The hard rock band Cinderella has never received the appreciation they merit. So many acts these days desperately try to rewrite the chapter on rock, but what they fail to recognize is that it's all been done and those who can manage to dance close to the flame without getting burned often bring more to the table. Cinderella may not be innovators but they're worthy carriers of the torch of rock n' roll. The DNA of rock n' roll flows through their veins and their comprehension of the art form doesn't glance back to a specific period but reaches farther and further to the forefathers of the genre. While most other bands were trying to top each other with stage shows and more elaborate outfits in the 1980's, Cinderella went deeper into the blues and country music they love with each record showcasing several sides to the band's talents, something their contemporaries could only sit back and watch enviously. Today Cinderella consists of the same four members who recorded their debut Night Songs in 1986. More significantly, the force and fervor on the concert stage is persistently present which I saw firsthand last week at the Congress Theatre in Chicago. This isn't band whose best days is behind them, Cinderella is a rare breed of bands whose preeminent live performances aren't happening in the past, but right now in the present.
Opening their eighty-minute set with the deep Night Songs cut "Once Around the Ride", the band wasted little time in making their presence known. "Shake Me" as the evening's second song found the band teasing the melody before drummer Fred Coury kicked the song into overdrive with his double fisted snare snap. On "Night Songs" the crowd sung along to every word despite it never being a single. Heartbreak Station" a pining ballad of regret and loss ("Waiting on that 9:20 train/ waiting on a memory") and is redolent of early 70's Leon Russell and Elton John. Swap the piano with brooding acoustic plucking and you realize how close to the heartbeat of rock n' roll Keifer comes in his writing. The razor edged guitars on "Somebody Save Me" were swift and bursting with hostility. Despite the inexorable force of the band, Keifer's quarter century old lyrics provided an equally distressing blow ("I lost my job, they kicked me out of my tree, somebody save me"). The truth is these songs pack a better and far more crushing punch today than they did in 1986. While many of their colleagues were writing songs about gearing up for Saturday night depravity, Keifer was swimming in the blood of society lapping up nightmarish realities which he turned into platinum.
"Second Wind", a forgotten gem off of 1988's Long Cold Winter, featured an extended jam featuring a jazzy piano interval and some rather mind-blowing blues guitar strutting by Keifer. Here's a song that is not recognizable and yet the ardor the band declared to the song won't leave anyone's musical mind banks anytime soon. "Long Cold Winter" would leave most of the audience at Buddy Guy's night club in Chicago slack jawed. No other band from Cinderella's genre came even close to encapsulating the ache of the blues on their records. This is one of the reason's their catalog holds up, it distills a half century of influences and they fused it into their own distinct brand of rock n' roll. If you can't see past their image from a quarter of a century back or how the band was marketed, then you are short sighting the band and deeming them unworthy for all the wrong reasons.
Cinderella's interplay with one another is a sight to behold. If there is a slight lull, they manage to have arms reaching for the sky within moments as they work the crowd like few modern bands dare. All four members are possibly in the best physical shapes of their lives and appear ageless. Despite Tom Keifer being the driving force of the band, the other three members are integral to their onstage chemistry. The rhythm section of bassist Eric Brittingham and drummer Fred Coury are not ostentatious yet their steadiness is the moral fiber of the band. Guitarist Jeff LaBar and Tom Keifer have an interplay that is implicit. They share glances and feed off each other's intricate playing carefully trading off rhythm and leads. Jeff LaBar's six-string finesse is not merely showy, as his rhythm guitar faultlessly underpins the other three members. Above all else, he has a devilish smile throughout where he mouths every lyric to himself with his eyes closed.
One element the live venue provided was context for their latter material. The cuts from Heartbreak Station still sound implausibly fresh and timeless today. To Cinderella's credit, when they created records, they rarely sacrificed their art for commerce. "The More Things Change" featured LaBar on harmonica and Keifer on slide guitar. If the Black Crowes had recorded this song for their debut record, it would have been heralded as embodying the spirit of the Faces and 1970s Stones. Instead because we live in a world where we judge books by their covers, it was dismissed. Close your eyes and you can hear Rod Stewart's raspy soul playing off Ron Wood's slide guitar. Heck, if Rod Stewart or the Rolling Stones recorded anything in the same vein of Heartbreak Station during the 1990s it would have been heralded as a return to form. If released today, "Coming Home" would have found a home on country radio and still could be a hit if someone had the vision to cover it. The universal theme of being lost then found only to return to what they know best hits home as the band jubilantly glides the song to a place of sun setting consolation. Cinderella's four studio records hold up as well as any records from the last four decades to undiscriminating ears. I take something away with me each and every time I hear these songs as they capture the essence and resilience of the human spirit. The band has had three potentially career ending obstacles to overcome. Tom Keifer's voice threatened to permanently sideline the band in the early 1990s and again just five years back. Further, in the mid-1990s when no one wanted to associate themselves with the band, they went on a self-imposed hiatus. When they returned to the road in 1998, it was with an unrelenting devotion few other acts can touch and more than a decade onward, they're still at it and outperforming not just the ghosts of their past, but also those up-and-coming bands waiting in line for their spot on the throne.
Cinderella is a rare band who in many ways is performing better than they were twenty-five years ago. Towards the end off their set, a single spotlight flashed down at a piano at the tip of the stage which found Tom Keifer carefully grazing the ivories with his fingers he delivered one of the most beautiful songs about lost love ever composed, "Don't Know What You Got (Till It's Gone)". Hearing Keifer howl the lyrics out to the three-thousand in attendance was every bit as heart-rending to me now as it was twenty-four years ago. Songs stir up feelings within, good and bad, and make us stare down the ample tunnel of our emotional past, present and future. How many songs can make your heart skip an extra beat when you're happy, sad and more importantly content? I'm happy to live in a world where something this heart achingly beautiful can be composed. The way Keifer's voice quivers is only matched by the howling pain he channeled into a guitar solo that was concurrently beautiful and tormenting. The rousing "Gypsy Road" and the show ending "Shelter Me" were every bit as reviving and made me recognize that I still have much to learn from this band and their songs. If you haven't seen them in a while, now is the time to reacquaint yourself with them- without question Cinderella are one of the best live bands on the planet. In times where innocence reigns supreme, one often doesn't ponder what the future holds. We live for the moment with nary a forward glimpse. However, the world we currently occupy has cast out virtue into an eternal black hole never to be found. Each time I see Cinderella grace the concert stage and share their gift with the world, they help steer me back on the path. My worldview glistens with clarity as the band takes me places within I forgot about or locked away. Cinderella has always been a rock band who set out to tell stories through the filter of the music they loved. Their music helps guide us down those less traveled roads, offers consolation for the sadness we endure and above all else their lyrics are tinged with enough optimism to make me want to keep on p-p-pushin'.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter
Cinderella: Live in Chicago