Are We There Yet

Special Assignment

Concert at the NEC - Styx, Foreigner and Journey

Having just got back from this concert, I feel moved to put my thoughts down ‘on paper’, so where better than an Are We There Yet Special...?

This concert was originally a Christmas present for Kay. However, due to a scheduling clash which was as much my fault as anyone’s, Kay is currently enjoying the sun of
Fuengirola in Spain with her mother. So, not wasting to waste both tickets, I’m on a Jolly alone. In itself, this is a new experience and one I was quite looking forward to in a bizarre way. Wether you care to admit it or not, when in the company of another - be it girlfriend, best mate or brother - there’s a subconscious pressure to have a good time for the sake of their enjoyment of the event. When on one’s own, you make the entire decision about whether you’re having a good time or not. That’s my theory, anyway.

Before I write about the concert, a quick word about the rest of the day. Partly because I can, and partly because my bathroom is currently half-way through a complete refit and therefore out of action, I’m staying overnight. I’ve chosen a really cheap and quite cheerful Etap in the shadow of Birmingham airport terminal. So much in the shadow it has no car park other than BHX’s exorbitant NCP car parks. Therefore I parked at Birmingham International Station. When all’s done I expect to pay about the same as the (discounted) price I’d pay overnight in the airport car park, but so be it.

Having checked-in and showered (a necessity!) I went back to the station and caught a train into Birmingham for the afternoon. Spending time in my usual haunts (Apple store, SBs x2, Waterstones...) I walked back from Birmingham International (probably the only pedestrian departure from the station all day!) and freshened up.

The tickets for the concert said doors open 1730 for a concert starting at 1900. I was only as I arrived at the NEC - its concert hall now called the LG Arena - at a bit before 1830 that I realised it is a very long time since I came to a concert here. A lot has changed. Where my recollection of previous visits is little to do or see before the show other than the cramped and crowded areas under the stands, there’s now a large concourse area with lots of bars and food outlets. I headed straight to a burger outlet and queued for my over priced but generously proportioned double-burger (£5.95) and chips (£2), washed down by an outrageously expensive 330ml bottle of Becks (£4!). I ate (and enjoyed) my meal watching a live band play to a rather dis-interested crowd in the centre of the concourse.

I went through to my seat, via another bar where I got a rather less rip-off pint of Pedigree (out of two bottles) for £4. To my surprise, the house lights dropped just as I got to my seat, on the stroke of 1900. My seats are Block 5, Row Z Nos. 127/128 - almost completely in the far corner from the stage. Consequently the view was clear but distant and the sound was clear and not ear-ringing. As well as Kay’s vacant seat, there was trio to my left which meant they had a spare too, leaving me with ample space. Nor was anyone seated in front - though I will mention what was happening behind me in due course....

Styx came on to an almost full arena - well, as full as it ever got, there were several areas toward the back which were entirely unsold. I have to say there wasn’t a single number I recognised and all I know bout Styx I learned from Wikipedia in the break. They have simply never crossed my radar. The band is almost entirely changed from its original line up, though that isn’t surprising given they formed before I was born! In fact, they had undergone their first line up change before I was born! They did wheel out their original bass player part way through as a guest appearance, however. An unusual feature of Styx is that their ‘frontman’ is the keyboard player (Jimmy ‘JY’ Young!) who is a showman. His keyboard is mounted on a riser and is free to spin around on a central pole and is played with flourish - quite often with his back to it, playing with his hands behind his back!. The freedom by which the keyboard rotates is potentially quite alarming as, at one point, JY stands on it as he belts-out a particular number!

Anyway, the 45 minute set was enjoyable and foot tapping stuff! Although not a “support act” as such, it is clear there is a pecking order in the bands as Styx weren’t even given the privilege of a video screen unlike the two other bands - who both had large and fancy video back-drops as well as ‘jumbotron’ screens of the concert.

