Cheap Trick Delivers a Good Old-Fashioned Rock Show at Public Hall

Last night at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum's 2016 Spring Benefit concert, newly minted inductees Cheap Trick made it clear they were still in disbelief to be in such elite company. "How's everybody feeling out there tonight? We're feeling pretty good ourselves. … Hall of Fame, holy shit," frontman Robin Zander said at one point, while guitarist Rick Nielsen referenced the fact that the Rockford band made it in on the first ballot after years of eligibility. You can see a slideshow of photos from the concert here

Still, Cheap Trick's 100-minute set at Public Hall was anything but the band coasting on its achievements or resting on its laurels. In fact, the group opened the show with a stellar new song, "Heart On the Line," the first track on the recently released Bang, Zoom, Crazy…Hello LP. The danceable, hard rock adrenalin jolt set the tone for the rest of the night, which featured Cheap Trick's usual mix of set staples and catalog chestnuts. Among the highlights: a cover of Dobie Gray's "The In Crowd," which the band transformed into a doomy, Iggy Pop-like dirge; an equally ominous, roaring "Heaven Tonight," dedicated to a fan who had apparently come from England for the show; and the thundering "Baby Loves To Rock," a blues-infused rocker that found Zander stalking the edge of the stage with a commanding air.

As these songs demonstrated, Cheap Trick excels at the art of controlled chaos, e.g., note-perfect performances imbued with the right amounts of underdog grit and rough edges. These qualities came through even more, however, on a fantastic version of "Ain't That A Shame," which featured an extended intro and a shambling, Friday-night-loose rock ’n’ roll vibe. (Nielsen even exclaimed, "Let's party!" during the song.)

Still, Cheap Trick wouldn't be such a consistent (and consistently strong) live band without the quirks and strengths of its individual players. Nielsen cycled through his collection of colorful guitars—including a custom orange Hamer Box Guitar, which he used to coax out scorching, hotrodding licks on "California Man"—and did his usual pick-flicking toward the audience. Zander remains an incredible vocalist with a dynamic range of expressions; he unleashed an (appropriately) bratty, juvenile delinquent sneer on "ELO Kiddies" and exuded catharsis on the howling angst of "Surrender." And bassist Tom Petersson was his usual reserved, workman-like self on stage left. Still, he took center stage for an evocative, haunting bass solo, which segued right into a lead vocal turn on a noisy, racket-like cover of the Velvet Underground's "I'm Waiting For The Man." Anchoring all of this was drummer Daxx Nielsen, who kept the music motoring forward with precise-but-swinging timekeeping.

Cheap Trick's newest songs—the menacing, moody "When I Wake Up Tomorrow" and the jangly, anthemic "No Direction Home"—fit seamlessly with these older cuts, both in terms of sound and energy. This felt like a point of pride for the band—in fact, Nielsen prefaced "When I Wake Up Tomorrow" with the stat that Bang, Zoom, Crazy…Hello's Top 40 chart showing marked the "first time in 28 years we're back on the charts." This commercial success hasn't always been a given: Just prior to "Borderline," the guitarist quipped that "not a lot of people bought this record," in reference to 1983's Next Position Please. (After the tune, he cheekily said, "Now, 6,000 more people have heard [the song].")

The only real weak spot was power ballad "The Flame," mainly because Zander's usually pristine voice showed some cracks as he went for the higher notes. Plus, the cavernous Public Hall space doesn't lend itself to crisp sound or sonic nuances, which could make the band's sound come across as muddy or dragging. Still, those were minor quibbles: Right after "The Flame," the band launched into the raucous "I Want You To Want Me," which inspired joyous dancing from the audience, and then into the life-affirming "Dream Police."

During "Dream Police," Zander knelt down on the stage and a crew member placed a silvery, disco ball-like jacket around his shoulders. The effect was much like a prize fighter taking a breather—a fitting image for a band who's been fighting and scrapping for years for respect and acclaim. "It's a real privilege for us to be here," Zander said at the end of the song. The sincerity in his voice was evident—a signal that decades into its career, Cheap Trick still enjoys kicking off the weekend with an old-fashioned rock 'n' roll show.   
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