Live Review: Cheap Trick

Roseland Ballroom, New York, April 18, 1998

To fully appreciate the irony of Cheap Trick commemorating the twentieth anniversary of their 1978 breakthrough album Live at Budokan by performing every song from the original set-list in the original order, consider the band's smarter-than-the-average-Boomer-act business strategy of the last few years. While their contemporaries like Foreigner, Peter Frampton, and REO Speedwagon pooled their resources and hit the sheds and amusement parks to perform chestnuts for the nostalgic, Cheap Trick played arenas opening for Stone Temple Pilots and won new fans the old-fashioned way: by playing the underdog and kicking the headliner's ass. With a Steve Albini produced Sub-Pop single and a critically well-received new album to promote (last year's excellent Cheap Trick), the Chicago quartet seemed hell-bent on tackling the future head-on.

Well, forget all about that, because now the Trick has taken a solid cue from Kiss and Fleetwood Mac and embraced nostalgia with a big shit eating grin. The band is re-creating its Budokan-era show in eight cities to promote the release of an extended At Budokan: The Complete Concert (April 28), and the shtick will continue later this year with similar concerts celebrating the reissue of the first three albums. So much for moving forward ... at least for the rest of 1998. These shows actually mark the second time Budokan has kicked the band back a step. When the original album catapulted from being a Japan-only release to an American smash, the band had to postpone its fourth studio album, relearn all their old song arrangements and retrieve "I Want You to Want Me" from the rubbish heap. Dream Police would have to wait.

But enough grumbling. The original At Budokan went through the roof because it showcased Cheap Trick as one of the best live bands of its era, and tonight's show (a benefit for VH-1's "Save the Music" campaign promoting music education) proved that it still has the goods in spades. For all of the gimmickry (best epitomized by Rick Nielson's pick showers and trademark outlandish guitars, such as the quintuple-neck checkered monster he brandished for "Surrender"), Cheap Trick live is uniformly tight, as blistering and raw as it is cunningly melodic. Twelve-string bassist Tom Petersson and drummer Bun E. Carlos proved as potent and inventive a rhythm section as the Who's John Entwistle and Keith Moon, while Nielson's razor-sharp leads cut deeper than his over-the-top posturing. The real standout, however, was golden-maned Robin Zander, resplendent in a purple velvet suit and singing like a fallen teen angel in heat -- his twin crowning achievements being his high lead harmony on "Oh Caroline" and menacing, Johnny Rottenish snarl through the closing "Clock Strikes Ten."

"Surrender," arguably Cheap Trick's finest song, received the best reaction of the evening, although the triple-guitar rave-up during "Need Your Love" and three-part harmonies during the acoustically re-arranged "Oh Caroline" (punctuated by Nielson's quick guitar quote from the Yardbirds' "Heart Full of Soul") provided the most musically transcendent moments. Most fun was the encore's "Ain't That a Shame," featuring a walk-on by show opener (and one-time Trick producer) Todd Rundgren. Surprisingly, "I Want You to Want Me" came and went without much of a fuss. Indeed, the crowd was no match for the screaming Tokyo audience which helped make At Budokan such a blast. No doubt they were still miffed at the New York City Parks Department's eleventh-hour decree that the free show had to be moved from Central Park to the 2,000-capacity Roseland for reasons of "public safety." "Thank you for inviting us to Central Park," cracked Nielson at the beginning of the show. "Thank you, I'm Garth Brooks," joked Rundgren at the end, kicking the horse one last time for good measure.

As easy as it is to sneer at any "remember-when" spectacle, Cheap Trick revisiting Budokan is a hell of a surer bet than a Frampton or Sex Pistols revival. And if the nostalgia angle brings the band a little more publicity than they've enjoyed in the recent past, then more power to them. But here's hoping that once these commemorative shows are out of their system, Nielsen and company will get back into the studio, back in the game and back to the future.