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Perspective

With ’80s rockers, is it the Journey or the destination?

For fans of aging rock bands, is a reproduction better than the real thing?

BETTER THAN EVER? Journey injected youth into its lineup with new frontman Arnel Pineda. BETTER THAN EVER? Journey injected youth into its lineup with new frontman Arnel Pineda. (John Medina/Wireimage)
By Neil Swidey
July 18, 2010

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When Aerosmith fans pack Fenway next month, they may get a special thrill seeing Boston’s most enduring band, and not just because of the setting. Five months ago, the group considered replacing lead singer Steven Tyler with a younger voice like Lenny Kravitz.

As sweet as the moment will be, it’s fair to ask whether those concertgoers would get a better performance if the group had actually dumped the 62-year-old heavy-mileage Tyler and brought in a ringer.

I say this as someone with deep roots in Aerosmith fandom. My oldest brother turned me on to the band when I was in second grade, and I still remember the horrified look on my teacher’s face when she asked me my favorite song and I innocently replied, “Lord of Your Thighs.”

This issue transcends Aerosmith. Once again this summer, the concert schedule at the Bank of America Pavilion looks like a VH-1 playlist from 1986: Foreigner, Styx, Meat Loaf, the Eagles, Chicago, Pat Benatar, REO Speedwagon. When we see the bands of our youth, do we want the real thing – faded and flawed – or a less damaged, if manufactured, reproduction?

Since my wife’s musical tastes are unapologetically stuck in the ’80s, I’ve seen several of these nostalgia acts in concert. A few years back, during a triple bill at the Pavilion of Loverboy, Foreigner, and Eddie Money, the music was forgettable. The discomfort was not. Watching the lead singer of Loverboy struggle to hit his notes while he strutted onstage, his middle-aged physique squeezed into his old leather pants and his trademark bandana now used to conceal male pattern baldness, I felt only sadness. I know he was being paid well, but the entire setup seemed cruel, like forcing the late Gary Coleman to walk onstage wearing boy’s corduroys, smirk at the crowd, and say, “What’choo talkin’ ’bout, Willis!” over and over.

The case of Journey offers a potentially better way to relive the past. In the ’70s and ’80s, the band, fronted by Steve Perry, produced hits like “Separate Ways” and “Open Arms.” But after a reunion in the mid-’90s, Perry left for good.

These days, Journey is enjoying a Perry-free revival. The kids from Fox’s Glee struck iTunes gold with an a cappella release of “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” and then offered more re-imagined Journey classics. A cover-band concert, “Captured – the Journey Show,” has been touring widely, including a stop in Boston earlier this month.

Finally, there’s the “original” Journey, which has been recording and touring with founding guitarist Neal Schon and other longtime members. But instead of Perry, it is now fronted by Arnel Pineda, a native of the Philippines who had been singing in a cover band when Schon discovered him on YouTube.

My wife and I caught a Pineda-led Journey show last fall at the Verizon Center in Manchester, New Hampshire. Not only can Pineda reproduce the power and clarity of Perry’s vocals, but he’s nailed his appearance – stringy hair, tight jeans – and all of his mannerisms. He apes Perry’s odd shoulder sway and outstretched arms, and his habit of closing his eyes and then opening them extra-wide, to convey emotion. The spry 42-year-old can jump around the stage as much as Perry did in his prime. Now 61, Perry conceded in a radio interview earlier this year, “Uncle Steve is getting up there in age, and the old bod doesn’t move the way it used to.”

Still, as pitch-perfect as Pineda’s impression was, by midway through the show, the whole performance began to wear thin. I wondered if I was watching a classic ’80s band or one of those contrived American Idol finale numbers.

I began to crave authenticity, warts and all.

In fact, I had experienced that earlier in the night. Heart, that classic sister act of Ann and Nancy Wilson behind such hits as “Barracuda,” had opened the show. (They’ll play the Pavilion later this month.) Nancy, the younger sister and guitarist, looked svelte and youthful. Ann, who has spoken openly about her battle with her weight, looked unrecognizable from her glory days. Wearing a flowing black robe, she shuffled backstage for frequent breaks during guitar solos.

But when she opened her mouth, Ann sang with such glorious power and range that her voice rose above the lousy acoustics in the Manchester hall and transported the crowd right back to the ’80s. It was pure, real, and captivating. And no ringer could have matched that.

In the end, whether it’s the appearance or the sound or the authenticity, something has to give. Maybe, to quote that other aging rocker Meat Loaf, two out of three ain’t bad.

Neil Swidey is a staff writer for the Globe Magazine. E-mail him at swidey@globe.com.

  • July 18, 2010 cover
  • july 18 globe magazine cover
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