REVIEW: Don’t stop believin’ in Journey

Journey GigCity EdmontonHow many rock bands do you know that can not only fill Canadian hockey barns 42 years into their career – but perform with the same fiery spirit as youngsters in their first year?

Enter Journey.

If most “heritage” acts don’t fade away into booze and drug addled oblivion, they just start treating rock ‘n’ roll like their job.  One they hate, that is. Not these guys. With joy, enthusiasm and stellar musicianship, Journey is sticking it to anyone who said they sucked, that they are corporate rock whores – and thank God.

For a full house at Rexall Place Saturday night, the band didn’t waste any time grabbing the audience’s attention with their 1983 megahit Separate Ways. The easy FM rock fave showcased the band’s tight instrumental adeptness and skillful songwriting ability to launch a show that equitably balanced rockers and ballads. The set traded between songs like hometown San Francisco ode Lights to feel good rocker Be Good To Yourself, to the wispy cell phone a-lightener Open Arms into the bouncy up-tempo riff rocker Only the Young.

There has always been more to this band than meets the ears.  In 42 years of performing, history naturally begins to accumulate. The show covered songs by every lead singer the band has had except Gregg Rolie, a remarkable feat given Steve Perry was only in the band for around 10 years. What of the rest of the time? The Robert Fleischman era was featured in the blistering rockers Winds of March and Wheel In The Sky – pretty much the only minor key songs in the band’s catalogue. Both were sung by well by their latest singer Arnel Pineda, only eight years in the band. The Steve Augeri era, which was actually a couple years longer than Perry’s tenure, was given a brief nod with a half-hearted run through of Faith in the Heartland (2005), probably the weakest song of the evening.

Journey GigCity EdmontonThere was very new addition in drummer Omar Hakim, practically a Journey newborn, joining the band about three weeks ago following Deen Castronovo’s arrest on domestic violence charges in June. While the former drummer’s vocals were missed, Hakim – noted more for his jazz work over the years with Miles Davis and Weather Report – brought a high degree of musicality to the band. His confidence was apparent throughout the set, but most noticeable for his decision to partially alter the original drum arrangement for Don’t Stop Believin’, pretty much everyone’s favorite Journey tune, without losing sight of its unusual signature groove.

As lead vocalist, Pineda did a passable job. He wasn’t bad, he wasn’t outstanding, he did the job. But it doesn’t really matter. Fans seem to have gotten past the “Perry’s not singing” stage. Fleischman, Perry, Augeri, Rolie, Pineda … it’s not necessarily the singers the fans love. It’s the songs.

In a set filled with Greatest Hits, it’s doubtful fans were disappointed that some of the deeper catalogue stuff was missing. When they were written, up tempo guitar rockers Stone In Love, Escape, and Any Way You Want It were lessons in how to create the perfect catchy rock anthem, but in 2015, the more remarkable component was the fire with which they played these old rockers. Three of the band members are at least 60 years old, and guitarist Neal Schon especially was somehow able to infuse the music with a tangible energy. This was no mailed-in Def Leppard or Motley Crue hit parade. Journey played like they were thoroughly enjoying themselves – which just doesn’t seem to happen for most acts regardless of how many years they’ve been performing.

The band strayed a handful of times from the standards, most noticeably during the rollicking La Do Da, and interestingly, during Jonathan Cain’s solo piano piece. Most people think the band got successful once Steve Perry joined the band; this is not the case. Journey did not achieve the widespread success they enjoy today until Cain joined in 1981. His spotlight moment interpolated a variety of lesser known Journey ballads like Patiently, Send Her My Love, and Why Can’t This Night Last Forever. Piano solo pieces are tune-out time for a lot of people, but Cain’s performance was pretty, engaging and skillfully executed.

Journey GigCity Edmonton Neal Schon

Guitar face makes the man

Schon – who surprised the fans with a Hendrixy rendition of O Canada mid-set – also led the opening act, called Neal Schon’s Vortex.

The reaction was identical to what Journey was getting prior to the Perry era: indifference and looks of profound confusion, amidst some scattered polite applause. Those intricate arrangements, virtuosic musicianship, and flurries of passionate soloing sold Journey virtually no records from 1975 to 1977 and resulted in their manager’s dictum of “we’re getting a lead singer or finding new jobs.” Because it was virtually identical to Journey’s early music, it simply did not resonate with fans – but that wasn’t the point. Schon, the fellow whom Journey was formed around, don’t forget, got to have his cake and eat it too.  He got to flail away amidst flurries of hammer-ons and frenzied 16th note soloing, AND play the hits that made him all the money so he could – you guessed it – play a set of music he actually likes to play himself. The man still plays and composes with the identical vibrantly wild spirit as he did in the beginning. Equally prolific and (oddly) unheralded, and much maligned in the rock press for being part of the pejorative “corporate rock” scene, Schon is truly a legend and one of rock’s most gifted performers.

Overall, Journey is a world class act who deserve every bit of success they’ve achieved. Most remarkably, they are still grinding it out, 42 years later, with the same fervour as players one third their age. To hell with Journey haters. Thankfully there are still quite a few fans left who won’t stop believin’.