Neal Schon’s fierce guitar dulled by Journey’s soulless corporate-rock vibe

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By Steve Newton

Journey has long been criticized for being one of the prime purveyors of “corporate rock”, along with the likes of Foreigner, Boston, Styx, and REO Speedwagon. But anyone who’s ever slagged the group for its commercial sensibilities would have to admit that its latest attempt to make even more moola is pretty ingenious. For its current North American tour the band went ahead and made one of its own members the opening act! Now that’s what I call good business sense.

The guest for last night’s Journey show at Vancouver’s Rogers Arena was Journey guitarist Neal Schon—or Neal “Vortex” Schon as he’s known when pulling double-duty. But I for one had no problem with the unexpected booking. I’ve been a fan of Schon’s for decades, and not just for his tasty playing on Journey’s radio-friendly rock hits. In ’93 he plugged in for two Paul Rodgers albums—Muddy Water Blues: A Tribute to Muddy Waters and The Hendrix Set—and a couple of years later proved himself an ace instrumental artist with the new-agey smooth-jazz album Beyond the Thunder. The music on that disc was so beautifully melodic that I chose it as the soundtrack for the birth of my first child. Strangely enough, nowadays my wife has issues listening to it, even though she was only in labour for like 12 or 13 hours.

The music Schon cranked out last night in his warm-up role was not exactly delivery-room material. Along with keyboardist Rachel Z, bassist Jerry Brooks, and Journey touring drummer Omar Hakim—who was called in to replace Deen Castronova last month after the latter was charged with rape, assault, and other felonies—Schon ranged through a handful of adventurous tracks from his new double-album Vortex. Hakim was a percussive force of nature, skilfully pounding out the rhythms for the intense jazz-rock and world-music-flavoured instrumentals. “The record’s out there if you want to get it,” announced Schon. “Very musical record.”

After about half-an-hour of Schon showcasing his impressive solo project it was time for a short break, before he and Hakim returned with their Journey bandmates—singer Arnel Pineda, keyboardist Jonathan Cain, and bassist Ross Valory—for the music most folks had come to hear. Schon didn’t start things off by saying, “This is the part of the show where I dumb it down,” but, you know, he could have.

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Although not as challenging as the material from Vortex, Journey’s big radio hits—in particular “Who’s Crying Now”, “Anyway You Want It”, and “Stone in Love”—benefited greatly from Schon’s technical virtuosity, killer tone, and great melodic sense. He also enchanted the crap out of the crowd with a stirring rendition of “Oh Canada” that should put Mark Donnelly out of work for good.

On the downside, Cain looked bored out of his skull most of the time, and Valory didn’t seem too thrilled to be there either. Mind you, that’s in comparison to Pineda, who was a sparkplug throughout. The diminutive Filipino—who Schon discovered via YouTube and brought into the band in 2007 as the next-best-thing to Steve Perry—did his utmost to incite the crowd, whether that meant leaping about like an acrobat or just grinning like he’d won the lottery.

Despite Pineda’s best intentions, though, the Journey show seemed to be missing something—and it wasn’t just Steve Perry. “It doesn’t seem like a rock band,” observed my wife about halfway through, “it just seems like a performance.” I had that sense too, like there was something too calculated in the delivery of the music. Or was it a general soulessness in the fabric of the songs themselves? Could “corporate rock” be a thing after all?

Talk amongst yourselves.

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15 responses to “Neal Schon’s fierce guitar dulled by Journey’s soulless corporate-rock vibe

  1. I saw them in the mid 70’s, before Steve Perry joined them. They were amazing then. Neal Schon was so good I almost cried. Sad to see how they devolved over the years.

  2. Its not soulless at all. Its the fact people can’t let go of the man that cost himself and the rest of Journey millions of dollars in the 90s. If anyone goes to a Journey concert expecting to hear the 1980s rendition, don’t waste your money. Get over it. Let go of the past and just be thankful there is a Journey out there touring.

