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Tesla, American Dog, Vegabonds team for guitar-centric show at HOB Cleveland

Tesla concert at House of Blues Cleveland 8-19-2014


We first heard of Tesla—the band—back in the late 1980’s. We caught their act live when they opened for Def Leppard at the old Richfield Coliseum in early 1988. The “Rock of Ages” stalwarts were touring in support of Hysteria, their long-awaited follow-up to 1983’s multiplatinum Pyromania. Tesla were still plugging their 1986 Geffen debut, Mechanical Resonance.

Tesla, American Dog, Vegabonds teamed up for a guitar-centric show at HOB Cleveland on August 19, 2014.
Peter M. Roche
Tesla rocks out at HOB Cleveland 8-19-2014
Peter M. Roche

We gushed over the concert days later at St. Edward High School. In art class, a metal-minded senior named Mario overheard us singing Tesla’s praises and loaned us his cassette copy of Resonance. We took instantly to the hard rock swagger of early classics like “EZ Come, EZ Go” and “Cumin’ Atcha Live.” It was just one of those tapes where you’d let the entire side play out, flip the cassette, hit play, and repeat.

Tesla celebrated their twenty-fifth anniversary in 2011. We’d never have guessed in art class that we’d still be keeping tabs on them a quarter-century down the line. Or that they’d be rockin’ even harder than ever.

“These guys sound just as good as they did in the ‘80s!” remarked a fellow reviewer several songs into the band’s set at House of Blues Cleveland last night.

He was right.

But that’s how rock ‘n’ roll has played out for a lot of the era’s head-bangers: Metallica are now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Motley Crue and Alice Cooper just played Blossom, and Def Leppard will be there next week with KISS. The demographic Skid Row spoke of in “Youth Gone Wild” has struck middle age. Look around, and you’ll see some bands (and fans) are dealing with their 40s and 50s more gracefully than others, knocking out their “oldies” onstage with as much passion (and accuracy) as ever—weight gain and hair loss be damned.

Two decades removed from their biggest chart-topper (and despite a four-year hiatus in the late ‘90s) Tesla are still cumin’ at us live with new music. In an age dominated by hair metal, the pre-grunge MTV darlings raced up the pop charts—only to eschew the norm with a live acoustic album (presaging the “unplugged” boom of ’92-94). They’ve sold 14 million albums since their 1982 inception, and just about anyone who ever kept an ear to the scene knows at least one of their tunes by heart.

The band took its name from Serbian-born engineer Nicola Tesla, who patented an induction motor and made groundbreaking discoveries in telephony and radio before moving to France—then the U.S.—to work for Thomas Edison in the 1880s.

Legend has it the inventor fell out with his employer after the American tinkerer reneged on a deal to pay him for improvements to his system of direct current generators. Today Tesla is known as the father of the modern AC (alternating current), but he spent his later years in obscurity, bouncing around New York and financing his own projects (like his arc light system)—to varying degrees of success.

The history of Tesla the band is more straightforward—and refreshingly devoid of the ego trips and woebegone tales of in-fighting addiction that permanently derail other arena acts. These guys are proud of their no-B.S. esthetic, and it shows. It’s always been about the music with Tesla: Just good old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll, Sacramento style. Still is, judging from the near-sellout on August 19th.

Singer Jeff Keith and the boys have made the Euclid Avenue venue something of a second home in recent years, visiting on an almost annual basis since its 2004 opening. Billboard recently cited HOB Cleveland as the 11th most-happening club in the nation. Upbeat, lively, positivistic shows like the one Tesla put on yesterday are part of the reason why it’s become a go-to destination for in-your-face gigs with legacy bands and rising up-and-comers alike.

Tuesday’s soiree was no different from the Tesla’s previous decibel-raking HOB stints, notwithstanding the Cleveland debut of several songs from their new album, Simplicity (out now on Frontiers Records). Still possessed of his high, raspy (but not unpleasantly shrill voice), Keith led the band on a 110-minute blast through the past that didn’t let up until the midsection—at which time Tesla went acoustic on a pair of “greatest hits.”

The quintet still boasts all its longtime members, save guitarist Tommy Skeoch (who departed nine years ago). Taking the stage first were drummer Troy Luccketta, bassist Brian Wheat, and auxiliary guitarist Dave Rude. Resident guitar hero Frank Hannon strode into view wearing a Stetson—and brandishing a monster Gibson ES-1275 double-neck guitar, from which he coaxed a litany of feedback as Keith emerged from stage right.
The guys let loose with new track “MP3” before diving into 1991’s Psychotic Supper with “Edison’s Medicine (Man Out of Time).”

The powerful “I Wanna Live” (from 2008’s Forever More) and “Hang Tough” (from 1989’s The Great Radio Controversy) found the band establishing a rapport with the audience—particularly folks down front—that was sustained to the last. Created nearly twenty years apart, the tunes also evinced the consistency of the band’s songwriting over time.

