Cheap Trick was always hard to categorize, especially in its late-1970s artistic heyday. Were they ponderous hard rockers? Smirking New Wavers? It was a puzzle. Nowadays, though, what's most remarkable about the group is that has survived, and that its original members (including once-straying bass player Tom Petersson) still perform energetic sets like the one last night at the Barrymore Theatre.
Bands of all vintages perform energetic sets, of course. What distinguishes Cheap Trick is, among other things, the quality of the repertoire. Cheap Trick's songs, written predominantly by lead guitarist Rick Nielsen, are gems of rock songcraft that combine gigantic sing-along hooks ("Gonna Raise Hell," "I Want You to Want Me") with a witty, often glib perspective that helps inoculate the band against clichéd arena histrionics.
Which is not to say that Cheap Trick didn't deal in arena histrionics at the Barrymore. There were flashing lights, mic-stand tricks, guitar pyrotechnics, even a fun drum solo by a hard-to-see Bun E. Carlos. Out front was lead singer Robin Zander who, with his blond locks, white cowboy hat and black muscle T-shirt, looked like a rock star, just as he did 30 years ago. His voice often swelled to a piercing yowl, especially on rockers like the set-opening "Way of the World," from 1979's Dream Police.
But where Zander inhabits the rock-star role comfortably, Rick Nielsen tweaks it, even mocks it. He looked typically nerdy in a bow tie, but his guitar chops dazzled. He changed guitars after every song, and sometimes he changed guitars mid-song. (His outlandish guitars are legendary, including a twin-necked item painted to resemble a miniature Rick Nielsen.) He stood on a riser as, dramatically lit from underneath, he shredded. If a typical rock guitarist throws out an occasional guitar pick as a sop to stage-hugging audiences, Nielsen threw out a steady stream of guitar picks, a stream that surged, during the set-closer, in orgasmic showers of picks.
I've been a Cheap Trick fan since I was 8 and my older brother brought home a copy of Dream Police. Although I can't say I have closely followed every turn of the band's career, there are Cheap Trick songs I admire as much as any in rock's canon. So I was glad to finally see the band perform live, and I got chills of recognition as they performed indelible tunes like "I Want You To Want Me." I was surprised when I began involuntarily pumping my fist during the call-and-response portion of that song's chorus, familiar from the group's touchstone At Budokan album.
I also was glad to hear less famous hits, like 1982's "She's Tight," a staple of MTV in the cable channel's earliest years. The Elvis Presley cover "Don't Be Cruel," which dates to the band's successful late-1980s comeback, was a restrained change of pace. And tunes from Cheap Trick's new album The Latest (which Nielsen gleefully flogged at several points), like "Sick Man of Europe," sounded fine, just fine.
But mostly the concert reminded me of the cathartic power of a good rock 'n' roll show, even one performed by elder statesmen. That power was most palpable in "Heaven Tonight," the ominous title track of the group's third album, from 1978. Cheap Trick performed it with transporting menace.
A poignant moment came when the band performed its signature song "Surrender," and musicians and audience members alike chanted the song-closing refrain, "We're all all right." It was powerful reminder of the occasion for the concert, which was a benefit performance for Kirk "Wheel" Dyer, a longtime Cheap Trick associate who is being treated for cancer.
Just before Cheap Trick played, and after opening sets by the Rousers and John Masino, Dyer addressed a loudly appreciative audience in a speech punctuated with applause lines like, "Watch what we can do on a local level to smoke the living fuck out of this crappy disease." We're all indeed all right, and there's no better proof than Kirk "Wheel" Dyer's plain-spoken grace and good humor.