A Saturday night rock show is a place to let loose and forget all about the prior work week. It’s a place to lose your inhibitions and get lost in the lights, sounds and the vibe.
If there’s a better arena band than Def Leppard to epitomize that scenario, I haven’t seen it yet. The veteran British outfit got its start towards the end of the 1970s and, despite some hardships and losses, is still out there charging up its loyal fanbase and drawing audiences in record numbers. Add downtown Tampa’s Amalie Arena to the list of venues benefiting from the voracious ticket-buying demand for the band’s current tour.
For its latest jaunt, Def Lep is out on the road as co-headliners with another veteran FM radio rock band, Journey. In a curious scheduling decision, the band took the stage first on Saturday night, leaving the coveted headlining spot to Journey. But, that didn’t cause malaise or setbacks for Def Leppard. These rockers have been at it a long time and they know just how to engage a crowd regardless of where or when they’re to appear on a concert bill.
An uncharacteristically early and prompt start got the festivities going before the sun had set, but the dark coolness inside the arena set the tone for the hitmakers.
Steamrolling through a 90-minute set comprised of mostly hits, the noise and crowd response founding member and lead singer Joe Elliott was able to command was downright deafening. The spirited frontman has been at it for nearly 40 years and knows a thing or two about enticing and provoking an audience (and the sold-out crowd of 17,500 was more than ready).
With a massive, hi-tech stage replete with large video screens, mesmerizing lights, a huge platform at the rear of it and a frontstage catwalk, the scene was set for a big, over-the-top rock show. And that’s just what the band delivered.
Running through a hit list that contained rockers and ballads, Def Leppard threw in something for everyone no matter which era of its catalog was favored. For the early fans, a downright blistering version of power ballad “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak” followed by the heavy instrumental “Switch 625,” (as the songs are sequenced on the band’s sophomore release, 1981’s High ‘n’ Dry) brought back lots of memories of junior high hijinks for the '80s kids who are now eligible for AARP membership. An acoustic version of another ballad, 1993’s “Two Steps Behind” turned into a lively sing-along.
But there were plenty of rockers too. Relying heavily on its best-selling, gargantuan album, 1987’s Hysteria, the band played plenty of the hits from that record. “Animal,” “Armageddon It” and the main set-closing favorite, “Pour Some Sugar on Me” sounded fresh and inspired and kept the rapt audience on its feet and still singing.
Perennially shirtless lead guitarist Phil Collen, who has been with the band since 1983, showed off his muscular physique as well as his guitar muscle. Switching off on a variety of colorful and flashy guitars, the axe man sounded sharp and precise throughout the set. The still youthful-looking bassist, original member Rick Savage, played and cavorted around the stage with the spark of someone half his age. And the band’s other original creator, Rick Allen, continues to dazzle and inspire as rock and roll’s only one-armed drummer who cleverly uses pedals and a specially-designed kit to make up for the limb he lost during a 1984 auto accident.
Plenty of memories were conjured during the band’s set. Elliott, who seemed elated by the loud and proud Tampa crowd, fondly recalled the group’s New Year’s Eve performance at the USF Sun Dome at the close of 1987 and asked who was there. Vintage band pictures (including some with late original guitarist, Steve Clark), flashed on the huge screens during the first song of the band’s encore, the glam rock-inspired favorite, “Rock of Ages.” A different series of photos were beamed onto stage screens earlier in the night during a particularly enthusiastic performance of “Hysteria.” The song took on a sentimental feel, too when Elliot inserted a line from David Bowie’s anthem “Heroes” at the tail-end of the song and then motioned up to the heavens, as if saluting the deceased rock hero who has provided plenty of inspiration for this band.
The set-closing, powerful pop rocker “Photograph” sent the crown into yet another frenzy and elicited, arguably, the strongest ovation of the night.
“Don’t forget us — we won’t forget you,” Elliot sincerely declared at the end of the triumphant set and, as the band walked offstage, it seemed that Joe wasn’t ready to call it a night. Def Leppard could have easily played another hour’s worth of material, and the audience and the band would have been equally elated. As fun and exciting as the performance was, it sure left me wanting more of the crunchy, melodic rock the band knows just how to pump out.
But, alas, the stage was quickly cleared in order to make way for the night’s headliners. While sporting many of the members who made up the band during its most successful period, the mid-'80s, one couldn’t help feeling a glaring omission with the absence of Journey’s beloved lead singer, the animated and awesome Steve Perry. While Perry has been gone from the fold for many years, the group sought out the impressive Filipino singer, Arnel Pineda, who’s been part of the lineup for just over 10 years. Pineda is, at times, a sonic dead ringer for Perry. His vocal range is dynamic and his stage presence, filled with jumps and twirls, is magnificent. But the atmosphere just seems a little off with someone else taking over the spot that Perry curated and perfected for so long.
But the enthralled and lively crowd didn’t mind it one bit. As soon as those familiar, opening keyboard notes of 1983’s hit “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)” flowed through the arena air, that’s all that really mattered for many in attendance. More jaw-dropping light displays and enormous video screens bathed the stage in the aura of a rock show and the band wasted no time in leading the already warmed and ready crowd to another time and place when rolling joints, drinking beers and cranking up the band’s seventh album, 1981’s Escape was the norm.
Musically tight and always meticulous, the band’s founding lead guitarist, Neal Schon, sounded fantastic. His razor-sharp licks were as spectacular as ever, especially on “Stone in Love,” one of the many standout tracks on Escape. Slick, keen and thunderous, Schon packs a mighty wallop in his playing. Drummer Steve Smith, bassist Ross Valory and keyboardist Jonathan Cain also sounded sturdy and solid.
Blazing through its own 90-minute set, the still-loved, California-based band provided plenty of highlights for its most devout fans. A moving version of 1978’s anthem and tribute to the band’s hometown of San Francisco, “Lights,” drew a request from Schon himself in asking that audience members take out their lighters or cell phones in order to illuminate the arena and, what followed, was a gorgeous display of what resembled stars in a night sky. The song also drew a somewhat poignant recollection by the guitarist when he referenced it as the second song he and longtime bandmate Steve Perry had ever written together.
A continuous string of hits and album tracks was plenty to thrill and entertain the packed house. Closing with two of its most popular songs, the ballad “Faithfully” and the karaoke favorite (and one of the most downloaded songs of all time) “Don’t Stop Believin’,” the band proved that it’s still making music for those who never stopped believing.
While a Def Leppard/Journey double-bill would have never been possible in the mid-'80s, when both bands were drawing concert audiences in record numbers, it makes perfect sense that now, it would become a reality.
Tapping perfectly into a demographic that still likes going to rock concerts and grew up on the sounds of both acts, it is clear why this particular tour is attracting such interest and generating very healthy ticket sales.
“Journey’s been my favorite band since I was 16,” I overheard a 50-ish gentleman mention in conversation a row behind me during the night’s intermission. Looking around, it was easy to believe that he wasn’t the only one declaring his ongoing love for the band throughout the jam-packed arena.
Look at more of Todd's photos of the show here.