At 2000 on the nail, Foreigner came on stage. The first couple of numbers were ‘for the fans’ as I’d never knowingly heard them before. Then they went into Cold As Ice and the concert came alive. The lead singer certainly managed to get the crowd going - and if the truth be known, I suspect there were more Foreigner fans than of either of the other bands. At one point during Cold As Ice, Kelly Hansen, the lead singer, dropped into the photographer’s pit, vaulted the fence and ran up the aisle into the floor of the crowd. About 20 rows back he ran along the seats behind their standing occupants and back up the other aisle. That went down well with the crowd.

There followed a string of well known songs, culminating with a long and really rocking version of Juke Box Hero and they left to a rapturous response after an hour. One significant element of Foreigner’s set was a brief chat from their lead guitarist, Mick Jones, who is a Brit (and the only original member of the band). He was the only person on the stage all night who pronounced Birmingham as anything other than “Birming Haaam” - as Americans do.

On came Journey around 2120. Of the three bands, Journey are the only ones with a new album out, and they fell straight into the classic trap of over promoting it - opening with several tracks from it, including “the new single” called City of Hope.... about the lead singer’s home town of Manilla. Several people got up and walked out at that point, it was so badly played.

The trouble with Journey’s songs - with one or two notable exceptions - are that they are all exactly the same.... at least when played live. They open with the (newish) young lead singer, Arnel Pineda, singing very loudly and running around stage a lot to prove how young and virile he is, followed quickly by a very long bridge where the lead guitarist, Neal Schon, proves how well he can make the guitar scream (I don’t think he used anything but the bottom quarter of the fretboard all night). Then there may be a quick chorus or two followed by a really big finish. Over and over again. I have seen Journey play live before and have a couple of their albums, but this line up seemed too concerned with showing how ‘new’ they are and how little their back catalogue means to them.

This is ironic given that their current popularity and justification for top billing revolves around one song (and a certain tv show). I guess deciding when to play Don’t Stop Believing is a tricky decision, as once they played it, a good 10% of the crowd got up and walked out... clearly the one song they were there for! I suspect anyone who was there for that one song would feel a little cheated, too, as it was a straight lift of the recorded version - a long build up and one pass through the chorus and end. You’d think given its importance to the band (not that they seem to ‘get’ it), they would work it a bit and extend it into something which would really get the crowd going.

Which is something they singularly failed to do throughout their set. Especially in the first half when they were going through new stuff, even the crowd standing at the front were just standing there - no jigging about or arm waving... even when the lead singer was trying to get them to do so. Even as the set came to its climax, there were people around me who were totally unmoved by the music... not even clapping at the end. Even leaving aside good manners, that was probably an unfair reflection on the set - not inspiring by any means, but technically well executed and generally listenable to.

So, what about the people behind me. A trio of middle-aged blokes wearing heavy metal T shirts (Iron Maiden concert shirt on one of them). Talking in some vaguely European language which I couldn’t identify (not that it would be important if I could), They Never Shut Up. They weren’t drunk and/or shouting and yorping. They simply spent the entire concert talking about it to each other. Even when the music was loud, they were shouting to each other. The only time they weren’t talking was one or other of then was singing along tunelessly.

Jim Allen recently said in his holiday blog the average American has no Self Consciousness gene. At the time I read that I agreed wholeheartedly. On reflection, and emphasised by tonight, I would redefine that sentiment by suggesting only the Middle Class Brit has a Self Consciousness gene. These guys just didn’t give a shit about the people around them (which, because of the empty seats simply meant ME!)

Journey did one encore and their final big finish died away on the stroke of 2300 - which itself reflects on the tightly orchestrated sets we were served up. I lingered a little to watch the crowds dissipate and wandered back to a by-now almost deserted BHX terminal. I got a couple of bottles of Old Speckled Hen from the 24hr Spar shop, then back to the room.

So, an odd experience on my own. The LG Arena is a much improved venue these days, but the lesson learnt there is pay a bit more for better seats. Styx were ok, Foreigner were excellent, Journey were good for the last ten minutes.