When you go to see a band that’s been around as long as Journey has, a band from your youth, it’s easy to get caught up in the past, to get lost in the memories.
For example, take the first three songs from Thursday night’s sold-out show at the Blaisdell Arena. After an extended jam session, Journey tore into “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart),” which had one of the ‘80s’ signature, so-cheesy-it’s-great music videos.
Next was “Be Good to Yourself,” which reminds me of my friend Milton, who died last month. Milton lent me the cassette it came from, 1986’s “Raised on Radio,” giving me my first LP-length exposure to the band.
Right behind it was “Only the Young,” which conjures up recollections of the 1985 teen wrestling flick “Vision Quest.”
Much of the rest of the night can go in that direction if you let it. The thing about approaching a Journey concert in 2017 that way is that it inevitably leads to comparisons between current singer Arnel Pineda and Steve Perry, the band’s iconic singer who — with his distinct, soaring voice— led the band to its greatest success some 30 years ago.
Pineda himself would tell you that’s not a battle he’s going to win.
Which is not to say the comparison is not fair. Guitarist Neal Schon famously discovered the Philippines-born Pineda via YouTube, and he was recruited for his voice’s uncanny resemblance to Perry’s.
But nearly 10 years in, Pineda has come into his own, sounding less and less like a Steve Perry imitator than he did when he joined up in 2007. His vocals are less plaintive, and the fact that he is not a native English speaker comes through at times— a little tweak in his voice that separates him from Perry’s impossible legacy.
Pineda also separates himself from Perry with his aerobic performance style, pinging from one end of the stage to the other, repeatedly leaping off a platform set up for him at the front of the stage, even taking a lap around the floor seats in the middle of “Wheel in the Sky.”
But to make this about Pineda vs. Perry ignores Journey’s underappreciated strength — the other 80 percent of the band.
Schon is the only member who has been there from the start, but bassist Ross Valory and keyboard and guitar player Jonathan Cain have been with him for more than 30 years apiece, and drummer Steve Smith rejoined for his third stint two years ago. He was with them for their ‘80s glory years — the four of them will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April (along with Perry and former members Gregg Rolie and Aynsley Dunbar).
In Thursday’s two-hour show, each of the members got time in the spotlight — a drum solo here, a chat with the audience there — and one of the joys of seeing Journey in its current incarnation is the way these veteran musicians and longtime friends play off each other and recognize each other’s contributions. They are constantly singling each other out for audience love.
Another joy comes in seeing the clear affection they have for Pineda. Sure, he’s been the most successful of the band’s three post-Perry singers and has made them all lots of money, even turned them into stars in countries they never played before Pineda came onboard, according to Schon. But the little things show the bond is much more than that — whether it’s the smiles on their faces as he engages members of the audience or Smith standing up from his kit and pointing at Pineda with both hands after one of the vocalist’s leaps punctuates “Any Way You Want It.”
The resurrection of Journey after discovering Pineda on the internet is a great story — one fan I spoke with said she fell for them only after watching the documentary about it, “Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey,” and warned me before the show that she would likely cry when Pineda took the stage — but the revelation 10 years later is how they’ve jelled into a band and even made an effort to incorporate their jammier, pre-Perry roots.
They played mostly hits Thursday night, with a few newer songs thrown in, but they also took some time for extended solos and lengthy instrumental interludes. They opened their encore with “La Raza del Sol,” a piece of jazz-rock fusion that harkens back to Schon’s teen years with Santana. It was a weeknight, so it drove a few dozen audience members to the exits, but those who prioritized an easy departure ahead of absorbing every note of Journey they could missed hearing “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’,” and a fine rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” as well.
Latecomers also missed out, as Maui legend Willie K opened with a rollicking and bluesy half-hour set, topped by a fairly faithful version of “Purple Rain” that brought the house down. Willie K and his band are scheduled to open Friday’s and Sunday’s shows at the Blaisdell as well as Tuesday’s at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center. If you have tickets, you’ll want to get to the venue in time to see them.