Day five of Bluesfest brought a night of classic powerhouse rock to both the Bell main stage and the River stage with a return to the music of my youth. On May 16th, the combined forces of Styx, Don Felder, and Foreigner, launched their massive U.S. Soundtrack of Summer Tour 2014, with an off-the-beaten-path stop right here in Ottawa. For me, to finally see and hear these bands for the first time brought me back to an era of music that I lived and breathed, with songs that were so well written both instrumentally and lyrically…songs that would light the fire to my own musical development in the years to come. Day 5 was an emotional ride that triggered a flood of memories that will be difficult to put into words…but I’m gonna try…
A torrential downpour of rain brought about a half hour delay to the Styx show. Still, it didn’t deter the thousands of diehard fans who gathered, donned in their slickers and umbrellas, waiting for their rock gods to appear. When the boys finally spilled onto the Bell main stage and played that first resounding chord of “The Grand Illusion” (The Grand Illusion – 1977), I nearly dropped my plastic wrapped zoom lens into the puddle I was standing in.
Hearing those iconic guitar chords, doubled up by Tommy Shaw and James (J.Y.) Young brought me back in an instant as if I’d just dropped the needle on the vinyl itself. Then I heard Larry Gowan open his mouth to sing, and I realized first hand that they could not have chosen a better musician to pull off the music of Styx. He was perched stage right on his rotating pedestal, dancing in front of his keyboard as he sang.
More of his amazing vocal talent ensued with “You’re Fooling Yourself” (The Grand Illusion), and the captivating, “Lady” (Styx II – 1973), with spine tingling three part harmonies by Shaw, Young, and bassist Ricky Phillips on the chorus. More of this vocal harmony work that their music is so noted for was present in “Superstars“ (The Grand Illusion), and of course, in “Sweet Madame Blue”…from my favorite Styx album, Equinox (1975), featuring those spot-on drum rolls by Todd Sucherman, and a masterful guitar solo by Young. Young also showed what he could do on lead vocals early in the show with “Light Up” (Equinox).
Tommy Shaw commended Canada for their support of the band throughout the years, as he threw out handfuls of guitar picks into the crowd, then decided it was time to crank things up with “Blue Collar Man” (Pieces of Eight – 1978), featuring himself on lead vocals.
Gowan was later left in solitude on the stage to play a number of arrangements, dabbling in short excerpts from the Stones, Beatles, and The Doors, and encouraging the audience in a sing-along. He then played some of his own composition, “Moonlight Desires” (Great Dirty World – 1987), before delving straight into a few bars of “Bohemian Rhapsody”. After he’d declared that was enough of that, he dove into the piano intro to “Come Sail Away” (The Grand Illusion), where the rest of the band members made their reappearance on stage to join him. During the course of Gowan’s solo performance, the rain had stopped, leaving the lovely gift of a double helix rainbow, which formed an arc from one end of the grounds to the other, and was rejoiced by all.
After what was thought to be the end of the show, the boys walked off the stage, only to re-emerge a few minutes later, throwing out plenty of band swag to the audience. Gowan led the way, draped in a Canadian flag. He took it off to reveal his snazzy black glitter jacket underneath, and attached the flag to the front of his keyboard where it was proudly displayed.
Gowan is the band’s only Canadian citizen. The band resumed in full force with Gowan singing the theatrically flavoured and vocally challenging, “Rockin’ The Paradise”, from their 1981 concept album, Paradise Theatre. The show ended with the heavy rockin‘, “Renegade” (Pieces Of Eight), featuring Shaw on lead vocals and another magnificent guitar solo by Young. When the show was over, the boys took a final bow, and tossed out picks and sticks to the crowd. There are not many bands I would stand willingly out in a heavy downpour of rain for. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.
After I had taken my happily soaked self over to a sheltered area to sort out my notes, I heard the distinctly familiar voice of Don Felder, and the music of his former band, the Eagles, coming from the River Stage. I stayed put, rather than tackle my way through the already heavy crowd, but was able to find a sweet spot overlooking the River Stage area.
