Cheap Trick proves their heyday never ended
To at least a couple of generations of Midwestern kids, the Cheap Trick of the late '70s and early '80s is the great American rock band. They were heavy but not oppressive, comical but not snide or frivolous, melodic but not wimpy. They were Rockford's answer to John, Paul, George and Ringo — four distinct personalities whose sum was greater than the individual parts.
After more than 25 years together, not much has changed to alter that opinion. At a sold-out Vic performance Saturday, the quartet of Rick Nielsen, Robin Zander, Tom Petersson and Bun E. Carlos delivered powerhouse versions of their greatest hits and then some, including a handful of new songs from a forthcoming studio album that suggested the glory days never really died; they just hibernated for a few years.
The show was a double-dip of pleasure for fans who like their rock brimming with bullish guitars, smart lyrics and sing-along choruses. Guided By Voices opened with a generous 65-minute set that allowed the Dayton, Ohio, quintet to survey the latter half of their 20-year career. Like Cheap Trick, singer Robert Pollard is enamored with the British bands of the '60s and '70s, albeit with more of an emphasis on serpentine progressive-rock.
Pollard struck poses like an overgrown elf and bellowed lyrics in a faux English accent; his songs try to compress suites that would normally cover an entire album side into three minutes, and they're packed with details. "Christian Animation Torch Carriers" found Doug Gillard playing a baroque guitar solo over an animated John Entwistle-like bass line; "Back to the Lake" alternated different guitar and bass voicings through each verse-chorus cycle; and "Storm Vibrations" subverted pop's linear forms altogether to become a jagged cut-and-paste epic of tempestuous guitars and tortured pleas ("Does it hurt you to love like me?"). When he puts his mind to it, Pollard can deliver a straight-ahead melody with the best of them, capping the set with the gorgeous ballad "Twilight Campfighter" and the power-pop sugar-rush "Glad Girls."
In a gesture of solidarity with the headliners, Gillard quoted Trick's "Clock Strikes Ten" during one of his solos on a new song, "Seek the Stars." Like Guided By Voices, Cheap Trick draws from British influences — Beatles, Move, Yardbirds, Jeff Beck — and fuses them with early American rock 'n' roll.
Trick's radical interpretation of Fats Domino's "Ain't That a Shame" remains a defining moment from their breakthrough "At Budokan" album, and it sounded heavier and more metallic than ever at the Vic. Carlos, demonstrating that he has fully recovered from back surgery, drove the band with demon energy; he is the stealth bomber of rock drummers, his kit set low to the ground so that his hands appear to barely move as they strafe the skins and cymbals. "Tonight It's You" was his tour de force, Keith Moon-like rolls supported by Petersson's seismic 12-string bass tones.
Zander tunneled through this avalanche of sound with a voice remarkably undiminished by the years. With his cleft chin and blond hair, he remains a pin-up boy with a heart of darkness. Though Cheap Trick's songs have always on the surface conveyed a certain air of frivolity, underscored by Nielsen's hop-scotching, playing-hooky-from-school demeanor onstage, they've got a core as twisted as a pulp-fiction novella. "Heaven Tonight" underscored the ambiguity; ostensibly a breathy love song, it spirals into a drug-induced abyss. At the Vic, it became a tortured interior dialogue that found Zander's character going mad while Nielsen as his alter-ego mocked him from the shadows: "You can never come down." At least two of the new songs suggested Cheap Trick is back to matching those impressive standards. "Best Friend" found Zander again possessed by the voices in his head, the song escalating from relative calm to a frenzy. And "Scent of a Woman" came on like gangbusters to open the encore, sexual politics turned into a blue-eyed soul rampage, underscored with bombastic Who-like power chords. Tossing guitar picks by the fistfuls into the audience, Nielsen was a cartoon come to life in his baseball cap, shades and shiny, salmon-colored suit. Zander and Petersson were Carnaby Street dandies, Carlos the blue-collar blacksmith. Their boldness in fashion was matched by the sheer bravado of their sound: arena-rock a-go-go that mixed flash and finesse, style and substance.
"We're all all right," they chanted in the immortal "Surrender," and there still was no denying it.