Journey, Foreigner, Styx - MEN Arena, Manchester

I take a friend who's Been There. Done it. Worn that dang t-shirt. Look at this bill. Look at it! Look at the crowd. It's A Rock Thing. A Rawk Thing, no less. And yes, the t-shirts. They’re key tonight. The merch stands are peddling half a dozen per band; here's a tour that really knows its aging-as-disgracefully-as-possible audience. Take a look around at the pony tails, denim waistcoats, cuban heels. If the overwhelming sartorial impression is one of the headliners' long term fans wearing their vintage tour tees like souvenirs from the front, greater fun for observers comes via the flotsam. UFO, anyone? Jeez. Saxon? And when was the last time you genuinely, actually saw someone sporting Grateful Dead colours? Friend-Who's-Been-There takes his seat, engages Cheshire cat mode and rubs his hands with indecent glee. Begone, Academies and Sugarmills of the venue/toilet world! Lookey what we got here. Seats! Working toilets! It's like all his birthdays have come at once.

Don't talk to Styx about birthdays. No doubt while they were over here they caught that young whippersnapper Prince Phillip trying to give the impression he was getting on a bit. No-one, of course, has the vaguest clue any more as to the history of their line-up travails and their labyrinthine family tree. Thankfully, with balladeering founder member Dennis de Young now seemingly excised from the public record, this latest incarnation studiously avoids the soppy piano stuff. No 'Babe', then, officially the wettest song of all time. Instead, they fire up a crowd ready and willin’ with 'Lady' and 'Blue Collar Man'. Guitarist Tommy Shaw looks like Fat Freddy brought to grinning, twitchy life. Relative newcomer – a mere 12 years - Lawrence Gowan prances around his spinning keyboard, strutting with enough carefree abandon to suggest he's never seen himself on video. Bless. (Talking of t-shirts, one of theirs, bearing the legend "Classic rock my ass!", shows admirable self-awareness.) During an epic 'Come Sail Away' I spy a middle aged couple and their teenage daughter singing along with absolute conviction and gusto, my cynicism takes flight and I decide there and then that Styx are bizarrely magnificent. They depart to a standing ovation. "A bit prog," I say. My mate: "A bit?"

While everyone has a nice sit down for half an hour, time to neck a pint or four and dread Foreigner. No-one likes Foreigner. Not really. Sure, they 'get the crowd going', after a fashion, but this comes via the labours of current singer Kelly Hansen (a skinny, ADHD amalgam of Mick Jagger and Steven Tyler) and his best “Let’s see some hands, Manchester!” efforts rather than genuine affection or proper regard. Their back catalogue is represented by not much more than a half pound of early 80s mid-tempo chart toppers; AOR 'classics', allegedly, but the kind that ultimately gives the genre a bad name. A bad name it probably deserves, to be absolutely honest, but somewhere at the back of the closet lie pristine copies of Heart's Passionworks, Don Henley's End of the Innocence and the first couple of Stevie Nicks albums and I love them as dearly as I ever did. 'Juke Box Hero' and 'I Wanna Know What Love Is' (world's second wettest song ever) are accompanied by bland chugga-chugga rockers that make Foreigner’s 45 minutes seem interminable. And Mick Jones, their founder and leader, shuffling around the stage on his little legs in ludicrously skinny jeans, modelling a Professor Heinz Wolf dome, really does look too old to be doing much more than sitting in his villa counting his royalties. That Les Paul just looks too way heavy for him. A sharp exit before they crawl to a finish and we confer. "F***ing rubbish" - the best I can manage. My companion is wistful: "Was that Clive Dunn on guitar?"

The faithful get ready for the headliners' entrance, t-shirts at the ready. Would it be way off to suggest that, ultimately, Journey's unique selling point is not so much their way with a silky chorus but that whole, industrially uniform branding? The never wavering logo and the vaguely sci-fi artwork seem to embody their MO as much as their soft rock noodling ever did. (If Jeff Lynne had been born in San Francisco, he would have combined his love of Athena posters and three part harmonies and formed Journey and not ELO.) In about three paragraphs, it will become necessary to use the phrase "current singer" again. If you think that's self-regarding, you haven't seen guitarist Neal Schon's hair. Bassist Ross Valory rolls his jacket sleeves up in proper 'Miami Vice' fashion. They open with a couple of thirty year old hits ('Worlds Apart' and 'Only the Young'). Everyone around me is word perfect. Choosing to forget that these songs, along with a fair chunk of the lengthy set, were originally sung by Steve Perry, as part of the 'classic' line-up, is rendered largely meaningless by the fact that current singer Arnel Pineda is about the fiftieth frontman they've had since Perry left. Pineda sounds exactly like Perry, of course (but, crucially, lacks his charisma.) When those super-huge choruses kick in, a swell of harmonies sending them skyward, close your eyes and it's 1982 again and Jonathan King is telling you "about the best band in America" on ‘Entertainment USA’. A half hour in, when they start doing the new stuff, I can’t help but drift off. Schon’s searing picking is as distinct as ever but, sat in the sludge of their 4/4 bombast, even it palls. Fifteen thousand people disagree, clearly.

Propelled onward by the ‘Glee’-ification of their best-loved song, Journey's near legendary status shows little sign of weakening if this crowd is any indicator. The hardcore complain about their heroes being given a late in the day leg-up via a kids' TV show. You could, of course, argue that a band who’ve built four decades of success on keeping the brand going no matter what (their, ahem, current singer was discovered doing Journey covers on Youtube), can have no real cause for complaint. My pal nods appreciatively. Fine. Me, I just like the t-shirts.

Last updated: 18/04/2018 12:07:42

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