First, a quick recap on the past twenty or so tumultuous years for classic rock heavyweights Foreigner. In 1990, original vocalist Lou Gramm left the band and was replaced by vocalist Johnny Edwards for the ill-fated Unusual Heat album, which was so poorly received that founding member and guitarist Mick Jones patched up his creative differences with Gramm, who rejoined in 1992. A compilation was released (The Very Best...And Beyond) and an album of new material, Mr. Moonlight, followed in 1995, faring even worse commercially than Unusual Heat. Serious health problems for Gramm followed (including a brain tumour), hampering any progress on new material. In early 2003, Gramm left for the second time, blaming a lack of communication between himself and Jones. After taking some time off to re-evaluate Foreigner's future, Jones reformed the group at the urging of drummer Jason Bonham, eventually settling on a current lineup that includes solid rock veterans such as bassist Jeff Pilson (Dokken, Dio), drummer Brian Tichy (who replaced Bonham in 2008 and has recorded and toured with numerous artists such as Slash, Billy Idol, and Sass Jordan), and vocalist Kelly Hansen (probably best known for fronting the unremarkable 80's hard rock band Hurricane). Foreigner is rounded out by keyboardist Michael Bluestein and multi-instrumentalist Thom Gimbel.
Can't Slow Down, the band's first album of new material in 14 years, was released last October exclusively through Wal-Mart and earned a strong debut at #29 on the Billboard 200 chart. The package offered great value for the money, delivering a disc with 13 new tracks of decent material, another disc with remixed versions of 10 Foreigner classics, and a DVD featuring live footage and interviews, all for the low, low price of only $13. An interesting (and slightly disturbing) note about this, the band's ninth studio album: they've actually released more compilation and live albums in their career than they have studio releases, with eight hits collections and two live albums. And that's not even counting the new CD of remixed tracks.
Which brings us to their current tour, specifically their second of two dates at Casino Rama (there was no opening act either night). The hall was packed with approximately 5,000 concert-goers that looked to lean heavily towards a much older demographic, in the 50+ neighbourhood. You'd expect as much for a show involving a band that put out their first album in 1977, but based on the crowd's lack of participation and reserved energy level, one got the distinct sense that many of them hadn't been to a concert in years, or were only there because they had gotten complimentary tickets through the casino. I've attended around a hundred concerts in my life and this was easily the most subdued crowd I've ever witnessed. Aside from the first couple of rows directly in front of the stage, most of the crowd sat on their chairs for the bulk of the show, except when lead singer Hansen exhorted us on several occasions to get on our feet, with his frustration tactfully kept in check, yet still subtly apparent. Amazingly, a posting on Foreigner's official online forum about this show said that "the crowd was awsome on saturday compare to Friday night!" (sic). Wow (on both the statement and the bad spelling).
Although Jones is the only original member remaining (and looking pretty good for 65), the star of the night was clearly Hansen, whose unflagging energy, charismatic showmanship, and strong vocals provided all the essentials for a good frontman. His voice can sound amazingly like Gramm's, which helps ease the initial distraction and occasional distaste that accompanies watching an older band that has been shorn of its familiar identities via a revolving door of lineup changes. Because he was the voice of the band for so many years, Gramm would arguably have been more closely associated as the identity of Foreigner than Jones was, which leaves Hansen with big shoes to fill.
The setlist was pretty much wall-to-wall hits. Foreigner is one of those bands that you're aware has a lot of big songs, but you've forgotten exactly how many until you put on one of those many greatest hits albums or see one of their shows. The first four songs performed were "Double Vision", "Head Games", "Cold As Ice" (with extended solos from Jones and an extended visit from Hansen with the audience), and "Waiting For A Girl Like You". Not a bad group of songs to open with. The lone new track ("When It Comes To Love") followed, which sapped the crowd's already muted energy and was met with polite applause. It's a fairly by-the-book (yet still catchy) mid-tempo ballad, but the live rendition seemed to lack the punch and life on the recorded version.
Things picked up considerably with a faithful version of "Dirty White Boy" that was the highlight of the set, propelled by Jones' and Gimbel's loud guitars. The momentum was short-lived, though, as the relatively obscure "Starrider" followed, with Jones taking lead vocals and breaking into numerous extended solos that had me anxiously awaiting the song's conclusion so they could get on to something I actually knew. "Feels Like The First Time" brought that sweet relief, albeit briefly, as it was followed by a five minute keyboard (!) solo and then a five minute drum solo (with some keyboard accompaniment). Tichy's drum solo was somewhat unique, in that I've never seen one where the drummer played part of it with just his hands hitting the drumheads and cymbals before. He even implemented an idea straight out of some of the worst hair band videos, circa 1987: putting water on his drumheads so when he hits them the water sprays up. Although Foreigner may be a product of the 70's, they'd be well-advised to leave the antiquated concept of live solos back in that decade. These days, they're nothing more than an excuse to go for a beer run. "Urgent", "Jukebox Hero" (with some snippets of Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" thrown in), "I Want To Know What Love Is", and "Hot Blooded" closed out the show.
Despite the excellent setlist, impressive light show, top-notch musicianship, and enthusiastic performances (Pilson, in full headbanging mode, matched Hansen's energy), I came away from the concert slightly underwhelmed, which I can only attribute to the low-key audience and, by extension, the lack of energy in the venue. Full marks to the band for giving it their all, though, despite a lack of reciprocation from the audience.
* My buddy Mark did some artwork for Jeff Pilson, who in turn arranged for us to get backstage passes to meet the band after the show, which was pretty cool. Pictured from left to right are: lead singer Kelly Hansen, Mark's sisters Colleen and Erin, keyboardist Michael Bluestein, bassist Jeff Pilson, myself, and Mark. Click to enlarge.