Def Leppard Is Still Bringin' on the Heartbreak

Def Leppard, Styx, Tesla
Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion
August 22, 2015

The foot traffic around Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion was one of the largest crowds I’ve witnessed at the wooded amphitheater Saturday, as I arrived mid-set just in time to hear Tesla’s “Signs” and “Little Suzi." Not only was every seat filled, including the lawn, but campers outside the grounds covered all areas. Blankets, strollers and foldable chairs dotted the vista surrounding the venue. Hundreds of people had happily camped in the weighted, oppressive humidity outside of the Pavilion just to catch a listen of the night’s three acts: Tesla, Styx and Def Leppard.

One of the most underrated bands of the '80s, Tesla had the shortest set of the evening. Within minutes of the set change, Styx was onstage in full soft-rock glory. Keyboardist and vocalist Lawrence Gowan, with rotating keyboard, went from shaking his ass at the audience to a spotlight solo performance. He transitioned into a medley of classic-rock hits beginning appropriately with Elton John’s “Rocket Man." Clearly familiar with classic-rock radio favorites, he led into Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay,” praising the crowd for knowing the words verbatim. (As if any red-blooded American didn’t know those lyrics already...)

Styx has passed on into its golden years of playing radio hits. Songs like “Lady,” “Come Sail Away” and “Foolin’ Yourself” kept at least the front half of the Pavilion on their feet. Whether uninspired or tired, the back half sat peacefully, applauding when appropriate and sipping quietly from their stovepipe beer cans. The over-40 set doesn’t get quite as wild as they used to.

Yet despite having such a positive set, Styx failed to play classic hits “Mr. Roboto” and “Babe." Apparently, the rift between ex-lead singer Dennis DeYoung and the rest of the band is still painful even though the lineup has remained intact since 1999. But when a band doesn’t play those songs that are so adored by fans, the set feels unfinished and the crowd feels cheated. Whatever the reasons for the omissions, they need to be addressed. Nostalgia acts are for reliving memories, and while Styx may want to forget those tunes, their fans clearly did not.

The audience was in a reminiscent mood, with more than one group wearing '80s-themed outfits complete with Karma Chameleon eye makeup, miniskirts and fluorescent accessories. Like, so totally rad.

Def Leppard came to the stage looking for the most part aged yet happy. Guitarist Vivian Campbell, who has been battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma and risked missing this tour, looked healthy and energetic. Smiling drummer Rick Allen, in his signature bare feet and a flashy British-flag patch over his missing arm, played a drum solo to a standing ovation. Even shirtless lead guitarist Phil Collen looked fresh from an intense crossfit session, sporting an unusual greasy sheen. His pecs and abs were so well-oiled, I was momentarily blinded by the reflection of the stage-light glare. I feared for his safety from slipping onstage. Once he slipped, could he be stopped? Could he possibly slip and slide the length of the stage?

Not to worry. The group opened with a string of hits from the '80s. Spanning their greatest albums: High ‘n’ Dry, Hysteria and Pyromania. (Thank you for stopping there and not playing anything from that horrible and ironically titled album, Euphoria.) Faithful to perform the favorites, Def Leppard played “Rocket,” “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” “Love Bites,” “Foolin’” and “Armageddon It,” among others.

Def Leppard sounded great. They appeared happy. The music was incredible. Yet something was off.

Lead singer Joe Elliott was oddly clad in heavy leather pants and jacket (not the miniature one he famously wore in the '80s) and sporting a shoulder-length, strawberry-blond highlighted bobbed haircut (think: your middle-aged sixth-grade teacher). Regrettably, there were no ripped-up jeans, permed mullets, Reebok hi-tops or over-teased bangs.

Like, gag me. This is not what I imagined. I needed Def Leppard to transport me back to the '80s in all of its smoke-filled, roller-rink, junior-high fantasy awesomeness. I needed to be reminded of the Def Leppard that glossed the covers of Circus, Metal Edge and Hit Parader that seventh-grade me stole from the grocery store by stuffing them under my Guns N' Roses T-shirt and jean jacket. I needed to remember what the world was like when Def Leppard was (get ready for it) heavy metal, much more than my tiny goblet of $10 Pavilion wine would allow me.

Instead, Def Leppard reminded me of our shared current predicament: aging. Bravely, the band displayed a photo montage of their '80s heyday during the encore, “Photograph.” (Yes, these included ex-guitarist Steve Clark, RIP.) As if inviting comparison, the fresh-faced youths that appeared onscreen looked far different from the current lineup.

Bass player Rick Savage looked positively frightening. With bedazzled fingerless gloves, a glittery guitar strap and permed mop top, he appeared like a cross between my grandmother’s Pekinese and a Rocky Horror fan in costume. Not my Rick…the one from my wall poster circa 1988. The one who most embraced '80s male androgyny. The one whose big eyes poked from behind his hair-sprayed bangs to witness me leave my room to catch the school bus every morning.

Oh, Rick! I, too, have aged. Some things change while others remain. I rarely pick up men in roller-rinks these days, but still shoplift magazines under my JCPenney career casual top and elastic-waist jeans. I laugh at Minion memes and have traded in the Camaro for a sensible Camry.

Today’s magazine titles have changed, from Metal Edge to O Magazine, More and Prevention. I, too, wear strawberry-blond highlights and sing into my hairbrush in the mirror, “POUR SOME SUGAR ON ME!” and bedazzle my clothes with a million tiny diamonds.

Maybe we’re still alike, Rick and I. Maybe Rick has a poster of me on his wall…middle-aged mom in Def Leppard T-shirt peeking out at him through reading glasses as he leaves his room to catch his tour bus. The '80s got the best of us, didn’t they?

Has our Rock of Ages become the Rock of the Aged?

I pondered these things while I sang to the steering wheel sitting in the carpool pick-up line at my daughter’s elementary school, thinking of Rick, my dreamboat bass player of yore, “You got the best of me, OH-WHOA! Can’t ya see? You’re bringin’ on the HEART BREAAAAAA—-YAAAAK.”

Oh, Rick.

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