um Um (Curious Mind)” capitalized on the band’s tight vocal harmonies, and a spin on “Little Bitty Pretty One” (from 1994’s Four Chords and Several Years Ago) breathed new life into the Bobby Day / Thurston Harris gem.
Brand new original “While We’re Young” tugged heartstrings and tickled eardrums with fresh melodies gift-wrapped in Huey’s signature pop R&B sound, but jangly dance number “Heart and Soul” returned listeners to the band’s Sports heyday.
Lewis and co. stole “(She’s) Some Kind of Wonderful” back from Grand Funk Railroad and gave it back to Soul Brothers Six songwriter John Ellison with spirited interest, then continued down Throwback Lane with a brassy, xylophone-enhanced (!) version of J.J. Jackson’s “But It’s Alright.” The News’ own 2001 song “We’re Not Here for a Long Time, We’re Here for a Good Time” practically fit right in.
“All right, if you insist!” quipped harmonica-huffing Huey, who still looks younger than his 60-plus years.
The singer reminisced a little more, teased a female fan about when it was time to sit versus stand, then introduced the incomparable News horn section: Rob Sudduth (tenor sax), Johnnie Bamont (baritone sax), and Marvin “Jersey Boys” Mc Fadden (trumpet).
Prefacing the ebullient, unabashedly ‘80s anthem “Power of Love,” Lewis said he never imagined he’d have to play it the Back to the Future soundtrack smash every night for the next thirty years when they wrote it.
“But we’ll do it for you, Cleveland,” he relented.
And do it they did, with Lewis accompanying his brass men on harp while Harrah unleashed another flurry of Stevie Ray Vaughan-like licks on guitar. A slower, almost Calypso-fied version of breakthrough hit “Do You Believe In Love” (from Picture This) found Lewis settling his pipes in a decidedly less risky range—but the Rocksino audience was willing and able to carry the Robert “Mutt” Lange-penned chorus.
Making good on an earlier promise to play “Walking on a Thin Line” for a Vietnam veteran seated down front, Lewis sang the Sports deep cut on behalf of all enlistees past and present while wearing the gentleman’s ball cap (he returned it later). Show-capper “Workin’ for a Livin’” would make as good a theme for all Northeast Ohioans as it has for the San Francisco bar band-made good who wrote it.
Drawbacks? A few, but no blame to lay at Huey’s feet (although we wouldn’t have minded hearing the Sports a capella exercise “Bad Is Bad.” The mix in the Rocksino concert hall has been good since the venue last month, but Pierce’s bass could have been louder on this occasion. And while the cushioned folding chairs are comfortable, they’re small—like the seats at The Q—and everyone feels like they’re sitting atop one another. But that’s a minor complaint, given that people tend to stand up when a concert starts and stay standing (and you must, if you hope to see anything).
We’d have preferred staying seated for a couple tunes (Huey said it was okay), but we didn’t like the taste of our neighbor’s elbow.