By Ben Wener
The Hollywood Reporter
Seven months after issuing its first new music in a dozen years, the band that declared "Don't Look Back" is still doing exactly that.
Three songs into Boston's solid show Tuesday night at the Forum, the long-running but ever-changing group's first L.A. performance in six years, sonic mastermind and sole original member Tom Scholz had a pointed question for the largely older crowd that mostly filled the floor and lower half of the renovated arena.
"I want to know," he wondered: "How many of you here think bands like us should still make new albums?" It's a sensible query at a time when sales are at such an all-time low that barely pushing a thousand units still can secure a spot on Billboard best-selling albums chart.
Once upon a pre-SoundScan time -- specifically 1976, when "corporate rock" achieved chart dominance to match widespread FM airplay -- so many commercial duds mingling with runaway smashes was unthinkable. How much more competitive (if often rigged and inaccurate) were the results back then? The first meticulous Boston creation to emerge from Scholz's basement studio, an inescapable '70s staple like Frampton Comes Alive! and Fleetwood Mac's Rumours that would go on to sell 17 million copies and stay on the charts for 132 weeks, nonetheless never reached pole position -- its ascendency stopped at No. 3.
Such platinum days are far in the past for virtually all classic-rock acts, Boston included; the last time the band had a bona fide hit on its hands was 20 years ago, when its critically maligned fourth album Walk On managed to go platinum at the height of grunge. By comparison, last December's Life, Love & Hope, Scholz & Co.'s first effort in a dozen years, was lucky to crack the Top 50.
Asking fans whether they care to hear anything new from an ensemble entering its fifth decade, then, didn't seem like a ruse for applause so much as a genuine attempt to gauge interest. The audience shouted approval, of course, despite how unlikely it is that more than a fraction of attendees had heard any new material prior to Tuesday's gig. What was curious, though, is how quickly Boston jettisoned the idea of showcasing such stuff: All that followed was a fleeting instrumental ("Last Day of School") that segued into the latest disc's grandiose title track, thick with traces of Mannheim Steamroller. Then it was back to note-for-note renditions of classics like "Peace of Mind" and "Don't Look Back."
Granted, that's precisely what people paid triple digits to hear, and surely they came away satisfied. There can't be much to complain about when nearly the entirety of the quintessential Boston album (all of Side 1 plus most of Side 2) frames a set packed with other memorable morsels, from mid-'80s favorites like "Cool the Engines" and the mega-successful ballad "Amanda" (their only chart-topping single) to cheery but lesser-remembered nuggets like "Feelin' Satisfied" and this night's self-explanatory encore choice, "Party."
Better still, those indestructible rockers that made the band's reputation are still performed convincingly, with fluid expertise from 67-year-old Scholz and fellow guitarist Gary Pihl.
Boston's sound always boiled down to two distinct elements: Scholz's indelible, richly harmonized riffs and the late Brad Delp's sky-scraping vocals. Re-creating the latter is now the task of Tommy DeCarlo, an unknown plucked from MySpace obscurity a half-dozen years ago in much the same manner that Journey found its mightiest Steve Perry replacement, Arnel Pineda. DeCarlo isn't half the marvel that spitfire sound-alike Pineda is, but he's also stronger than serviceable, plenty capable of approximating Delp's tone even if he doesn't fully scale the same heights his forebear could reach even at the time of his suicide in 2007. (Exceedingly high-pitched mainstay "More Than a Feeling" is the ultimate test, and apart from the final falsetto cries, which lacked power and passion, the rest of the very difficult vocal was impressively handled.)
As for Scholz's guitar parts, deftly abetted by Pihl, every last one of them rang true, from the Brian May bits littering "Don't Look Back" to the change-ups throughout "Foreplay/Long Time," with both players smoothly shifting from the tune's ripping electric runs to its clap-along acoustic segments. Rarely is sounding exactly like the record a preferable approach; most bands tend to flourish live by expanding upon studio blueprints. In Boston's case, the more the performance felt like a carbon copy, the finer it became.
Not that it wasn't without dull stretches, particularly toward the end of a nearly two-hour set, when even the array of aerial visuals (glimpsed on screens designed to look like a spaceship's command deck) and a few more wallops of a giant gong couldn't rescue the torpidity of "To Be a Man" and an aimless suite from Walk On. That last portion was usefully enhanced via some spirited hollering from American Idol finalist Siobhan Magnus, also the niece of current Boston bassist Tracy Ferrie, but its instrumental passages quickly grew monotonous, lacking the transporting surprises that fuel the best work of contemporaries like Rush.
The crowd cooled during such moments, suggesting they might not have been as receptive to just-penned cuts as their hearty response to Scholz's ponderable indicated. Undoubtedly Boston was wise to stick to the tried and true. But that default position begs another question: If you're barely going to promote a new album on tour, why bother making one at all?
Supporting act Cheap Trick has certainly wrestled that conundrum until it has been pinned to the mat, lately opting to forego fresh material (its last, The Latest, arrived five years ago) in favor of producing taut but blaring bashes based on choice cuts mostly dating from before 1980. A small handful of later tunes crept into Tuesday's selections, and some of them (notably "If You Want My Love" and "Tonight It's You") are both cherished and roughened up to bring them more in line with earlier favorites. But at least one other later track, the forgettable "Never Had a Lot to Lose," merely took up space toward the end of an hour-plus visit, by which time monsters like "Dream Police" and "Surrender" had the crowd roaring along.
To the enduring band's credit, even weaker offerings (like Tom Petersson's bombastic 12-string bass solo and bland shouter "I Know What I Want") still felt of a piece with the rest of the Trick's sharper turns.
"Seems like yesterday ... no, it seems like 37 f--in' years ago that we played here in 1977," ever-underrated guitarist Rick Nielsen mentioned. "And unlike Kiss (who they opened for), we're playing a different set."
Sure, it may be meat-and-potatoes fare at this point, with only Nielsen's Bowery Boys outfit and Robin Zander's shinier leather get-up to accentuate straightforward rock 'n' roll. But they still ply their wares with muscle and unabashed fury, assuredly on "Big Eyes" and their stomping remake of Fats Domino's "Ain't That a Shame," but unexpectedly so during "Southern Girls." Zander sings with more oomph at 61 than he did even a few years ago while replicating Dream Police at the Greek Theatre, and Rick's son Daxx Nielsen is swifter at powering this entity than the sidelined Bun E. Carlos. What's not to enjoy?
Rock and Roll Band
Last Day of School
Life, Love & Hope
Peace of Mind
It's Been Such a Long Time (interlude)
Cool the Engines
Surrender to Me
Don't Look Back
Something About You
More Than a Feeling
Tom Scholz solo
A New World
To Be a Man
Walk On (Some More)
Ain't That a Shame
Tonight It's You
Stop This Game
I Know What I Want
If You Want My Love
I Want You to Want Me
Never Had a Lot to Lose