Friday Night: Journey at The Woodlands

Journey Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion August 24, 2012

Rewind: Saturday Night: Styx & REO Speedwagon at The Woodlands

Journey's enduring popularity might seem a little improbable at first, but it's not that hard to figure out.

Core members Neil Schon, the former Santana guitarist, and bassist Ross Valory founded the band all the way back in 1973, and picked up keyboardist Jonathan Cain a couple of years later. That makes drummer Deen Castronovo a relative newcomer at more than ten years in.

These guys all belong to a class of musicians who value flawless technique above anything else, almost like symphony players, and write songs explicitly to showcase their virtuosity. Then, once they reach a certain level of success, they're able to afford top-of-the-line equipment, which makes them sound that much better.

Journey's great secret was hitting on pop-psychology lyrics that might border on cliché, but when paired with music arranged so impeccably and triumphantly, become transcendent themeselves. This is the group that once had a big hit with little more than the words "Any way you want it, that's the way you need it." But it took a great vocalist to pull it off, which they once had in Steve Perry.

Their man now, "new" singer Arnel Pineda, is no spring chicken himself. The Manila native is actually 44, and had a long career in Asia before Schon noticed him on YouTube in early 2007, which led to Pineda joining the band late that year. It's the kind of improbable and heartwarming scenario that could only happen in a Journey song.

But he looks 20 years younger, and never stops moving onstage - high-fiving the crowd up front, leaping off Castronovo's drum riser, running around so much he had to change T-shirts a few times, including into a timely maroon Texas Aggies SEC number. He's just as energetic on Twitter at @arnelpineda, which is kind of cute.

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Vocally, he is up to the task, which he proved Friday the second he started to belt out the climax of "Faithfully." Journey is the rare band where, in the term "power ballad," the word power is as important (if not moreso) than the word ballad. He had no trouble whatsoever leading the ubiquitous singalongs and wavealongs, the main reason folks go to a show like Journey in the first place.

Journey actually does have a recent album, last year's Eclipse, but didn't work up any of its songs for this tour. But they did include one from their first album with Pineda, "Never Walk Away," was folded into Friday's opening barrage that also included "Any Way You Want It," "Only the Young" and "Ask the Lonely." It fit so seamlessly you'd never guess it was not even five years old yet.

The concert was actually set up like a symphony, with a grandiose, fast-paced, opening section that yielded to a more introspective second movement where the ballads began: "Who's Crying Now." "Faithfully," an instrumental "Star-Spangled Banner" that let Pineda go change his T-shirt. It closed with the song about their hometown, "Lights," that somehow managed to call up a San Francisco-style breeze into the humid southeast Texas night.

The brief "trio" section of symphonie de Journey would have been the pumping "Escape," which kept its breakneck tempo as Schon, Cain, etc. alternated between a few different musical themes, before Cain introduced the finale with a solo Chopin moment that led into the introduction of "Open Arms." Journey's songs aren't big hits by accident; they are meticulously assembled to be that way one part at a time, like Schon's lead-guitar line in "Don't Stop Believin'" that rides up like the cavalry out of the fog of Cain's piano. These guys know what they're doing.

Journey's only limitation might be that they don't have a big enough wardrobe. After the confetti bomb of "Separate Ways" and brief encore of "Lovin, Touchin', Squeezin," Pineda had soaked through his shirt yet again. To do one more song, he would have had to find another one.

Personal Bias: I have thought long and hard about how anyone could come up with a legitimate excuse for disliking Journey. The only one I can think of is that sometimes their instrumental solos are a little long-winded. But other than that, disliking Journey feels somehow disloyal to rock and roll, and even... unpatriotic.

The Crowd: Sold out with a suburban crowd looking for a rock and roll night on the town: Thirties through fifties, more women than men, most casually dressed but a few in skin-tight dresses and teetering heels.

Overheard In the Crowd: The rest of our section applauding a couple that was finally kicked out during "Who's Crying Now" after making a complete spectacle of themselves through Journey's first few songs and Pat Benatar's opening set besides that. One older guy in the wheelchair-accessible row in front of us actually stood up and tried to kick the woman in the ass as they were being escorted out.

It might have been the most awesome thing I have ever seen at a concert, but I was also a little sad to see them go. After the show, my dad and I were wondering what makes otherwise rational, normal human beings completely lose their minds when they go to a concert (besides the booze, of course). Feel free to discuss that in the comments.

Random Notebook Dump: Ross Valory is an alumnus of the Steve Miller Blues Band.

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