Journey Review: When The Lights Go Down at SPAC, You Want to be The-e-er-ere

Leather-vested and sweat-covered, Neal Schon unearthed a solo that — even amid the political hatefest and madness of 2016 — could unite America. The SPAC lighting backdrop transformed into a slideshow montage of soldiers, flags and the like as the Journey founding member serenaded the crowd with an improvisation-heavy guitar rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Though the concert was the Fifth of July — not the Fourth — Schon’s tight fretwork and re-defining of the term “rock anthem” could be appreciated at anytime. Nearly 50 years into his musical career, he had not lost much in strum speed, not any in his tonal quality.

The masses hooted and hollered, as you might expect an upstate New York crowd to do for an homage to the troops, but the three-minute solo, just half an hour into Journey’s set, was far from the show’s sole highlight.

Without an unfair comparison to the voice of Steve Perry, lead singer Arnel Pineda’s vocals were rich, rangeless and did justice to the classics. The Filipino, now in his ninth year heading the band, was running and hopping around the stage like a man half his age for many of the upbeat songs — “Any Way You Want It” and “Wheel in the Sky”. In the slower, ballad-like hits — “Faithfully”, “Lights”, “Don’t Stop Believing” — he focused more on the notes, avoiding any pitch wavers a jump or leg-kick might cause to a sentimental song.

Drummer Steve Smith was an unsung hero of the Journey set. Smith, who backed the band from 1978 until 1985, through much of its heyday, rejoined the band this year after Deen Castronovo left in the fallout of a domestic violence arrest.

Smith’s rolls were precise and military-like and his cymbal work seemed effortless during his solo, about two-thirds through the band’s performance. The drummer, using a traditional grip for increased roll speed, may have delivered the best drum solo at the venue since 2013, the last time Neil Peart and Rush were in town; Smith’s work on the kit was simply incredible.

Journey was the third band in the night’s lineup, immediately preceded by fellow Bay Area group — and also fellow notable Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame snub — The Doobie Brothers.

A fan’s first observation of The Doobie Brothers taking the stage is likely the band’s size. With four men on guitars and basses across the front, two kit drummers in the back, and a saxophone and keyboard player too, the group’s look is imposing, and the sound was too.

The Doobie Brothers were not as sing-along as Journey was (do not be mistaken, there were more than a couple patrons joining in on “Black Water”), but instead were jamming more. Whereas Journey’s song interludes isolated individuals soloing on their instruments, The Doobie Brothers had more collective instrumental sections.

The first performance of the concert came from singer Dave Mason, originally of Traffic. Mason performed three of his own songs, including “We Just Disagree”, as well as three from Traffic.

Mason’s guitar playing showed little wear from the years, as he demonstrated ample ability. The singer closed his set with “All Along the Watch Tower”, originally by Bob Dylan and made famous by Jimi Hendrix.

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