Checkered past : Cheap Trick and Pat Benatar deliver capable sets at the Bowl

Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen strikes one of his non-chalant poses while lead singer Robin Zander serenades Sunday night's audience at the Santa Barbara County Bowl. MIKE MORIATIS/NEWS-PRESS PHOTOS
Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen strikes one of his non-chalant poses while lead singer Robin Zander serenades Sunday night’s audience at the Santa Barbara County Bowl.

On an overcast, June-gloomy Sunday night, the Santa Barbara Bowl played host to two acts that defined rock radio in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Cheap Trick, masters of pop-rock, who have always zigged when other groups zagged, headlined a solid show of hits from their nearly 40 years of rock. And Pat Benatar, the electric and exciting rock singer who became one of the most popular acts on MTV in its early days with a string of hits, opened for the band, delivering a two-fer of classic fist-pumping good times. For the Santa Barbara audience, it was a no-brainer of summer fun.

First, it must be good to be Ms. Benatar. At 60 she looks pretty much the same as she did when she released her first single in 1979. Her voice, just a bit raspier than usual, can still hit all the notes. She’s still with her collaborator and husband of 31 years, Neil Giraldo. She must laugh in the face of AARP newsletters.

Yes, this was a nostalgia tour for the most part. The age of the crowd tended toward 50 and 60 as well. Neither act has had much in the way of new material. Cheap Trick released a Beatle-esque album in 2009, and Ms. Benatar put out the disappointing “Go” in 2003 and has just continued to tour with the greatest hits since. There’s not much to prove apart from the fact that both can still draw a crowd, can still rock out, and this is the kind of music that can fill the Bowl.

Ms. Benatar broke into the rock scene in 1979, with a sound and attitude similar to acts like the Runaways and that group’s most famous solo act, Joan Jett. She was punchy, electric, rough, and though she didn’t make sexuality her selling point, it was exactly that refusal that earned her a lot of fans, male and female. It was hard to say who in the audience was there for her and who for the headliners, but the set played to all her strengths, ditched anything high tech, and settled in for songs belted out with capable backing from Mr. Giraldo, her bass player, Mick Mahan and drummer, Chris Ralles.

“All Fired Up” kicked off the set. Dressed in black, but not leather (like many of her fans in the audience), Ms. Benatar strode the stage confidently, hitting familiar poses, and encouraging the audience to sing along.

Her in between song patter was fun, just this side of slick, and Mr. Giraldo got in his anecdotes too. Mentioning the last time Ms. Benatar played our city (she said 1989 — the Bowl history doesn’t list her), she quipped “We didn’t look as nice then.” Mr. Giraldo told a story of his guitar, comparing it to a fickle woman, earning him some stagey eye-rolling from the missus.

She reached back in the catalog for “So Sincere,” “Promises in the Dark,” “You Better Run” and more. They’re all tuneful pop rockers, and the crowd sung along. Opening act Brynn Marie, who sings decent country rock in the style (or shadow) of Shania Twain, joined Ms. Benatar on stage for the “hairbrush in the mirror” hit “We Belong to the Night.” Then it was more hits, one after the other: “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” “Love Is a Battlefield,” “Let’s Stay Together,” and a finale medley of her first hit, “Heartbreaker” and Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and even a bit of the Godfather Theme. It’s been their closer for a few years now, and works.

After an intermission, it was Rockford, Illinois’ sons of pop rock, Cheap Trick who took the stage. Their first four albums in the 1970s were classics of their genre, and they’ve meandered a bit since then. Apart from a loyal fanbase, they’ve been off rock radio. The line-up remains nearly the same. Rick Nielsen — at 64, the oldest musician on stage — still wears his Bowery Boys cap and writes pretty much everything, playing an endless collection of guitars, including his famous five-neck guitar. Robin Zander still sings in a high sometimes nasal register close to John Lennon and those early Merseybeat bands in the Beatles wake. Bassist Tom Petersson joins in for some harmonies and took the lead for “I Know What I Want and I Know How to Get It.” Missing is drummer Bun E. Carlos, who is currently out for music contract reasons, his place taken by Mr. Nielsen’s son Daxx, who sported a white shirt and black vest like Carlos regularly wore.

The band started with lesser known tracks. “The Flame” was a hit in the ’80s, but never got the kind of rotation as their early works. “Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace” was exactly an early work as was “Need Your Love” and “Heaven Tonight.”

Mr. Nielsen regularly threw batches of his personalized guitar picks into the crowd, as is his tradition, and talked a little about his guitars. The sound was muddy at times, and sometimes the songs, which have distinct personalities on the records, sounded a bit similar one after the other. Mr. Zander can still hit the notes, but sometimes it could be grating, with little variety. Criticism didn’t matter near the end though, once the radio hits arrived, with “I Want You to Want Me,” “California Man,” “Surrender” and then the encore, “Dream Police.”

The evening was an exercise in nostalgia, yes, but as a celebration of artistic partnerships that are still going strong, it delivered.

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