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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.

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