The curtain tumbled down to reveal the number 40, a big round number with a lot of special significance.
“This year is Foreigner’s 40th anniversary,” singer Kelly Hansen told the crowd at Tampa’s MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre Wednesday night. “Four-zero. That’s older than many of you out here tonight.”
Heck, it’s almost as old as some of the newer members of the band. Which begs the question: What, exactly, are we celebrating on Foreigner’s 40th anniversary, anyway?
It’s a question worth asking, because it might be on the mind of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame voters come fall. There’s been a lot of talk this summer about a potential full-classic-lineup reunion between founding guitarist and songwriter Mick Jones and all his old ex-bandmates, including founding singer Lou Gramm. A fresh reappraisal of Foreigner’s jukebox-rocking ’70s and ’80s catalog – something a lot of folks probably haven’t thought much about since the Reagan administration – is probably long overdue.
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In building and rebuilding Foreigner over the years, Jones, 72, has ended up with an immensely enjoyable lineup as skilled as any he’s ever had around him – and, yes, that includes the old guys.
Hansen 56, is cut from the same cloth as Steven Tyler, sinewy and indefatigably athletic, with an acrobatic voice to match. On opener Double Vision, he was high-kicking and twirling his mic stand like a younger Alice Cooper; by second song Head Games he was out in the crowd, singing from the seats. Not only is his octave-scaling wail as good as Gramm’s, his presence is big enough to command the spotlight in his own right.
You could say the rest of the band fed off Hansen’s sprightly energy, but that would discount what they themselves brought to the big, open stage. Multi-instrumentalist Thom Gimbel, Foreigner’s longest-tenured member after Jones, strapped on a sax to deliver exuberant solos on Urgent and Long, Long Way From Home. Berklee-trained keyboardist Michael Bluestein traded sparkling, soft-focus synthesizers – always the cheesiest part of Foreigner’s hits, but oh, what savory cheese it is – with Jones on ballads Waiting For a Girl Like You and I Want to Know What Love Is. Bassist Jeff Pilson (formerly of Dokken and Dio) plowed through Dirty White Boy, his mane slapping sweat from his face.
Compared to all his younger bandmates, Jones was much more stoic and sedate, though his playing often drove the show – the jabbing piano of Cold As Ice, a fiery solo leading into Urgent, even a spin on lead vocals on the proggish, Moody Blues-style Starrider, which saw Gimbel flutin’ it up on a flute.
But no song showed off Foreigner’s chops like the epic Juke Box Hero. After a spacey solo from Bluestein and giant gong smash from drummer Chris Frazier, Hansen popped up atop a rising column near the soundboard, out in the center of the seats. The next 10 minutes were thick with big, throbbing slabs of old-school bowling-alley rock, stretched out with jam-outs and divergences and triple-guitar action, with Jones choking fierce, thrashy solos from his fretboard. There was one small Foreigner reunion on Wednesday – original drummer Dennis Elliott joined the band for Long, Long Way From Home and Hot Blooded – but after that full-bodied, sweat-soaked performance of Juke Box Hero, the legitimacy of Foreigner 2017 was awfully hard to dispute.
Joining Foreigner on this roadshow are their peers Cheap Trick, who entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, yet still seem as eager as ever to please.
Still split-kicking at 68 and whipping picks like a wood chipper, guitarist Rick Nielsen ground out relentless riffs on You Got It Going On and scratching and squealed through the timeless, exuberant solo to I Want You To Want Me. And bassist Tom Petersson led the group in a jittery, insistent cover of the Velvet Underground's Waiting For the Man. rumbling out an extended 12-string solo intro and crooning lead in a better-than-passable Lou Reed.
For cream-suited, pimp-hatted, singer Robin Zander, who lives in Safety Harbor, this was basically a hometown show. Zander's fiery sneer hasn't lost much of its agility; it spiked and sizzled on Never Had A Lot To Lose and a cover of the Beatles' Day Tripper, and echoed high above the walloping Need Your Love and monster ballad The Flame. For Dream Police, he dropped, screaming, to his knees, a sequined silver shawl draped across his shoulders. And for Surrender, he brought out daughter Robin-Sailor and some pals to sing "Mommy's all right, daddy's all right..." right behind him. When your family’s in the audience, every arena must feel like Budokan.
Opening the night was Jason Bonham's Led Zeppelin Experience, the faithful, at times ferocious tribute act featuring Bonzo's son Jason on the skins. The quartet thundered through Zep classics like Ramble On, Immigrant Song and When the Levee Breaks -- which, in a departure from tours past, saw the drummer actually pounding out his papa's iconic intro, rather than yielding to a track.
Even acts who’ve been around 40 years evolve in their own way, be it Bonham playing his dad’s toughest songs or Foreigner trotting out a choir from Blake High School to sing backup on I Want to Know What Love Is. Foreigner at 40 is an evolved version of the group that sold 80 million records back in the day, but in no way is it any less entertaining.
“We set out on a path to come back,” Jones said, “and we worked and strived like crazy over these 12 years to bring ourselves back into this kind of venue and prestige.”
It worked. The Rock Hall might call, or it might not. Either way, for Foreigner in 2017, 40 years really is a number worth celebrating.
-- Jay Cridlin