Oh baby, there ain’t nothing better than a down-in-the-dirt, head-in-the-clouds rock & roll fest, and this little shindig, with some 30 bands laying it down over the course of three days, stacks up as one mad mutha of a big-beat marathon.
Bristling with jam and wham sounds from the likes of freewheeling noodle merchants Blues Traveler and double-dipped, Dixie-fried retro riff slingers the Black Crowes, not to mention long running hippie heads the Doobie Brothers, modern rockers Live and Lit, with an additional horde of hard working rock & roll comers (notable among them, the psych-tinged jolt of the IE’s own Justin Black & the Light, a band whose front man’s confrontation with mortality—battling throat cancer and suffering the removal of a lung—lends their music an uncommon intensity and passion) will take the stage. But while the aforementioned acts are certain to provide more than an adequate amount of all-day and most-of-the-night rock & roll thrills, there’s one group here who bear closer examination: the veteran Midwestern phenom known to the world as Cheap Trick.
Cheap Trick’s hammering, pop-lined big guitar rock was an historic exception in the mid-’70s gangrenous, artistically bankrupt mainstream scene; as an outfit whose personnel’s appearance bordered on semi-bizarre, with the high geekiness of guitarist Rick Nielsen and mustachioed, metronomic drummer Bun E. Carlos’ burly, bespectacled anti-image setting a refreshingly weird counterpoint to vocalist Robin Zander and bassist Tom Petersson’s pure ‘70s shag-cut pretty boy looks, the band was an extraordinary anomaly. While Nielsen and Petersson had already been toughing it out together in a series of marginally successful bands since 1969, it wasn’t until they quit the road four years later, returned to their hometown of Rockford, Illinois, and joined forces with lapsed folk singer Zander and the frighteningly capable traps man Carlos that all the requisite elements for greatness were in place.
As Cheap Trick, they launched an endless series of one-nighters, opening shows for the era’s big dogs (from the Kinks to Kiss) and perfecting their singular, sweet and sour style to an artistically ambitious point where they sounded quite unlike anyone else. It was a presentation as arresting as it was unconventional, and coming at a moment when the punk rock insurgency had begun to infect standard issue arena rockers with a vague yet troubling paranoia about which direction the wind was blowing, that very offbeat quality was a plus, and one that lent Cheap Trick an additional aura of intrigue, placing them, like Australian headbangers AC/DC, in an unusual category just far enough removed from the mainstream that you had to pay attention to them. Even the band’s savagely walloping, self-titled 1977 debut album was in itself somewhat of a fluke: Tom Werman, the Trick-faithful A&R man who “produced” it had in fact never been at the controls of a studio mixing board, yet the resulting set was the first in a series of outstanding, distinctive albums that swiftly attained inarguable status as rock classics. Subsequent—and equally impressive releases—In Color and Heaven Tonight established their unique skill for melodic pop-rock dynamism, but it was the fourth long player, 1979’s At Budokan, that provided a long-sought-after breakout, haunting the upper reaches of the charts for over a year. That set was a characteristically crafty exercise: it’s said that the band re-recorded the songs so extensively that the only remaining live track from the Japanese concert was Carlos’ high-hat, and after hit single “I Want You to Want Me” (a song Nielsen had written about his father on which he originally wanted to feature a clarinet) became a teen romance anthem, Cheap Trick were established as one of rock & roll’s best, truest proponents.
They have scarcely slowed since then, and despite some lean years and an erosion of prestige, the band’s current album, Rockford, demonstrates unyielding skill and enthusiasm. The sound is tamped down so damn tight, like a surging lava flow barely contained beneath a thin, undulating layer of pop icing, that the contrast of ethereal harmonies and buzzsaw guitar brutality rolls out with as much kick and nefarious precision as ever. Zander’s mix of road-weary cynicism and ingenuous vulnerability—the appealing psychic constant he’s consistently employed—still plays as a thoroughly convincing approach that demands empathic response, just as Nielsen’s axe (coughing up menacing gobs of dissonance and economically pulling punches) is beating you over the head, as vibrant and flat-git-it thunderous as ever. Independent, original and unstoppable, Cheap Trick are one of a kind—and one hard act to follow.
The Lake Havasu Rock Fest, Lake Havasu City, AZ; www.lakehavasurockfest.com. Fri.-Sun., mostly 10 a.m.-10 p.m. each day. $60-$140; children under 5, free.