Heart, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, Cheap Trick
Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion
August 19, 2016
Friday night’s concert featuring Cheap Trick, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts and headliners Heart was easily one of the best touring shows in Houston this summer. Not that these three Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees (hence the tour's "Rock Hall Three For All" designation), who all got their start in the 1970s, haven’t had years of practice to perfect their overall gig. But Friday, all three made it abundantly clear that their gig is still delivering a rockin’ good time. Fact is, although some of the performers' ages are now pushing into the seventies, they can still bring an entire amphitheater to their feet several times during a set. What a feeling that must be.
Openers Cheap Trick have had an incredible year. In April they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the same month their 17th studio album, Bang, Zoom, Crazy…Hello, bowed to favorable reviews. No strangers to nonstop touring for decades now, Cheap Trick could have hardly passed up a chance to play alongside greats like Joan Jett and the Wilson sisters.
As Cheap Trick laced their set with the hits, popular B-sides and more obscure songs, guitarist Rick Nielsen's typical class-clown antics drew big laughs as he stumbled around the stage. Bassist Tom Petersson took over on lead vocals for the Velvet Underground's "Waiting For the Man” midway through the set.
I was curious to see what instruments these innovators and guitar collectors would employ during their set. At one point Nielsen pulled out his famous custom Hamer "Sgt. Pepper" airbrushed guitar while vocalist Robin Zander's looked well-worn and beloved — surely an antique with colorful story, no doubt. Zander flexed his vocal acuity several times, proving to any doubters that he still “has it” by dropping to his hands and knees during “Dream Police” and still hitting all the notes with ease. After they wound up with “The Flame,” “I Want You To Want Me” and “Surrender,” the crowd was more than excited to greet Joan Jett.
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The 2015 RRHOF inductee opened with her iconic “Bad Reputation” before a succession of lesser-known tracks. By “lesser-known,” I mean songs her fans know, just not necessarily the people only familiar with her radio hits. And because of that, sadly, there was a lull in audience engagement and excitement. Blame it on the August heat, overpriced beer or long bathroom lines — it had nothing to do with Jett's performance.
It must be a bit odd to see someone scribbling notes in a journal at a concert. To the audience member next to me, who inquired about my writing and its publication, it was an invitation to criticize Jett and the masses of people who chose to sit through her songs. People seem to crave nostalgia, unfortunately. And, while Jett lost the audience's interest for a few songs, that doesn’t mean she’s not a good songwriter or even a good performer — it means her fans have failed her.
Casual fans aren’t interested in an artist's growth or experimentation, just those aggressively marketed repetitive radio hits they’ve already heard ad nauseum. They’re not willing to embrace new material because unfamiliarity makes them uncomfortable and vulnerable. Should I like this? Does anyone else?
My advice: If it’s good, like it and be bold about it; that’s what being a fan is all about. Too many people are quick to describe an artist as “washed up” or uncool after the spotlight fades. because they're as eager to destroy an idol as worship one. Jett played her punk version of golden oldie “Crimson and Clover,” plus “Light of Day” and “Any Weather,” which she co-wrote with with Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters. to moderate applause.
Even still, not until “I Hate Myself for Loving You” did the audience rise to its feet for the band. The praise was enormous, so much that the middle act even gave an encore, which I’ve never seen at the Pavilion before. While my own personal bias (total admiration for this quintessential badass) may add to my frustration that more people don’t see her integral contribution to rock for women, it doesn’t mean she didn’t put on a hell of a show. But she certainly deserved more praise than what she got
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Yet this is Jett's story — she’s constantly overlooked, or worse, mislabeled. Remember when Britney Spears was asked why she wanted to cover “I Love Rock and Roll”? (She adored Pat Benatar.) Jett’s encore of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” was a gift to Houston for their outpouring of love. Let’s remember that instead.
So when Heart took the stage, they had work to do. The crowd was tired from the heat and humidity, and had thinned somewhat. None of that mattered as soon as Heart opened with “Wild Child” and went straight into “Magic Man.” When lead singer Ann Wilson’s voice hit the speakers and snapped through the air like a whip against every ear in the amphitheater, there was no more fatigue to complain of. No one cared about the heat and humidity anymore.
Ann is an incredible songstress; her vocals tapped into a kind of power that reminded me of an engine chugging through nitrous oxide. The slightest tap of a note sent the engine roaring, purring, whirring through her throat at an incredible speed and range. Younger sister and guitarist Nancy Wilson kept pace through several guitar changes (including mandolin), including an incredible intro to “Crazy On You.”
The sisters and their backing group played through their best songs, bridging the witchy darkness of their '70s hits and their '80s power ballads and culminating with a brave (and, let’s just say it, ballsy) encore, Led Zeppelin's “Immigrant Song” and “Stairway to Heaven.” Neither one is a simple piece of music, yet the Wilson sisters handled them both with such ease and dexterity they could have almost written the songs themselves. Rock on, ladies.