Monday, September 24, 2018
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Review: Journey, Def Leppard defy Father Time, thrill 17,500 fans at Amalie Arena in Tampa

The inevitable question a double bill like Def Leppard and Journey begs is this: Which of the two classic rock hit machines, both well into their 50s and 60s, still rocks the hardest? Stick around, we'll get there in a minute.

First, though, can we take a second to appreciate a night like Saturday at Tampa's Amalie Arena? Two gargantuan bands from a time when rock bands could still be gargantuan, touring with classic lineups largely intact (save one obvious exception, and we'll get to that, too), and both happy to relive their glory days for an eager, sold-out audience of more than 17,500. Def Leppard played only one song written in the past 25 years; Journey didn't play anything post-1986. You can't say they're not out there giving the people what they want.

And boy, do they still want it bad. Journey's Jonathan Cain called Tampa "the largest-selling arena show of the tour," and good luck finding an audience more into it.

"Let's take a look at this place," Def Leppard singer Joe Elliott said as the lights went up during their opening set. "Holy s—, look at that! Not a bad way to spend a Saturday, what do you think?"

Kicking off the night with the immortally poetic salvo to Rocket ("Guitar! Drums!"), Def Lep clearly hasn't given up on the idea of big, dumb, stadium-shaking rock songs as lighter fluid for the soul. Even in their hair-metal heyday, they were kind of a band out of time — listen again to the utterly cheese-diculous Let's Get Rocked, and marvel that such a song was released into the world AFTER Nirvana's Nevermind — and that remains the case in 2018.

Def Leppard performed at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Aug. 18, 2018. (Jay Cridlin | Times)

They still look like proper rock stars, all scarves and sequins and stringy hair, and guitarist Phil Collen, bless him, is still running around shirtless like a glistening, guileless god. And for the most part, they sound like them, particularly when it comes to the eternally pristine twin guitar assault of Collen and Vivian Campbell (always so much more than just a Steve Clark stand-in); and the stacked backing harmonies of Campbell, Collen and bassist Rick Savage. Put these guys and drummer Rick Allen to work on a chewy rock morsel like Bringin' On the Heartbreak or a cover of David Essex's Rock On, and it's hard not to get caught up and sing along.

Their precision — and let's face it, after playing all these hits a million times, they ought to be polished to a zirconium sheen — would be enough to cover up the missteps of any aging lead singer. But sneering and preening with his arms stretched out wide, Elliott did all right for himself. He ceded a few choruses to his bandmates and fans, instead hopping in with vocal fills as needed on Pour Some Sugar On Me and Foolin'. He strained for those last "getting its" on Armageddon It, but was hopping and punching like a whippersnapper at the end.

And by closer Photograph, Elliott was still pushing his cords as high as they would go, with Collen and Campbell always there to pick up any slack. At that point you'd bet on the Def Leppard machine humming along for years, cranking out time-immaterial versions of Hysteria and Animal and Rock of Ages well into the next decade. Maybe the next two.

Def Leppard performed at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Aug. 18, 2018. (Jay Cridlin | Times)

The core of Journey, on the other hand, is longer in the tooth, with founding bassist Ross Valory staring down 70 come winter. Yet after last year's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they might be more popular than ever.

Three-fifths of the group – Valory, drummer Steve Smith and pianist Cain, who is married to former Tampa megapastor Paula White – is a tight but unshowy combo, content to play and that's it. Cain got a couple of moments to shine, like the twinkling ivories of Open Arms, and so did Smith, on the final closing rolls of Stone in Love and an extended solo later in La Do Da, with a camera close-up revealing some stylish slight of hand on the sticks and skins.

The case for Journey as rock gods really comes down to guitarist Neal Schon and singer Arnel Pineda.

Journey performed at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Aug. 18, 2018. (Jay Cridlin | Times)

Pineda's got the harder job, handling vocals for a group forever linked with Steve Perry. And the former YouTube star handles it well, acting the part by leaping and spinning and executing soaring split-kicks like a proper frontman. Journey fans may think they want a reunion with Perry, who just this week announced plans for his first new album in 24 years. Instead, they should appreciate  Pineda for being a great rock and roll story in his own right, one that's still unfolding right before their eyes.

Schon, meanwhile, totally milked every solo, grinning wide beneath black shades and drawing each extended solo out to maximum shreddage, from Separate Ways (Worlds Apart) to Be Good To Yourself. He took several extended solos during the show, meandering and mugging it up as his fingers flicked across the fretboard. He put some honest-to-goodness heart behind the last one, just before Wheel In the Sky, as the band scrolled photos of the late Aretha Franklin on the screen behind him.

Journey performed at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Aug. 18, 2018. (Jay Cridlin | Times)

Put all the pieces together and Journey can get a crowd lost in a planetarium-ready trip like Escape, or simply keep 'em singing along to hits like Any Way You Want It, Wheel In the Sky or the undeniable Faithfully. And it's frankly unfair they get to close with Don't Stop Believin', otherwise known as America's Alternate National Anthem. Those opening piano notes and final soaring chorus, punctuated by blizzards of streamers and confetti, are trump cards few other bands can match.

Still, for all Journey's collective strengths, I'd give the night to Def Leppard. They make zero bones about who they are and what the audience came to see, and with everyone on that same dog-eared page, theirs was the set I'd be most eager to see again.

"Un-f—ing-believable!" Elliott roared as the band bowed over a deafening final ovation.

What's unbelievable is that after 40-odd years, time still hasn't caught up to Def Leppard and Journey. On nights like Saturday, there are no winners and losers. They're both playing with house money, and fans are letting it roll until the end.

— Jay Cridlin

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