Staying Rock-Relevant Keeps Heart, Cheap Trick, and Joan Jett Rolling

If there's one word to describe the bands taking the stage at Ak-chin Pavilion this Sunday, it's "experienced."

The three groups on the Rock Hall Three For All tour — Cheap Trick, Heart, and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts — have sold almost 65 million records between them. All told, they have played more than 7,500 shows over the past four decades.

Each band has written timeless hit songs that are among the greatest in rock history.

Heart, with its folksy “Dog and Butterfly,” the hard-rocking “Crazy On You,” “Barracuda,” and “Magic Man,” and power ballads “What About Love,” “These Dreams,” “Alone,” showed tremendous range.

Cheap Trick’s hits “I Want You To Want Me,” “Dream Police,” “Surrender,” and their stadium ballads ”The Flame” and “If You Want My Love” helped them rise above late '70s punk and early '80s crazes, and showed they were a band to be reckoned for years to come.

After her short-lived success with seminal all-girls band the Runaways, Jett’s work with legendary producer Kenny Laguna on “Bad Reputation” and blockbuster cover hits with her Blackhearts in tow, “I Love Rock and Roll,” “Crimson and Clover,” “Do You Wanna Touch Me,” and “Everyday People” more than put her on the map.
“These guys are all pros,” says Rick Nielsen, Cheap Trick lead guitarist and band co-founder. “They know what they are doin’, and we kind of know what we are doin’. They try to go out and kick our ass, and we go out and try to kick their ass.”

For Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson, ass-kicking is being accomplished by all three legendary acts.

“Cheap Trick really does kick ass, and people are showing up early to see the whole lineup with Cheap Trick opening, Joan in the middle, and then us. So between all of us, I think every ass is kicked,” she seconds with an agreeable laugh. "People are showing up early and staying late, so we love it."

After 40 years of touring the world, one wonders what keeps them going.

“There is a wonder drug it’s called adrenaline,” simplifies Wilson. “If you are gonna go up there [on stage] and be energized, that is the start. If we didn’t have that nervous energy and that electricity that is huge between the people and the band, it would be time to quit.”

For Nielsen, it’s all about feeling like a kid on stage, and not worrying about aging.

“It’s only crummy when I think about it or when I look in the mirror,” he says. “When our first album came out, I was 30 and felt like I was 16. I’m 67 and I am feel like I am 18 until I look in the mirror. So, I don’t look in the mirror.”

For the past six years, Nielsen’s son Daxx has been the band’s touring drummer. This year, the younger Nielsen drummed on the new Cheap Trick album Bang, Zoom, Crazy… Hello, released on Big Machine Records. Daxx replaced original and long-time drummer Bun E. Carlos.

“It’s cool for sure, but not for every band,” Nielsen says about playing with his son. “I was never a big fan of the Cowsills or the Osmonds, where they get the whole family in the band. But it is quite a hoot.”

The new Cheap Trick album, the group’s 17th studio effort, debuted on the Billboard 200 at 31 and was the band's highest charting album since 1988’s Lap of Luxury hit No. 11. The album’s first single, “When I Wake Up Tomorrow,” made it to number 24 on the Mainstream US Rock chart.

“We wanted to make a record that was cool,” Nielsen explains, adding, “We’re not trying to change the world. There are no seven- or eight-minute songs on there. There’s a velocity that we developed, and they are good pop rock songs.”

Heart is also celebrating a new album release, as Beautiful Broken came out last month. For the album, the Wilson sisters re-imagined numbers from the group's '80s albums Bebe le Strange, Private Audition, and Passionworks.

The title track “Beautiful Broken,” originally an add-on to the deluxe version of Heart’s 2012 Fanatic, sets the tone for the album. Wilson’s husband, TV executive Geoff Bywater, came up with the idea of asking friend James Hetfield to add some growl to a redone version of "Beautiful Broken." The Metallica frontman surprised all by not only performing backing vocals, but by writing new vocal elements to give the cut an even grittier appeal.

One of the two new originals that made its way onto the new album came from an unlikely source in R&B singer, songwriter, and producer Ne-Yo. A demo entitled simply “Two” was being considered for one of Bywater’s TV shows, and Wilson’s hubby shared it with her.

“That song was love at first listen” Wilson says emphatically. “It felt like an old friend. That’s one of those things with Ne-Yo. He has so much range as a writer and a producer and singer. That’s a song that’s universal to me.”

While many bands play out the hits tours and try to rekindle that old magic, these three bands have stuck to their guns.

“I had played in bands with [bassist Tom Petersson] since 1967,” Nielsen says. “We worked for 10 years before we were an overnight sensation. We liked what we saw as being cool. There were probably others who were better musicians; we stuck with it. We never tried to be something we weren’t. We are pretty true to what we do.”

For Wilson, who along with vocalist sister Ann is marking the 40th anniversary of their debut album hit album, Dreamboat Annie, released in the U.S. in 1976, breaking the spell of the typical reunion hits parade has rejuvenated Heart.
“Right now, with Beautiful Broken, we have something new and really relevant and fresh and people are really responding super well to it. It’s kind of like, ‘okay, we’ve defied all the odds,’ and we can still go out and do this job and put fresh stuff in and be relevant and accepted.”

While the tour stop for all three bands in Phoenix is one of dozens each has performed over the past four decades in the Valley, the draw, climate, and energy keeps them coming back.

“We did a tour there with Stevie Nicks when she lived out there,” Wilson recalls of one '80s tour stop in the Valley near the Arizona native’s former Paradise Valley home, where they spent time hanging out. “It was a magical night with a bunch of music people there and healers. There is a certain pull of natural magic to it, like a different planet.”

And for Nielsen, “Oh, I have friends in Phoenix, like Alice Cooper. It’s great there, but I had no desire to live there. It’s hot there. I don’t live in the ultimate city in the world, either. I get to travel to all the cool places in the world.”
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Mark C. Horn
Contact: Mark C. Horn