Ahh, the PNE – Vancouver’s long-standing, summer-ending tradition! This fair, a mash-up of absurd food, cheesy carnival games, dizzying rides, animals, exhibits and showmarts has long since included some spectacular nightly concerts with some pretty big names. The last few years, this has ramped up even more, with shows now being moved to the big amphitheatre (in past years showing monster truck rallies and demolition derbys) for increased capacity, and paid reserved seating. Tonight, it would be Foreigner hitting the stage to entertain the evening fairgoers. This one was sold out, and overflow guests clung to the gates to watch from outside the space.
Their set list was unsurprising – an hour and a half-ish’s worth of hit after hit after glorious hit – the soundtrack of your life. You can look up just about any concert of theirs in the last while and see the same set list. It started with “Double Vision,” veered through “Feels Like The First Time,” ended the main set with “Juke Box Hero” and then finished with a full-spectrum-swing of “I Wanna Know What Love Is” and “Hot Blooded.” The weird thing with these guys is, at this point, they almost amount to a cover band. Granted, a really, really, snotting good cover band. Yeah, some of these guys have been with Foreigner for many, many years, but the era from which the songs they are playing come from are before a single one of the men on stage were part of it, and we were wondering whether many in the audience were even aware of this. Tonight, Mick Jones, last remaining original member, was not here. Instead, his guitar duties were being performed by Bruce Watson, one of the newest recruits to the Foreigner camp (and he was wild – flashy, and on top of his game). That said, they are all brilliant players and brilliant performers, and you don’t feel like you’re watching a different batch of people than would have put these songs together in the 70s and 80s. I discussed this with a friend forward of the show – if you have a thing, and over time, one-by-one, replace the parts of the thing until none of the original parts are left, is it still the thing? In this case, yeah, yeah it is. This is Foreigner, and they are super fun to have in front of you.
The show began with smoke and greenish lights, as keyboardist Micheal Bluestein and drummer Chris Frazier paraded out and threw their arms aloft under metal diamond-plate cutout of the band name, before the rest of the band members joined them on stage to start the set. “Double Vision” was a total powerhouse tune, blasting the venue into its highest energy of the whole night. Singer Kelly Hansen sailed around the stage with an effortless bounce, and astounding flexibility, in a pink sportcoat over a Roy Orbison t-shirt, black scarf, tight-as-hell jeans thankyouverymuch and blue mirrored shades, hair flinging as wildly as his limbs. He carts the mic stand around with him most of the time, using it as an air battering ram or to point at the crowd. He ran into the audience, cavorted with his band one by one, chucked picks out from Jeff Pilson’s mic stand when he wasn’t doing the same himself. He is an utterly charismatic frontman with a great penchant for involving and wooing the crowd, of course with killer pipes to boot. Watson was positioned to one side of him, and on the other side, guitarist Thom Gimbel (who would also play a few other instruments through the night – sax, keyboards – and is also the most long-standing member of the current line-up) and bassist Pilson (well-known for his founding role in Dokken, but with Foreigner for the past decade plus). All these guys have a history in this kind of epic rock, and they know how to strike a pose on stage. Pilson’s big rock faces, and rather devilish ‘come on’ gestures to the crowd were a sight and a half.
The issue I think was in the audience. The PNE audiences are a different bunch than your regular music crowd, even beyond Vancouver’s well-known stodgy crowds. These are in some cases people who came in for free and might not even know the band… in some cases, fans who bought reserved seats and might have made a day of it at the fair (the crowd as it settled in prior to the show had to make space in the reserved seating for their giant Minion and penguin stuffy carnival prizes, and one guy had a stuffed snake wrapped around his arm). In either case, most of the audience is probably exhausted after a long day in the sun, and sluggish from too many corndogs, and possibly trying to appease tired kids they have in tow. This seemed to affect Hansen early on as he repeatedly urged the crowd to stand, dance, whatever, with limited effect until at one point, just about 4 songs in, he sat down on the stage and said, “If you’re going to sit down, so am I.” He asked if there were any wild crazy women in the crowd tonight (cheeeeeers). “Good, ‘cuz we got a bunch of dirty white boys up here,”Hansen quipped before the band launched into the song of the same name. He can be a bit cheesy with the rock-star frontman formula at times, but it’s actually quite sweet. He loves what he does. “Thank you for inviting me into your house tonight, Vancouver….. but you’ll never ever see me on that ride over there. Vomit is very bad for the vocal chords,” he said as he indicated the giant Revelation propeller ride that is lit up and in full view of the Amphitheatre stage. The audience pepped up at key moments, but for such a huge number of people, I can see how the response left the band a little deflated feeling.
The harmonies, the warm synths, the big guitars, saxophones, massive solos…. all of the stuff that made this music so great to begin with was well here tonight. It’s a bit overwhelming to think of the changes this band has seen in its life, not just in terms of personnel, but in the music industry, media, technology, and even the fans. After playing “Urgent,” most of the band left the stage, except for Frazier and Bluestein. Bluestein descended into a big ravey keyboard solo that sounded like he was going to erupt into “Trip Like I Do.” There was a theremin in there too. It was a bit odd. I don’t know if this happened to give the rest of the band a brief mid-set break perhaps? It went on for ages though, and when it was done, Frazier ripped into a massive drum solo, culminating in cowbell that was way too high in the mix. He did pour water onto the drums though for a pretty cool splashy effect – however all I could think is that this was probably not doing much to rile up a tired audience (Even Hansen had pointed out the crowd’s age! “Reach back in your 20 year old mind… I know most of you are over 50…”). The whole thing reminded me of the scene in Back to the Future where Marty plays along with the band at the dance and ends up in his own little wanky guitar solo world, while the audience unbeknown to him has moved from being overjoyed to quizzical. They cheered at appropriate times – when Frazier’s drumming reached an inhuman pace, for example – but I still feel like some of the crowd was drifting here – they wanted some serious Foreigner tunes in their ears! Anyways, finally Frazier sat back, dramatically banged a gong (literally!), and with melty 80s style synths and a huge buildup, turned the corner to the main set ender, “Juke Box Hero.” Now the crowd was back into it! Hansen began silhouetted by a bright light behind him, and as the first verse ended, the whole band charged to the front of the stage. I thought Hansen’s head would explode as he let loose with a 30 second full-tilt wail near the end.
After a brief break, they came back with “Long Long Way From Home,” but after that, we all knew what was up. Hansen urged us to throw an arm around whoever was beside us. “…no hesitation. Come on, you’re making me wait. Put your arm around them, keep your arm around them, I don’t care who it is,” he said in a sing-songy way. “I wanna spread the love like creamy peanut butter. No palm oil.” He really did wait until he was satisfied with the amount of crowd members who were now arm-in-arm, before prompting those beautiful breathy synths to start up “I Wanna Know What Love Is.” Hansen asked for lighters and cel phones, and the audience, on its feet now, obliged. It looked amazing. The crowd took lead vocals at a couple key points as well. For all the harmonies at the end, a local youth choir from Richmond joined the band on stage. “See how beautiful your future looks,” Hansen said as he called for multiple rounds of applause for them. He continued, “The rest of Canada is way better than Quebec (audience laughs and cheers). My voice has one more song left in it tonight. It’s not about something cold. It’s not about something warm. It’s about something…” HOT-BLOODED was the response from the crowd, and that is how Foreigner ended our night, with the tempo back up to the top and a crowd left satisfied into the warm, summer night.