Lou Gramm might be the official holder of the “Juke Box Hero” title, but last night at Hard Rock Live, longtime Starship vocalist Mickey Thomas was also sharing the bill. He has an equally impressive number of hit records slotted in on the jukebox. Together, the pair turned out an enjoyable evening of rock and roll. You can see a slideshow of photos from the event here
But as Gramm reminded the audience early in his headlining set, it was the cause that was the most important part of the night. 100% of the proceeds from the evening were going to benefit the Akron Children’s Hospital, which brought an extra round of good feelings to surround the nostalgic vibe of the night.
Both Gramm and Thomas were well-equipped to provide an appropriate soundtrack for the night. The former Foreigner vocalist (backed by his solo band featuring his brother, Ben Gramm, on drums) told the substantial crowd that it could expect a hefty selection of material from his 25 years with the group, and also, his own solo hits. He was no slouch in the solo department — “Midnight Blue,” his first solo outing, went Top 5 in 1987 and a few years later, he was back inside the Top 10 with “Just Between You and Me.”
His 90-minute set would stick mostly to the heavier rock side of the Foreigner catalog (happily including tracks like “Blue Morning, “Blue Day” and “Long, Long, Way From Home”), stopping down only once for the essential Foreigner ballad, “I Want To Know What Love Is,” a number which as he mentioned, usually featured the backing of a gospel choir. On this particular night in Cleveland, Gramm was backed by an all-star “choir” featuring some of the various celebrities, both national and local, who were in town for the charity event.
So if you’d ever wanted to hear Lou sing “I Want To Know What Love Is” backed by a group featuring folks like former Chicago Bears QB (and yes, briefly, a member of the Cleveland Browns, too) Jim McMahon, baseball great Bret Saberhagen and local celebs like Hanford Dixon and Denise Dufala, Saturday night was your night. The assembled choir got into it too, although seeing some of them lean in really close to the microphone for passionate vocals with no audible sound suggests that they kept the levels on those microphones really low (or off). But while the collected group might have lacked volume, their spirit definitely added to the overall emotion of Gramm’s performance of the classic track. It was a feel good moment, punctuated by Gramm’s quip at the close of the song, where he said, “That was a thrill for me — not necessarily the singing, but just to be on stage with them.”
At 65 years of age, Gramm put in a strong vocal performance that showed how far he has battled back from surgery for a brain tumor in the late ‘90s that left him vocally compromised at the time. He’s put in a lot of work since then and his set was a welcome rewind session that reminded many in attendance that both with Foreigner and his own solo career, he spent a lot of time high on the charts getting a ton of radio play. It was nice to revisit many of those songs and there wasn’t a single track in the set that hadn’t been a hit. Impressive (and he even brought that inflatable jukebox that was a familiar sight on the stage of Foreigner shows).
Thomas did an admirable job of covering the many eras of Starship during his one hour performance. Guitarist John Roth, who has toured with Winger in recent years, brought an appropriately heavy edge to AOR radio staples like “Jane,” the set-opening “Find Your Way Back” and especially, “Stranger,” from 1981’s Modern Times
album. They rolled out a double shot of their two number one ballads back to back, beginning with “Sara,” from 1985’s Knee Deep In The Hoopla and continuing with “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” which as Thomas told the crowd, “was originally recorded because you’ve got to fill in the spaces between albums and it turned out to be something much more than that.” Considering it began life as a soundtrack cut for the 1987 movie Mannequin
that could have been a throwaway, things turned out very well indeed.
A pair of cuts from the Jefferson Airplane era, “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love,” sung by vocalist Stephanie Calvert (who shared vocals with Thomas throughout the set) were a nice nod to the “long and winding musical journey” of Starship, although perhaps not a necessary part of the set. Like Gramm, Thomas and Starship had enough hits that they would have had no problem filling out their hour-long set without the Airplane material (and the rendition of Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” which Thomas sang the original lead vocal on). You know you have a lot of hits when there are big records that get left on the sidelines — for Thomas, that meant Starship hits like “It’s Not Over (‘Til It’s Over)” and “It’s Not Enough” weren’t played. Ditto for the Jefferson Starship radio staple “Layin’ It On The Line.”
But Thomas sounded fantastic — a dead ringer for the same vocalist you heard on the original records. And it’s been far too long since Thomas and his Starship have been in Cleveland, so their return was very welcome.
The evening, which began with a tight 45 minute opening set from Nashville transplants Brother Trouble, was a wonderful night of music for a great cause.