Classic rock on full display at the Mid-State Fair

July 31, 2012



Like most of the tail end boomer generation, I grew up on and love album-oriented rock, or AOR as they used to say in the radio biz. But there comes a point when you gotta turn the dial when ‘Freebird’ comes on again.

So, it was with some trepidation that I trekked up to Paso Robles for their classic rock triple bill of Journey, Pat Benatar and Loverboy earlier this week. Don’t get me wrong: three-plus hours of chart-topping, arm-swaying anthems and power ballads beats a kick in the pants any day.

But these songs can sound tired after decades so it’s certainly a huge challenge for bands to keep them fresh, night after night, year after year. I had seen Journey in 2009 at the Fair and wasn’t really impressed, still I liked the other acts more and knew it would be a festive night at the Mid-State Fair’s Chumash Arena.

Loverboy got things off to a solid if somewhat mundane start. The boys, especially lead singer Mike Reno, sound good but haven’t aged too well. Their compact, 30-minute set featured their biggest hits, all great tracks. Playing first in a half-filled arena before the sun goes down is never easy but the Canadian Music Hall of Famers did their level best, especially on the finale ‘Working for the Weekend.’

On the other hand, Pat Benatar and her guitarist husband partner Neil Giraldo seemed determined to upstage the night’s headliner. From the start of ‘All Fired Up,’ the duo had the crowd singing along and listening to her stories about songs and lives. Again, here’s another band that was on top of the rock world for several years with so many catchy power pop songs. And on this night for 60 minutes, they were back on the mountain.

By the middle of their set, the crowd had settled in, most with two drinks in hand and were ready to party. And Benatar didn’t disappoint, with rousing renditions of ‘Promises in the Dark,’ ‘You Better Run’ and ‘Heartbreaker.’ The only distraction was a tinny, too-much treble sound mix that over-amplified her voice and his guitar. These two are talented pros, stars in their own right so they don’t need an artificial boost.

By 9:40 p.m., Journey finally appeared on stage so we knew it was going to be a long night. Opening with several new songs, the musical quintet took awhile to hit their stride. But the audience was enthusiastic, maybe dancing as much to keep warm on an unseasonably cool night.

Lead singer Arnel Pineda, the diminutive Filipino and Steve Perry sound-a-like, has definitely grown as a singer, showing a wider vocal range than his predecessor. But his stage movements and interaction with fans seemed forced and stilted. Jonathan Cain is one of the best organist/pianist/keyboard players around and bassist Ross Valory could probably play Journey songs in his sleep.

But it’s clear the star of the show is guitarist Neal Schon, there’s no doubt Journey is his band. His solos were the highlight of virually every song, the signature leads that define the rock anthems and power ballads that define Journey. Looking kind of like Springsteen in a bomber jacket, Schon ripped off riff after riff with an easy but engaging style. This guy is a genuine phenom, a juke-box hero if you will who earned his stripes with Santana when he was just 15.

So, I guess we’ll give him a pass on that bizarre Salahi episode.

Schon and the band definitely finished strong, playing most of their big hits, a few more than they did in 2009. It seemed like they fed on the excitement of the crowd, refusing to mail it in with just another gig. If the fair bosses have succeeded at one thing, it’s creating a big buzz atmosphere in the Chumash Arena, unlike any other venue on the central coast.

Now, if we could only get them to coordinate with fellow promoters so a certain other big show in Avila Beach doesn’t happen on the same day.

Journey wrapped up their solid, 19-song, 100-minute long set with the Caddyshack classic ‘Any Way You Want It’ and the Sopranos finale and signature song ‘Don’t Stop Believing.’

Good advice for rock and rollers young and old.