Def Leppard, Heart Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion September 23, 2011
Like so many of their 80s hard rock brethren, Def Leppard has always straddled the line between serious musical territory and the self-parody that threatens bands associated with that era.
On one hand, High 'n' Dry and Pyromania are two of the gnarliest (if Aftermath may be allowed to slip into appropriate vernacular) hard-rock releases of the early part of that decade, with several excellent cuts apiece, and that's before you even get to "Photograph" and "Rock of Ages."
But the band had largely fallen off the radar, like so many of the Aqua Net generation, in the wake of grunge and 1996's ill-received Slang. Def Leppard soldiered on, continuing to release albums and demonstrating the same tenacity that saw them through drummer Rick Allen losing his arm in 1984 and guitarist Steve Clark's death in 1991.
You wouldn't know it by the crowd at the Pavilion Friday night, however. On what felt like the first non-scorching evening of the last six months, Def Leppard were greeted like returning conquerors and responded in kind. As lead singer Joe Elliott remarked after the rousing response to their acoustic sing-a-long "Two Steps Behind," "this is why we keep coming back to Houston."
As far as openers Heart go, we don't know if there's much to add to our review of last November's show at House of Blues. All we can say is, rumors of Heart's downfall have been greatly exaggerated, and they put on a spirited, if abbreviated, show Friday. The set trended heavily towards their greatest hits, plus "WTF" from Red Velvet Car and their trademark covers.
Speaking of that, as accustomed as we are to Houston's generally elevated level of concert rudeness, don't be shocked when Aftermath turns around and tells you to shut your pieholes during Ann and Nancy Wilson playing "Battle of Evermore." There are few hard and fast rules when it comes to music appreciation, but one of them is: Don't fucking talk during "Evermore."
While the band played enthusiastically, we couldn't help but notice a year's worth of touring has taken its toll on Ann Wilson's pipes. She rocked as hard as she could, but occasionally had trouble hitting the high notes.
Frankly, we're fine with cutting her some slack. When 61 years of age you reach, sing so well you will not. Hmmm?
Def Leppard hit the stage to "Undefeated," one of a handful of new tracks from their latest release, the live retrospective Mirrorball (this would explain the giant disco ball hanging over the good seats during the show). Judging by the video display featuring a series of athletes at the top of their game (Lance Armstrong, for example), we'd say Def Leppard was maneuvering to have "Undefeated" join "Walk of Life" by Dire Straits and John Fogerty's "Centerfield" as the next sports-arena anthem.
Even so, we were a little puzzled by the inclusion of Bethany Hamilton, the young surfer who lost an arm to a shark attack. Guys; you've got a one-armed dude behind your drum kit. Just show a bunch of pictures of him next time.
Def Leppard's set list plays like one of those K-Tel greatest-hits compilations from the '80s and '90s, if K-Tel still existed. Relying heavily on Pyromania and Hysteria, they steamrolled through "Let's Get Rocked," "Animal," "Foolin'" and "Love Bites" in short order. And if they didn't quite jump around as much as you may remember from 1988, the band still plays (mostly) lean and loose onstage.
Bassist Rick Savage is now a bottle blond, and 53-year old lead guitarist Phil Collen is so cut we started getting annoyed. Isn't it good enough to be one of the most successful recording artists of all time? Do you actually have to have defined abs?
Joe Elliott's voice is no longer that piercing South Yorshskire shriek, having matured into more of a smoky growl. The change isn't a bad one, and he still delivered on the big notes. We also belatedly realized we've now seen guitarist Vivian Campbell ("Our Ron Wood," as Elliott described him) three times with three different bands (Dio, Whitesnake, and Def Leppard).
The aforementioned acoustic interlude followed, including the intro to "Bringin' on the Heartache," which quickly switched to full-on rockstravaganza mode (minus those ill-advised synths from 1984's re-released single). Then came a nice surprise, the Clark-penned "Switch 625," an instrumental rocker from High 'n' Dry accompanied by footage of Steve himself. A nice touch, especially considering the passage of time since his demise and how easily they could've turned their backs on his memory.
Aftermath will say this about the Lep: for as easily mockable as their Behind the Music installment was ("blow job" laminates?), the guys have always been more than friends. How easy would it have been to ditch your drummer after he lost his freaking arm? Or kick Clark to the curb instead of waiting for him to finish rehab?
The rest of the show was a highlight reel of their career: "Hysteria," "Armageddon It," "Photograph," "Pour Some Sugar on Me," and "Rock of Ages" for an encore. Okay fine, even we won't try to defend "Sugar," but we haven't purchased an album of theirs since 1983, and yet we knew the words to every. God. Damn. Song. That's cultural permeation.
The only really sad thing about these concerts is the way many in the band's audience seem to have shut their ears to anything released in the last 20 years. You listen to folks talking at the bar before the show or in the crowd, describing the shows they've seen and how modern bands don't measure up, and that's fine. Personal choice, and all that. [See also: Erasure - Ed.]
But it always feel like you're experiencing a warp in the space-time continuum where the only thing that hasn't aged normally is rock and roll. Everyone is older and the technology is still century-appropriate, but it's as if no music has been made since 1992.
Maybe we're making too much of this, because judging by the reaction to both bands at the Pavilion Friday night, that scenario would sit just fine with most of the audience.
Personal Bias: We have a long-standing unrequited (that goes without saying) crush on Nancy Wilson. And that Phil Collen is no slouch, either.
The Crowd: Aftermath swears we keep running into the same gleefully inebriated people at these rock shows, and that's all right.
Overheard In the Crowd: "If Rick Allen and Bethany Hamilton had kids, do you think they'd have two arms?"
Random Twitter Dump: Phil Collen is totally Rutger Hauer from the end of Blade Runner. #tearsintherain
HEART SET LIST
Rock & Roll (Led Zeppelin cover) Magic Man Heartless Straight On What About Love These Dreams Alone WTF Crazy On You Barracuda
Battle of Evermore (Led Zeppelin cover) Love Reign O'er Me (The Who cover)
DEF LEPPARD SET LIST
Undefeated Let's Get Rocked Animal Foolin' Love Bites [bass solo] Rock On (David Essex cover) Rocket Two Steps Behind (acoustic) Bringin' on the Heartache Switch 625 Hysteria Armageddon It Photograph Pour Some Sugar On Me
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Rock of Ages