I've seen these dinosaurs about eight times since 1992, in all sorts of venues (including, yes, the Milwaukee Zoo), and Saturday night's venue, Talking Stick Resort, was pretty terrible. I was hoping for an actual theater at the new resort/casino on Indian Bend and Loop 101, but it was little more than a giant carpeted ballroom (as you read this, Honeywell is probably having its annual shareholders meeting in that room) with banquet chairs set up in rows and a makeshift bars set up on the each end of the huge, nearly sold-out room.
So, here's the bottom line: I don't recommend seeing a show at Talking Stick. The sound in the room was average, at best (the mix was all vocals and drums; and the guitars were muddy); the stage setup in the rectangular room allowed awful sight lines for anyone not directly in front of the performers; the drink lines moved way too slowly for a rock concert; and the legion of security folks constantly patrolled the room with seating charts making sure those of us with general admission tickets stayed in our designated area, a place where you could barely see the band.
But what about the band, you ask? They were good, but not great, with the high point of the evening being Robin Zander's voice. The 57-year-old (who, unfortunately, seems to now be getting fashion tips from Bret Michaels) sounded as strong as ever. Zander's always had one of the best voices in rock, able go from pretty to snarly to raw and right back again on a moment's notice. And the sound mix let Zander's vocals shine, with clarity and power.
Greatly missing was Bun E. Carlos' inventive drumming. Some health problems over the past few years have slowed Carlos down and kept him at home for the current tour. His fill-in, Rick Nielsen's son, Daxx, seemed to be having a great time playing for his dad's band, but his more conventional technique and performance style made Carlos' absence that much more conspicuous. And, as hardcore Cheap Trick fans probably know, Carlos has always been the band's primary writer of set lists. And it's the set list where the band stumbled hardest on Saturday night.
Beyond playing the obligatory hit singles (however, no "She's Tight") and three songs from 2009's The Latest, Cheap Trick's choice of album tracks and deep cuts was somewhat disappointing, leaning heavily on their less-interesting early and mid-'80s output. Songs like "Baby Loves to Rock," "I Can't Take It," "Never Had a Lot to Lose," "On Top of the World," and "Tonight It's You" haven't aged as well as songs from the band's essential first three records. And playing "Don't Be Cruel" and Big Star's "Out in the Street" (which C.T. recorded for the opening credits of That 70s Show) brought the show to a grinding halt.
Rick Nielsen sapped some of the natural energy of the show by talking -- a lot. Nielsen's always been the guy who does the talking onstage, but sometimes you gotta know when enough's enough. At one point, he weakly said, "It's good to be in Phoenix or Scottsdale or wherever we are." Then there was this doozy: "In Phoenix, the fans applaud. In Scottsdale, they just rattle their jewelry." Ugh.
And worst of all, Nielsen tried way too hard to sell the audience on the band's legacy. Before playing Elvis' "Don't Be Cruel," Nielsen bragged about taking their version to the Top 5. Before the new song "Sick Man of Europe," he said the track went to Number Two in England (translation: "I'm chastising my own audience for not making the song chart in America"). And the weirdest thing was when he joked(?) about how U2 had canceled a recent show and that he hopes they have to cancel their whole tour. Then, as if he realized he'd said something wrong, "Oh, we really like U2." And he made more than one quip about how old they were. Please don't do that. We know you're old, but we're not ready to put you out to pasture, Rick -- for now.
The set list:
"Tonight It's You"
"I Want You to Want Me"
"These Days" (new one)
"Never Had a Lot to Lose"
"I Can't Take It"
"On Top of the World" (child brought onstage)
"If You Want My Love"
"Don't Be Cruel" (Elvis Presley cover)
"Out in the Street" (Big Star cover)
"The Ballad of TV Violence (I'm Not the Lonely Boy)" (a great obscuro track from C.T.'s first record that prompted many to sit down for the first time during the show)
"Baby Loves to Rock"
"Sick Man of Europe" (new one; C.T.'s stab at garage rock)
"Closer, the Ballad of Burt and Linda" (a psychedelic, Beatles-esque new one)
"Surrender" (one of the greatest songs of all time)
"The Flame" (many fans seemed bored by this selection)
"Dream Police" (it's a cliché, but it's true: they don't write 'em like this anymore)
"Gonna Raise Hell" (a set list staple; but not good at the end; audience began filing out)
Last night: Cheap Trick at Talking Stick Resort
Personal bias I: Note to all rock bands -- please don't ever bring children onstage. It's not adorable.
Further listening/watching: 2009's Cheap Trick Live at Budokan DVD. Released for the first time last year, the re-mastered complete concert looks and sounds phenomenal. It's the band at the height of their powers.