Def Leppard, Cheap Trick and Poison Live in Chicago

by Anthony Kuzminski

Tinley Park, IL-First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre - July 17, 2009

The live summer experience that Def Leppard has embodied for the last five summers is akin to watching The Simpsons nightly in syndication. Chances are you've seen that particular Simpsons episode at least once, if not dozens of times, yet you find yourself transfixed watching the whole episode, chuckling, smiling and being downright giddy the entire time. I even once asked a friend of mine why he watches The Simpsons every night when he has all the seasons on DVD? The answer was simple, "They're fun to watch and they're better than anything else on TV". The same could be said of Def Leppard, who for the last five summers has toured with roughly the same songs embodying every set list. Yet there is something to be said as I recently witnessed upwards of 25,000 fans shriek through the band's 85-minute set in Chicago. Unfortunately only two songs were performed from the band's last fifteen years (one of them a cover-"Rock On") and the rest were every ready catalog crunchers. That being said, it's a hell of a lot of fun and their performances are better than most on the road at the moment.

Opening with a dazzling video collage reviewing the band's long and storied career, the band ripped into "Rock Rock (Till You Drop)" with precision and pizzazz. Much like a re-run of The Simpsons, witnessing Def Leppard in the flesh is a recurrent prompt of how energetic, endowed and enormous they are as live performers. Leading the charge with a grand arsenal of crowd pleasing songs, they always appear to be at the top of their game. "Rocket", performed as the single/video edit of the song, was leaner and to the point as the entire band sprawled out across the stage as gargantuan screens behind them provided a litany of images. One stadium ready anthems after another was performed including "Animal", "Foolin'" and "Love Bites" all of which no matter how many times one has seen them, they still take your breath away due to the pure sway of the band's execution.

"C'mon. C'mon" was the only song aired from their latest release, Songs From the Sparkle Lounge sadly; a jangly rocker with an easy-on-the-ears chorus that is pure Def Leppard. It still received an exceptionally buoyant retort from the crowd thanks to singer Joe Elliott charming the crowd to clap along. Its inclusion made me yearn for the day where the band will dig a little deeper into their catalog. Despite the record sales not reaching the heights of their 80's records, there is a lot to chew on from Slang, Euphoria, X and Sparkle Lounge. I've said it before and I'll say it again, a deeper dive into those records is deserved because they house songs on par with their earlier output. There was no proper Chicago stop on the 2008 tour so this one performance is the only reminder to the crowd that there was a new record in stores from the band recently. The only other song to be performed from the last fifteen years was "Rock On", from their collection of covers, Yeah! . Unfortunately, it's been a steady part of the set list for the last five years and its inclusion meant that an original was axed. The midpoint of the show included an acoustic section on an extended stage that took the band into the crowd. "Two Steps Behind" was a happy go lucky sing-a-long while "Bringin' On The Heartbreak" begun acoustically before the band plugged in to top the song off with their fierce fervor (much like the versions played on the 1987-88 tour) and instantly segueing into the instrumental "Switch 625. The latter found the band at their most strapping and vivacious. Elliott was off stage but the other four played out of their skins. The band's joy spilled over into the crowd and makes me wonder what would happen if they took chances with other material not as submerged into our consciousness. Moments like these showcase their inherent capacity as musicians and why they're still a pertinent band.

With limited stage time the band segued from one song into another, barely taking a breath in between. The long instrumental bass heavy intro to "Hysteria" was sadly absent in favor of a straight on, yet gleaming, take on this classic. Guitarist Phil Collen, even on a cooler night where the highs were only in the mid-60's, came out on stage shirtless and remained so for the remainder of the evening. The man, while flexing some madly remarkable, virtuoso guitar playing, also looked the best I'd ever seen him. He could have passed for a twenty-year old with his perfectly tanned and sculpted chest that had to give every beer guzzling male in attendance a serious complex. Collen's partner in crime, Vivian Campbell was equally inspiring with his six-string aptitude, especially on "Hysteria" and "Armageddon It". The dual guitar attack of this band is at the core of their signature sound and it's to the band's credit how well they recreate the opulent productions in concert. The Vault finale (their Hot Rocks) was one conquering mega-hit after another. It's hard to be disappointed seeing "Let's Get Rocked", "Rock of Ages", "Photograph" and "Pour Some Sugar On Me" nightly. "Sugar" proved to be especially translucent. The band is incorporating the single/video version of the song in concert (for what I believe is the first time) and the teasing "Love is like a bomb" opening elicited the prevalent screams of the evening. Despite being a nightly staple for twenty-two years, this is one of those songs I never grow tired of hearing and judging from the reactions of the crowd, neither are they. Credit must be given to Def Leppard who infuses each of their performances with the aggression and willpower of a band a generation younger. One of the focal reasons for them being a touring juggernaut year after year is their allegiance to transporting their fans with a distinguished show that is more than merely nostalgia. They're some of the greatest in the rock cannon from the last quarter of the century and when you have songs as potent as these, you can do whatever you want.

Opening the show were abbreviated sets from Cheap Trick and Poison. Poison delivered an ever predictable set list that was cut straight from 1990. Performing a mere nine songs (with obligatory guitar and drum solos) in a set that lasted an hour and all were from their first three albums. Regardless of the lack of imagination in putting the set together, the band delivered a high energy set that turned the audience on. "Fallen Angel", "Every Rose Has Its Thorn", "Talk Dirty To Me" and "Unskinny Bop" had the near capacity crowd moving to the music. The stage banter, pyrotechnics and arrangements offered not one iota of originality, yet they did more than warmed the crowd up for Def Leppard, they provided an aura of Friday night escapism and there's few who do it better.

Cheap Trick was the true revelation of the evening. Despite having twenty fewer minutes on stage than Poison, they managed to sneak in ten no-frills songs. Eight classics and two new ones were performed (more new material than Def Leppard and Poison combined) and one listen to them makes you realize that Cheap Trick may be the most steadfast and underrated band around. "These Days" and "Sick Man of Europe" are cut from the same cloth as their vintage material and to the average fans ears are indistinguishable from "She's Tight", "I Want You To Want Me" and "Dream Police". Every record written and recorded over the last decade is steeped in what they do best; power pop songs that sound familiar as if they are a friend you've known your entire life. Despite their 7pm start time, the amphitheater was over two-thirds full and by the end of their all too brief forty-minute set it was more than three-quarters filled. "Surrender" and "The Flame" received the biggest responses. Even though the latter was not written by the band, it's their lone number-one single from 1988. That being said, the warmth of Robin Zander's voice aches with vulnerability in a way that no one else can touch and for that reason alone, it gave me goose bumps demonstrating their inherent ability to make one a believer. Make no mistake, Cheap Trick may be the first out of the gate, but they are performing at such a concentrated and high level, that it's forcing Poison and Def Leppard to up their antes as well. Because of this, it's more than a nostalgia trip, but a concert package not to be missed.

Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network and his daily writings can be read at The Screen Door and can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com.

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