Review and photos by Laura Wiebe
As I stood mere feet from the sequined stage thrust, surrounded by excitedly anxious hard rock and hair metal fans trying to get as close to the action as they could, a few things struck me about my attempt to review the Rock of Ages tour stop in Hamilton.
The first was the (selling) power of nostalgia, and the slightly bittersweet but familiar glow in reliving musical moments of youth, when music seemed like one of the few things that made life worth living. (as if that’s really changed!) The second was how much difference it makes, especially at an arena show, to be immersed in the height of the action, where you can see the musicians’ beading sweat in detail and everyone around you is singing and screaming and waving their arms in the air. None of this occurred to me as a revelation. It’s actually kind of obvious. But it did remind me of a third, equally obvious point: concert reviewing is always and inevitably a subjective art.
My first close-ish encounter of the night began with Lita Ford, as I was one of the few people aside from security to pace the photo pit and try with limited success (in my case) to capture the rock guitar queen on (digital) film. With one of several guitars strapped across her chest, and trapped behind a mic stand, Ford didn’t move about too much, but she definitely rocked out.
She started with a self-declaration (“The Bitch is Back”) and used her latest album’s title track, “Living Like a Runaway,” to remind us of her teen rock chick origins as well as the ‘new’. But as Ford worked through her short set – still wearing tight leather and kicking ass – her song choices moved toward her biggest hits.
By the time I found my (excellent, second-row) seat, Ford had put down her guitar to head out on the catwalk for a little extra audience interaction. Then quickly returning to her fret boards, she pulled out a double-neck electric for a(n obviously) Ozzy-less “Close My Eyes Forever” and singalong closer “Kiss Me Deadly.” She gave up the final guitar solo glory to her hired gun, but took the spotlight again in the end for a hair-flailing finish.
An exponential rise in short, tight skirts and extra high heels led up to Poison’s appearance, with frontman Bret Michaels rising from behind the drums. The California rockers look and sometimes sound more southern these days than glam, and there’s more leg bopping going on than leaping around the stage. But like Lita Ford, Poison sounded pretty great (other than a weird whiney tone to the back-up vocals in a couple of songs).
For the most part, Poison’s set, even more than Ford’s, was a nostalgia-fest and re-creation of their biggest hits, though it was pretty clear that’s exactly what the crowd was after. “Look What the Cat Dragged In” was their opening track, and things stayed pretty firmly in the 1980s and early 90s from there on out. Michaels pulled out a harmonica for “Your Momma Don’t Dance,” a set of maracas, plus a couple of guitars (and a couple sparkly “Poison” Stetsons). Mostly, though, he manned the mic, leaving the guitar wizardry to the charismatic C.C. Deville, who was happy to expertly oblige.
We got an instrumental jam and a short drum solo from Rikki Rockett before a two-song chart-topper finale. The “dramatic acoustic guitar ending” (as Michaels’ called it) to “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” slid into Poison anthem “Talk Dirty to Me,” with the fans singing loudly along.
Poison got folks pretty riled up, but if it wasn’t clear from the “Rock of Ages” tour name that Def Leppard was meant to be the main draw of the night, a digital countdown announced that fact in giant numbers. The old ‘all that glitters isn’t gold’ chestnut might’ve made me wary when the band first appeared on stage, Joe Elliot and Rick Savage (like Michaels) rising from behind the drum kit. From Elliott’s mic stand and sneakers to the graphics on the band members’ t-shirts, Def Leppard was covered in glitter, and the multi-screen LCD backdrop functioned as a similar sparkly ‘enhancement.’
But the sheen, as it turned out, was just an essential part of the show, a lingering reminder of the glitz, glamour and excess that bands like Def Leppard came to represent a couple of decades or so ago. I was so close I could smell the incense drifting from Rick Allen’s drum riser and could tell how much and well the guys have aged. But their vintage (more than 30 years now) hardly echoes in the sound or magnetism of their performance, except maybe in a general sense of ease and expertise.
Like Poison, Def Leppard gave us an instrumental break and a (very) brief drum solo, and did their fair share of rocking out, but we also heard a lot of ballads amidst a setlist of historical hits. Still, how could you really argue with song choices like “Two Steps Behind” when it gave you all five musicians’ perched on a trunk at the edge of the crowd, swaying together in a good-natured groove? Beginning with “Undefeated” and “Rocket,” the Brits built toward climactic renditions of “Photograph” and “Pour Some Sugar On Me.” Then after a short encore-ish pause they closed with “Rock of Ages,” politely saying good night, shaking raised hands as they left the stage, and letting the credits role.
The bands were solid, the songs mostly classic, and in the end, I had “nothin’ but a good time”. (oh, the cheese!) Was my pleasure amplified by nostalgia, my proximity to the stage, and the enthusiasm of those around me? Absolutely. But if you didn’t give up on Def Leppard in the early 80s, when they left the NWOBHM behind for MTV, it’s hard to see how this time-warp tour could disappoint.