Live Review: Cheap Trick at the Belly Up, December 15, 2015

Photo credit: Lou Brutus
Photo credit: Lou Brutus

One of the country’s hardest-touring bands, Cheap Trick couldn’t finish out the year without swinging by the Belly Up one last time. Showing up was easy; deciding what to play was the challenge. The Rockford, Illinois quartet that formed in 1973 (and was just selected for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s class of 2016) has a four-decade history from which to pull material. On this particular night, the 19-song set — appropriately bookended by “Hello There” and “Goodnight” — peppered in as many deep cuts as big hits, appealing to both true fans and casual concert-goers.

Frontman Robin Zander, looking a little more like Bret Michaels these days, presided over his circus of spectators wearing a beige top hat and glittery jacket. His voice was remarkably strong, particularly on belters like “Come On, Come On” and “Baby Loves to Rock.” If it faltered anywhere, it was on gentler songs like “Need Your Love,” during which the dreamy chorus quickly slipped into a nightmare.

The crowd, relatively subdued throughout, came to life and sang along during the popular “Ain’t That a Shame.” They also seemed to appreciate the implied association of “In Crowd,” and “The Flame” succeeded at even getting some guys to sway.

But this wasn’t enough for lead guitarist Rick Nielsen, who apparently missed the “No Pandering” sign on South Cedros and spent the whole night holding his hand to his ear, waving his arm, or pointing to his talented bandmates to elicit applause. Makes you wonder if he plays this game every night or genuinely felt the Solana Beach crowd needed to step up its appreciation game.

True, it wasn’t a perfect night. The band complained of persistent feedback (not too noticeable in front of the stage) and Nielsen messed up a few times, missing a guitar part and forgetting some lyrics, but it was all in good fun and certainly didn’t mar the performance. In fact, Nielsen’s crunchy guitar (make that guitars — he strapped on a new one for each song, in every imaginable design and ranging from one to five necks) is as vibrant today as it was when the band began.

For Cheap Trick purists, not seeing original drummer Bun E. Carlos behind the kit (who stopped touring with the band in 2010) was disappointing. That said, his replacement — Rick’s son, Daxx Nielsen — was on point throughout the 90-minute show, from early banger “Big Eyes” to “Auf Wiedersehen” (one of many tracks from 1978’s Heaven Tonight). Filling out the rhythm section, longtime bassist Tom Petersson laid down a steady groove and shined on the Velvet Underground classic “Waitin’ for the Man,” offering up a nuanced solo and assuming lead vocals.

Heading into the home stretch, the band unleashed back-to-back hits “I Want You to Want Me” and “Dream Police” and then surprised the sold-out crowd by inviting Pearl Jam bassist and Cheap Trick fan Jeff Ament to join them on stage. Though seeming unsure of the situation after much deliberation, Ament was all smiles and held his own on “Bang Zoom Crazy Hello” and the rollicking “Surrender.”

With more than 5000 performances under their belt, Cheap Trick know a thing or two about delivering a show that’s sure to please. As was the case on this night, they don’t waste much time on between-song chatter or over-the-top stage theatrics. They just keep knocking out the straight-ahead power pop that has made them an American institution.

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