Our last concert of the 2016 summer season was another outdoor affair at Birmingham, Alabama’s Oak Mountain Amphitheater. I’ll save you the dramatic setting of “it was a hot and steamy night...” but good lord was it ever a hot and steamy night. This was a somewhat different crowd than our previous Oak Mountain outing to see Journey and the Doobie Brothers. I am presently forty-five years old and this was my demographic. Back in 1988 when Def Leppard was at the top of the world, we were seniors in high school or freshmen in college. For one night it was a group of aging, balding, road weary adults trying to recapture the magic of almost thirty years ago, some with better results than others (I’m looking at you James Hetfield looking guy in your Miss Me jeans.)
I must be honest with the fact that I came for REO Speedwagon and not Def Leppard. You can say what you want to about REO Speedwagon being largely soft rock tripe but if you dig a little deeper you will find that Kevin Cronin and company are far more than that. In fact, I will say if you are honest with yourself and put in the time to really listen, that Kevin Cronin is one of the better songwriters of the era. Even if they aren’t your thing musically, Cronin is a fantastic wordsmith that never goes too far off the rails. Anyway, agree or disagree I love me some REO Speedwagon and that is what I was here for.
My wife splurged for the tickets this go around so it was actually a bit of a surprise to go to this concert. I have never really given Def Leppard much thought beyond Pyromania even though Hysteria was the soundtrack of my senior year of high school. Also on the bill was Tesla, who I had given even less thought about. I am a huge fan of NICOLA Tesla (the mad scientist) and I applaud them for naming their band after the true inventor of the radio (your gig is up Marconi) but other than the two mainstream songs I know by them I am a Tesla neophyte.
By the time we got to our seats Tesla had taken the stage and I honestly struggled to stay interested. Even when I am not familiar with someone’s music I can enjoy the art of making of it... usually. I really struggled with Tesla. Their drummer was often out of time and unimpressive, their guitarist were playing every metalish 1980’s riffs you’ve ever heard. It may as well have been White Lion / WASP / Great White / Dokken / Cinderella / Stryper on the stage. I suppose the lead singer Jeff Keith sounded much as he did back in the day but his concert banter of generic metal-head crowd rousing was dreadful (hey alright BURM-ING-HAYM! OWW!). So, essentially I waited Tesla out for REO Speedwagon who took the stage next.
The REO Speedwagon set was delightful and Kevin Cronin sounded tremendous. It was pretty much exactly what I expected and wanted with a complete run of their popular mainstream radio hits and concert favorites. I always wanted to hear Riding the Storm Out live and finally got my chance and it did not disappoint. Cronin’s banter was much better. Instead of spouting generic “Hey, hey, we’re glad to be back in (insert your city here)!”, Cronin personalized it much better with stories about his daughter heading off to college that day and his past experiences in the city. Even if this is show number “whatever” to a band it’s nice to personalize the experience for the people who paid good money in that city to see your show. Job well done. The band was spot on and played to near perfection. It was a great set and met expectations and there is nothing wrong with meeting expectations.
By this point it was sweltering hot. The air was so humid it was hard to breath and I had been entertained by a constant stream of very intoxicated forty-something’s trying to negotiate the steep stairway. My wife and I were pondering how there weren’t like fifty deaths per show from inebriated people tumbling head first down the walkway. In two shows I’ve only seen three people take a header so far, come on people you can do better than that.
At last Def Leppard took the stage and this is the portion of the concert where my expectations were vastly exceeded. Let me say this in clear and certain terms- Def Leppard put on an amazing concert. I am at best a moderate fan of their music but I know a great show when I see one and this was a great show. The giant screen behind the band was one of the best I’ve seen at any concert and that includes Rush, Metallica, Dead and Company, Ozzy, and many of the bigger names you would expect to have a great set.
Of course, Def Leppard played all their big hits with a few deep cuts thrown in. I’m not going to pretend to have known every song, I wasn’t that deep into Def Leppard, but even during the songs I wasn’t familiar with, the stage presentation made it enjoyable. Finally the group played probably their biggest mainstream hit- Pour Some Sugar on Me and left the stage to a huge ovation. I knew this had to mean my two favorite Def Leppard songs had been left for the encore- Rock of Ages and Photograph, and much to my delight they were played in that order. I left the show a much bigger Def Leppard fan than I was when I arrived and promptly bought their greatest hits album off of Amazon.
Interestingly, that is when I discovered that there is a distribution dispute with the band and their record company which has resulted in the music not being available digitally or streaming. I am sad about this and that really needs fixed here in 2016. I buy all my music in MP3 format and had the concert not made such an impression on me I would never have bought the physical CD and ripped it. I think Def Leppard is really doing themselves a disservice by not having their music digitally available yet but I quantify that with the fact that I don’t know what the dispute is about and maybe they are on the right side of it and this is just an unfortunate side effect.
I will say this, the next time Def Leppard comes to town I will be there and I never expected to feel that way.