During a conversation with Scene for this week’s paper, Night Ranger bassist/vocalist Jack Blades made it very clear that the band was well-prepared for its upcoming Cleveland show. No matter what the weather conditions might be (and as it happened, things were actually pretty good for late December in Cleveland), he pledged that they would “jack that place up” with “some real good American rock and roll.”
Over the course of their 90 minute set in front of a sold-out crowd at the new Hard Rock Live, Blades and Night Ranger stuck to that promise, delivering a harmonious performance that really hit all of the right marks. Walking out onstage moments after the sounds of AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” faded away, the Bay Area-bred group established their motives for a night of heavy rock and roll early with keyboardist Eric Levy triggering the warped jack in the box intro of “Touch of Madness,” the first of many tracks that would be heard that evening from the band’s 1983 Midnight Madness album, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary. In total, the group would perform six of the nine tracks from the album.
Blades, wearing sunglasses, arguably brought the “madness” to the evening, jolting like an electrocuted rag doll from the moment he hit the stage, surging in time with the music as if the volts were still pulsing through his body. The setlist would focus heavily on the hits (“Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” “When You Close Your Eyes,” “Sentimental Street” etc.), but the album tracks also got equal time, with “Touch of Madness,” “Sing Me Away” and “7 Wishes” providing a lead-off 1-2-3 punch that was delightfully obscure and at the same time, it offered a reminder that while Night Ranger would later have great success with ballads, they began as a straight-up rock and roll band.
There were plenty of stories, both within the songs themselves and anecdotes surrounding the creative process that were shared throughout the night. Hearing Blades tell the story of how guitarist Brad Gillis brought “crazy wild manic guitar playing energy” back to Night Ranger after a stint playing with Ozzy Osbourne put the band’s subsequent airing of ‘Eddie’s Coming Out Tonight” into a whole new light. Indeed, you can hear the influence of time spent with the Ozz-man in the heavy riffs that Gillis plays on the track from their 1982 debut, Dawn Patrol.
Blades was quick to mention Cleveland early in the evening, talking about how WMMS “led the way, so to speak” when they threw their support behind “Sister Christian” as one of the first radio stations in the country to give the soon to be legendary power ballad some of its very first spins on the radio in early 1984. By that time, the group had come quite a long way from the night that they played the Agora while touring behind Dawn Patrol in 1982. Blades recalled that evening that found them snowed in and playing in front of only a handful of people, including legendary WMMS DJ Kid Leo. After the show, they figured that “it’s got to get better from here, right?” It certainly did.
The 90 minute set offered plenty of reminders of the amount of chart success that Night Ranger enjoyed throughout the ‘80s. But there were also room for a few side trips. The band pulled out a raucous version of “School’s Out” by Alice Cooper as a nod to guest guitarist and former Cooper axeman Keri Kelli (sitting in for normal Night Ranger guitarist Joel Hoekstra who is currently on the road with Trans-Siberian Orchestra) and Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” in homage to the time Gillis spent with the former Black Sabbath vocalist. Blades’ post-Night Ranger work with the supergroup Damn Yankees got stage time as well, because as he said, “seeing as how the Damn Yankees don’t play anymore,” which left the door wide open for the band to put a Night Ranger spin on two of the signature Yankees favorites, “High Enough” and “Coming of Age.”
Eschewing the traditional encore break, the band opted to stay onstage after a frenetic run through “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” which closed out the main set. Looking back at the songs that had already been played, it was pretty easy to figure out what was left. The band of course wouldn’t get out of the building without playing “Sister Christian,” a song which has more than earned its signature status in the Night Ranger catalog at this point. Drummer/vocalist Kelly Keagy strolled out center stage to deliver the rugged well-worn vocals on the song, a moment which has become his calling card in every set that the band plays. And yet as many times as the song has been performed over its 30 year history, Keagy still delivered each line of the lyrics as if it was the very first time he’d ever performed it.
There were a lot of moments like that throughout the night and it was the band’s continued commitment and visible passion for what they do which really made the set resonate with the packed house (who consistently sang along with nearly every song). As the final notes of “(You Can Still) Rock In America” rang out, it was clear that Night Ranger will always be welcome in Cleveland to do just that.