Photo: Carla Dragotti
”The dream police, they live inside of my head / The dream police, they come to me in my bed / The dream police, they’re coming to arrest me, oh no.” I remember walking on the beach with my family as the sun beat down on the spring break teens who gathered to enjoy a promotional concert featuring a long list of ’80s popsters. Of particular interest to young me at the time was a set by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, but I was also excited to see a rock band from Illinois called Cheap Trick. When I was even younger, I grew up in Cheap Trick’s hometown, Rockford, which Money Magazine helped immortalize in 1996 by naming it the worst city in the country based on “livability”. One kid in my school wore a shiny, reflective jacket adorned with the unmistakable Cheap Trick logo, and to a second grader, you can’t buy better advertising than a shiny jacket. On a family vacation, I walked into Kmart with my grandma, and she purchased me my first cassette tapes — the Run-D.M.C. crown jewel Raising Hell and Lap of Luxury by Cheap Trick. I listened to both tapes repeatedly, but it was “The Flame” by Cheap Trick that touched my elementary school heart with overtly romantic lyrics depicting everything that I imagined about love. Fast forward a few years, and I’m at the promotional show with my family where Cheap Trick’s bombastic brand of rock n’ roll blows Big Willie off the beach. If it seems unbelievable that Cheap Trick were playing an oceanic concert with the Fresh Prince, you might be right. In recent years, I’ve wondered if I was actually at that show, or if I just listened to that Cheap Trick album so many times on my headphones that I dreamt up the entire concert in my sleep. ”Have you seen her face / She’s got a face that would stop a clock / And with that face I surely won’t stop / To look her in the eyes.” Sweating it out on the highway, I’m nervous about being late. The band’s website said they were going on at eight o’clock, and it was already eight fifteen. I U-turn and U-turn and U-turn with little luck, until Vault 350 finally comes into view. I enter the club just as Boston’s own Kay Hanley finishes her opening set with an old Letters To Cleo greatest hit, and a by-the-books cover of Nick Lowe’s “Cruel To Be Kind” (instead of her usual cover, Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me”). The room is spacious, but it’s packed to the back of the bar, and it looks like it was designed with the mid-nineties in mind. The crowd seems pleased with the opener, but most fans are jazzed up to see Rockford’s traveling rock n’ roll circus. Too many people are wearing neckties for a Saturday night (and it’s not a new wave fashion statement). Drinks cost more than the shirts at the merch table. The last time I saw Cheap Trick (for real this time) was back in college. They played a small club in Boston with Guided By Voices and produced a strong set despite the fact that they hadn’t recorded a truly great record in ages. Earlier this year, Cheap Trick released a very solid collection in the form of Special One. No, it’s not In Color, or Heaven Tonight, but it features at least four songs that would hold up well on any Cheap Trick record — no easy feat. And who would have guessed that indie darlings Steve Albini and Dan the Automator both make appearances on it? The strength of Special One has my excitement level piqued, and even as the confused security guards at the venue relocate the crowd from one end to another, everyone acts cool — just bring on the Trick. When the legends finally take the stage, the audience lights up. “You’re on top of the world / You’re on top of the world and you can’t get any higher / You’re on top of the world / You’re on top of the world, tonight.” When Cheap Trick starts rolling it becomes even more obvious that several great modern bands, like Weezer, directly benefit from the blueprint Cheap Trick wrote nearly single handedly. Their first few records are classics because they perfectly combine heavy metal muscle, hard rock hooks, and punk rock attitude with Beatles-worshipping melodies and great tunes. To this day that important influence is evidenced by Trick’s loving cover of the Fab Four’s “Day Tripper”, which they tear through splendidly. Tonight they prove that unlike many of their contemporaries, Cheap Trick can still thrill their fans with a wide selection of songs from their ever-expanding repertoire. The band energizes classics from their 1977 self-titled debut (the show highlight “He’s A Whore,” “Taxman, Mr. Thief”), and perform highlights from their deceptively impressive Special One (the mesmerizing “Pop Drone”). As far as ’80s monster ballads go, I’ll still stand proudly by “The Flame”. It’s overly sentimental and disturbingly saccharine, but I’ll be damned if those Robin Zander vocals can’t still transport me to a time when holding hands and writing Valentines gave me butterflies. One of rock’s greatest guitarists, Rick Nielson, still gallivants across the stage in a baseball hat, throwing his picks into the crowd recklessly, changing guitars with every new song, and busting out mean, blues-based solos on the six string (and twelve string, and twenty-four string). In between songs Nielson does stand-up. Funny stand-up. He’s an absolute animal. Meanwhile, the forever understated Bun E. Carlos provides the solid backbeat for Nielson and Zander to woo us with, and then takes time out to fire off nasty fills with seemingly little effort. Tom Petersson remains the classy, laid-back presence on bass, and he still feels essential to the Cheap Trick magic. ”California Man” pumps up the energy level sky high, and in keeping with the California theme, the band performs their popular “That Seventies Song” to appreciative fans from the sitcom business who weathered the schlep from Hollywood to Long Beach. The crowd proves to be full of true believers, imitating the teenage Japanese girls from Live at Budokan on “I Want You To Want Me” by repeating Zander’s immortal vocals, “Didn’t I, didn’t I, didn’t I see you crying?” with the familiar echo, “Crying! Crying! Crying!” Out of respect, the band unveils a unique take on “Fan Club”, where the lyrics seem humorously appropriate, “You stayed with us through thick and thin / You stayed through all the ludes and gin / And clapped a lot Four kings with an army strong / You knew the words to all our songs / You stayed with us / All night long.” Towards the end of the night, it’s “Surrender” that sends ’em away smiling. The band’s energy never wanes (although the show has one minor lull), and they’re still pounding away with midnight on the horizon. When the show wraps up, my only complaint is about songs they didn’t get around to playing. They’re still such a potent force on stage that it’s no surprise Cheap Trick has released three live albums in the last five years (At Budokan: The Complete Concert, Music For Hangovers, and Silver). They could release twice as many live albums, and their fans would eagerly line up. Consummate show business professionals, Cheap Trick knows how to leave us wanting more.