    What there is now is the founding member, Neal Schon, rocking better than he has in a long time, thats his own words too. One original member still jamming. One super long time member that helped bring fame to the band. One drummer that is starting to feel as though he owns the songs that can play phenomenally. And one singer that delivers crowd interaction that creates an atmosphere better than most 45+ year olds and certainly better than 60+ year olds on lead vocals.

    No the concert wasn’t soulless. Its the people that are so obsessed with the past they can’t grow up and be thankful for what they have to cherish. A lot of people should follow Arnel’s example. Paraphrasing his words, I am not Steve Perry. He is an incredible vocalist and one of my own idols. I’m not here to make people forget him. I’m here for the people that believe in me and believe in Journey.

    This Journey is not the 80s and they have never claimed to be. Just let it go. There is no reason to mention Steve Perry. The words two to tango are very true. If Neal doesn’t leave Santana, he never meets with Perry. If Perry never meets with Journey, Journey never gets the hits we all so love. Its been 20 years since Steve Perry sang with Journey. He said he never felt a part of the band anyways so everyone should be happy he is no longer feeling like the outcast in the band. Let it go. Its not the Steve Perry band.

  3. Anyone who believes that Journey dumbed it down had never listened to the b sides of those albums. Just because something is popular doesn’t mean is soulless. The fact Journeys music touches something in so many people doesn’t make it corporate rock, it means they understand us.

    Listen to Rubicon or Edge Of The Blade off of Frontiers and hopefully you will have to rethink your assumptions.

    Neal Schon is a bad ass though, on that I’ll agree.

  4. Thank you, Steve Newton, for sharing Neal’s Beyond The Thunder entire audio clip! Neal’s versatility is spendidly showcased. I dig it! 🙂 Let me start by saying that I have been a Journey fan since 1979. Neal’s choice with Arnel, was timely. He breathed new life into the band. Arnel interacts with the audience & hits the notes the fans expect. Steve Perry had a seasoned soulfulness that I’ve yet to see matched, until I heard Deen Castronovo. In life, we all make mistakes. If we learn from them, we can avoid making the same ones again. Luckily, Deen is alive to correct his, with the support of his family, friends & fans. Grouping Journey, Foreigner, Boston, Styx, and REO Speedwagon as “Corporate Rock” entities, is a fair statement. The bands’ management teams are looking out for everyone’s best interest, including the fans. This is proven by the selling out of venues, meet & greets, t-shirts, memorabilia & many other commercial means. After all, the bands, crew & all of their families (pets included) require financial security that everyone needs. 🙂 Peace & Love y’all! ❤

  5. They have to be tired of playing the same “hits” over and over. They’re pros so they will play every song accurately but I’m sure they fire died out a long time ago. Thank god for Arnel and Neil.

  6. I do know that Cain doesn’t want to record any new records and is pretty burnt on just playing the hits on tour so I can understand his lackluster demeanor. But with as much touring they do year in and year out I can understand not having a great show now and then.
    But every show I’ve seen in my town with the new line-up even with Augeri the guys where always engaged with the crowd.
    I know in previous interviews Arnel has said he was concerned about being in Journey and just singing the hits and wanted to continue to record new material. But with Cain disillusioned about fans only wanting to hear the hits (True JRNY fans are always hungry for new material, seems the causual fans are the ones wanting to just be “Memory Embalmers”) , the record industry taking a nosedive (no thanks to us downloading free music), Neal wanting to set up his legacy before re-joining Santana and of course the sad issue with Deen. I’m pretty sure its been discussed within the band if its all worth it these days?
    I for one am glad we have these so-called corporate bands becuase to tell you honestly I couldn’t name one “Real” rock band at the moment,who has had mutiple hits like Journey, Styx, Foreigner, REO Speedwagon, Pat Benatar, ect. Do me this, if these bands would stop touring who else is out there that could pick-up they’re slack? I dare you, I just named 5 bands above, name me 5 current “Rock” bands with even maybe half the hits Journey had had? Yup, thats what I thought.

  7. I like to call it “Journey does covers of Journey” or any other bands ending up on the County Fair circuit …Is it Journeys time? Or will they become a franchise like Van Halen?

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