Juke box heroes…….
Review by Andrew Manning and photos by Rich Ward
Back in 1981 Foreigner were a real mega band playing enormo-domes and stadiums across America riding high on the success of their iconic album “4” which spent an incredible ten weeks at the top of the Billboard album charts. It was during this time that this writer first saw them at the Birmingham Odeon fronted by original lead singer Lou Gramm and the support that night was local band Diamond Head. Since those halcyon days they have dissolved and re-formed several times but always with founder member Mick Jones (guitar/keyboards) at the helm. However in recent years his time on stage has sadly been restricted due to health issues and he has been happy to let the current members of the band keep the flame burning in his absence. So it was going to be interesting to see what tonight had in store at the sold out Symphony Hall. Was it going to be a gig with an absent friend? We would all have to wait and see.
Opening act was John Parr playing a very brief solo acoustic set. This legendary singer/songwriter found fame in the mid 80’s and achieved significant success over the pond in the USA. So it comes as a surprise to many that he is English and was born in Worksop, Nottinghamshire. Before starting the set with one of his hits ‘Naughty Naughty’ he reflected back on the time that Mick Jones told him in 1984 that he would be the perfect special guest for Foreigner. So some 34 years later it has finally happened and it appears good things do come to those who wait. He still looks every inch like an 80’s rock star with his shoulder length hair and came across well on the night as a likeable individual as he told the stories behind the music. ‘The Best A Man Can Get’, the song he wrote for the highly successful Gillette razor commercials, was up next swiftly followed by a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Oh Well’. Strong vocals and some delightful acoustic guitar playing really endeared him to the audience. However, it almost felt like it was over before it began as he introduced his final number ‘St Elmo’s Fire’ the song that really put him briefly on the world stage. It’s difficult to know what to make of a set consisting of 4 songs and lasting 20 minutes. Was it enjoyable? Yes! Was he good? Oh Yes!
Second on the bill was the very talented Joanne Shaw Taylor and her band. Now she is no stranger to these parts having previously headlined the venue in her own right and it was surprising to find her blues rock sandwiched between the American FM radio AOR music of the other artists on show. This was possibly a good marketing ploy to showcase her talents to a wider audience but it was obvious that many present were already vey familiar with our local home grown blueswoman as she received a great reception. Musically the band played really well across a carefully picked selection of numbers including ‘Nothing To Lose’, ‘Diamonds in the Dirt’ and ‘Wanna Be My Lover’. Particular mention should be made of Italian bassist Luigi Casanova who energetically provided a solid rhythm to counterbalance the intricate blues melodies and at times aggressive playing of Shaw Taylor. Must mention the great look he has for a bass player with his dreadlock hair all bunched up on top of his head but heaven knows how long his hair actually is. Would it reach the floor? Bob Fridzema on keyboards is another talented individual who added some nice textures to the overall sound and looked a perfect fit for the band. The only disappointment were the vocals which did seem to be slightly drowned out by the overall sound and at times it was difficult to hear the husky and whisky soaked vocals that are a trademark of Shaw Taylor’s fine music. The set closed with ‘Going Home’ off her debut White Sugar album. For the blues not to drown in its own history it is important that the likes of this talented young lady continue to prosper and the recent signing of a worldwide contract with Sony Music should help push her onto the next level.
With a full house ready to rock Foreigner arrived on stage with a bang, to rapturous applause, by bashing out ‘Double Vision’ with a visible level of energy and determination which then segued into ‘Head Games’. So who was actually on stage at this juncture? Well fronted by the imperious Kelly Hansen on lead vocals the band consisted of Jeff Pilson (bass), Tom Gimbel (guitars/ keyboards/ saxophone), Bruce Watson (guitars), Michael Bluestein (keyboards) and Chris Frazier (drums). This is a group of finely polished musicians who played off each other effortlessly from the start with Hansen imploring them from the off “To get the party started”.
The focal part of the band is the debonair looking Hansen who not only knows how to throw all the shapes but also adds the perfect expression and interpretation into the vocal delivery of songs written many years before he joined in 2005. His rapport with the audience was both humorous and engaging with even a time out for an audience member being invited to the front to tie his shoe laces. This guy is the real deal as a rock frontman and certainly no tribute novelty act. The tempo was raised to another level as the instantly recognisable keyboard introduction of ‘Cold As Ice’ started up. As far as rock music goes it doesn’t get any more classic than this as a rampant rendition of the number was delivered with Hansen even venturing out into the audience during the track’s instrumental segment. A particular highlight of this number was the outstanding vocal harmonies from the band which was of course supported by all in attendance.
The hits just kept on coming with ‘Waiting For A Girl Like You’ drifting seamlessly into ‘That Was Yesterday’. Every note and every second of the show to this point had the audience rejoicing but there was certainly some confusion with the evening resembling a game of musical chairs at times with those in the stalls not knowing whether to stand up or sit down to the obvious frustration of some. A cracking version of ‘Dirty White Boy’ was delivered with Hansen reaching out to the “wild crazy women” in front of him as he charged around the stage introducing an element of sexuality into the proceedings by pouting and cavorting his body to the powerful number.
It was finally time to welcome to the stage the master and the packed house rose as one to salute Mick Jones as he walked onto the stage. He must be delighted that such a talented group of musicians are still peddling out his gold plated masterpieces that were penned so long ago. Hansen was determined to keep the tempo high as all were encouraged to dig down deep to find that 20 year old rock ‘n’ roller in themselves as Jones stage front hit the strings to usher in ‘Feels Like The First Time’ the first Foreigner song he wrote back in 1976. Whilst there has been no new material for many years nobody seemed to care particularly when the epitome of essential AOR in the form of ‘Urgent’ started. The amazing sax from Gimbel on this number was a sight to behold as he turned this instrument into the rockiest form many will have ever seen and heard. The guy is a true artist moving during the evening between guitars, keyboard and sax as well as delivering backup vocals………..boy what a talent. The energy levels then sadly dipped during the customary keyboard and drum solos. Talented as they are on these instruments the show could have benefited from another couple of actual songs as only 12 numbers were played in total. Food for thought! The main set came to a conclusion with a rocking version of ‘Juke Box Hero’.
Atmospheric spacey keyboard sounds underpinned ‘Long, Long Way From Home’ as the band returned to the stage. Deservedly getting one of the biggest cheers of the night was ‘I Want To Know What Love Is’ and this certainly had the crowd swaying from side to side putting the icing on the cake for many as the band were joined on stage by a children’s choir although sadly their contribution couldn’t really be heard. The band heroically wrapped up a nostalgic evening with ‘Hot Blooded’.
It had been great to witness an evening of classic AOR with the band never letting it slip from beginning to end and staying faithful to the past. The gracious back catalogue still sounded fresh and exciting and it was great to see them back in Birmingham. To get a feel for the quality of the current band it would be well worth checking out their new album ‘Foreigner with the 21st Century Symphony Orchestra & Chorus’.
Cold As Ice
Waiting For A Girl Like You
That Was Yesterday
Dirty White Boy
Feels Like The First Time
Juke Box Hero
Long, Long Way From Home
I Want To Know What Love Is