Hannon strummed an acoustic guitar for the intro to new single “So Divine” but reverted to his electric later. He played bottleneck slide on “Heaven’s Trail (No Way Out)” as Rude handled the crunchy chords. Hannon swapped instruments all night long—from the red double-neck to his standard Gibson SG (like the one given to him by Def Leppard’s Steve Clark) to 6 and 12-string acoustics. He shaped and seasoned his guitar sounds with a variety of effects pedals at his feet, but he also used a Heilsound “talk box”—and sometimes he’d even manipulate the signal by waving his hands, conductor-style, in the vicinity of his ether-wave theremin.

Wheat nailed down the bottom end, thumping his taped fingers over his Fender Thunderbird bass as Luccketta orchestrated Tesla’s percussive attack on his Tama kit. But Wheat took a seat after “Mama’s Fool” to play piano on whimsical Simplicity cut “Life Is a River,” relegating bass duty to Rude. The newcomer—who’s toured with Scorpions and played in Hannon’s solo band— favored Gibson Explorers and Les Pauls throughout the set, and complemented Frank perfectly.

The last dose of new material (“Burnout to Fade”) came sandwiched between old goodies “The Way It Is” and “What You Give.” The hyperkinetic Keith—who still cops wiggly dance moves a la Iggy Pop and Steven Tyler (Aerosmith)—was a sweaty mess by this point, strutting and duck-walking anywhere there was room.
“Did anyone come here to not get crazy?” Keith jokingly tested.

The band decreased the volume (slightly) for its cover of the Five Man Electrical Band classic “Signs,” which segued into Hannon’s classical guitar intro to uber-hit “Love Song.” The crowd had sung along with Keith thus far on the barnburners and blues numbers, and had no trouble keeping up with the hooky refrain to Tesla’s quintessential ballad.

The encore featured a trilogy of tunes from Mechanical Resonance—and a guest singer. “Gettin’ Better” is still a terrific musical antidepressant, and “Modern Day Cowboy” remains the perfect musical metaphor for the band’s take-no-prisoners MO. Finale “Little Suzi”—the Tesla retool of 1981 PhD hit “Little Suzi’s On the Up”—was just what the doctor ordered.

Rabid sleaze-rockers American Dog warmed the crowd with a half-hour of testosterone-fueled guitar jams culled from a handful of discs issued in the noughties (Scars-n-Bars, Hard, Mean, etc.).

The Columbus, Ohio quartet signed with the artist management firm belonging to Guns ‘n’ Roses impresario Doug Goldstein last year before dropping their new album—Neanderthal—in early 2014. The band bookended their set with cuts from the new disc, and it turned out that going a little “Neanderthal” made for choice catharsis on a hazy/rainy weeknight in late summer. The HOB audience certainly lapped it up.

Hirsute singer / bassist Michael Hannon (ex-Dangerous Toys, Salty Dog) thrilled with tongue-in-cheek chest-thumpers like the grungy “Real Nitty Gritty” (from 2012’s Poison Smile), pugnacious “Beaten, Broken, Etc.” (from 2007’s Hard), and lowbrow bacchanal “Boozehound” (from 2009’s Mean). Hannon even dusted off the rowdy insult anthem “Human Garbage Can” (from 1997’s pre-American Dog CD, Hilljack) for the occasion.

A little sophomoric? Perhaps. But it was all in good fun. While a scan of the Dog’s song titles may evince the Dog’s keen sense of humor, nothing about the band’s muscular musicianship was half-assed or done in jest.
Clad in work shirts, tees, and patched denim vests, guitarists Steve Theado and Vinnie Salvatore wielded their instruments like medieval weapons on “Dirty Fun” and “Stuck in the Mud,” adding prodigious, razor-sharp chops to the grooves emanating from Hannon’s Fender Jazz bass (like Tesla, they preferred Gibsons—specifically, Les Pauls). Drummer Michael “Hazard” Harris was the rhythmic glue binding the redneck rock together, his kick bass and snare attack a potent propellant for the boisterous musical brew.

Hannon (who—to our knowledge—isn’t related to Frank) invited converted fans to visit at the merch table following the Dog’s set. But he advised them not to do so at the expense of the gracious headliner:

“Promise me, you will not miss a minute of Tesla!” he urged. “Because they kick ass!”

Nashville five-piece The Vegabonds opened with a dose of southern rock straight out of the Allman Brothers / Lynyrd Skynyrd playbook. We also detected a bit of Black Crowes—even Springsteen—in the sonic stew of “Georgia Fire,” “Run Boy Run,” “Rooftop Surfin’,” and “Ballad of The Movers and Shakers.”

The group’s most recent work, RCA Studio B, dropped last year, but the Vegas also dipped into their 2010 debut (Dear Revolution) and the 2012 effort Southern Sons. Vocalist Daniel Allen showed off his powerful pipes and strummed a guitar when lead axe man Richard Forehand embarked on one his many crisp solos. Keyboardist Beau Cooper added just the right amount of piano / organ (courtesy his Korg synth) for that revved-up Zac Brown-meets-.38 Special vibe. Bassist Paul Bruens and drummer Bryan Harris looked like they were having the most fun.

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