From there I could hear the ethereal vocal harmonies of “Seven Bridges Road”, played to perfection by Felder and his 4-piece band, each with a list of accolades a mile long including The Who, the Eagles, Joe Walsh, David Gilmour, CSN, Pat Benatar, Whitesnake, and Kenny Loggins, to name a few. Felder’s essential guitar work and writing effort with the Eagles, led to hits, “Those Shoes”, “Victim of Love”, “The Disco Strangler”, “Too Many Hands”, and the iconic, “Hotel California”.
During the time of the band’s break-up from 1980 until 1994, Felder became busy in his own career of film and session work projects. He authored an autobiographical book about the trials and tribulations of his time with the Eagles called, Heaven and Hell: My Life in the Eagles (1974-2001) (released 2008). He also released two solo albums, Airborne (1983), and his most recent, Road To Forever (2012, re-released w/4 bonus tracks in 2013), from which he performed the country-rock flavoured, “Girls In Black” during tonight’s show.
Other favorites performed by Felder and the band were some of the Eagles rockier hits, “Witchy Woman”, “Heartache Tonight”, and one of my favorites, “Life In The Fast Lane”. He also performed “Heavy Metal” (1981)…a song he wrote for the animated cult film of the same name. And when it came time for “Hotel California”, he strapped on his classic white Gibson EDS-1275 Double 12 model guitar, and was joined onstage by none other than Tommy Shaw of Styx. A perfect touch to end the show with the treat of witnessing these two stellar musicians jamming together.
The music of Foreigner remains for me some of the best rock songs ever written. Heavy guitar work, a unique addition of blazing sax, strong keyboard accents, and the distinct vocals of one man whose voice has been attributed as one of the most successful in rock history, Lou Gramm.
Foreigner, originally formed in 1976, has undergone a series of band member changes, including Gramm’s final departure in 2003. The only remaining original band member currently in the line-up is guitarist, Mick Jones. The rest of the crew is made of Michael Bluestein (keys/bkg vox), Thom Gimbel (sax/rhythm guitar/flute/bkg vox), Jeff Pilson (bass/bkg vox), Bruce Watson (lead guitar/bkg vox), Chris Frazier (drums), and amazing lead vocalist/frontman, Kelly Hansen. Together they deliver the true spirit and sound that is deserving of the music of Foreigner.
The much anticipated show began with three heavy hitters, “Double Vision”, with its wonderfully dirty guitar intro, followed by “Head Games”, and the instantly recognizable keyboard lead into “Cold As Ice”. Kelly Hansen took commanding force of every song, strutting the stage in true rock star fashion, with a strong robust voice that more than fills the shoes of taking over as front man for this band. He even made his way down from the stage and travelled up the center aisle to shake hands with the enthusiastic crowd before slowing things down with the gorgeous ballad, “Waiting For A Girl Like You”.
One of the highlights for me was Mick Jones’ appearance on “Starrider”…a song I had always adored from Foreigner’s first self-titled album in 1977, full of rich, medieval flavour, building energy, and soaring voices. He played and sang the song beautifully, with the sweet sounds of the band’s multi-instrumentalist, Thom Gimbel on flute. Hansen later brought his powerful vocal tones in to create an awe-inspiring crescendo to the song…a true masterpiece.
“Juke Box Hero” generated a thunderous call-and-response on the chorus between Hansen and the audience. Their extended version included a killer guitar solo by Watson. By this time, I had carried myself a little further back from the stage, and could hear the music coming out loud, strong and crystal clear. Next came a driving, funky intro which turned into the 1984 power ballad, and the band‘s biggest hit to date, “I Wanna Know What Love Is”. The band was joined in a very special appearance by 18 very excited members of Ottawa’s Brookfield High School choir, who lent their angelic voices in a performance that each of them will carry with them for the rest of their lives.
The show ended with the band’s sexiest, most blatant of them all, “Hot Blooded”, featuring one last ripping guitar solo by Jones, and sent the crowd into dance delirium. It was an amazing ending to a night filled with the music of some of our rock heroes…ageless, enduring, and enjoyed by all ages. Thank you, Bluesfest.