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.
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.