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(Above: Bob Seger sings about life on the road during his March, 2015, tour stop in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Bob Seger has never been shy about looking backward and taking stock. In his early 30s he reminisced about singing a song from 1962. Now on the cusp of his 70th birthday, Seger took Friday night’s crowded Sprint Center on a trip through musical memories that made him a wealthy soul.

Dressed in a black button-up shirt, jeans and black headband Seger looked more like someone ready to do yard work than put on a rock show. He performed a few songs sitting down, strumming an acoustic guitar, and a couple of numbers behind the piano, but for the most part he was all over the stage, pumping his fists in the air and leading singalongs — not that the energetic crowd needed any encouragement.

seger FYI 03202015 spf 0087fWhen Seger accidentally skipped a verse on “Turn the Page,” the singing masses blindly followed his flub, starting over only when he corrected the mistake. The way the line “Twenty years now/Where’d they go?” reverberated across the lips of everyone in the arena during “Like a Rock” made the song feel a little like a hymn.

These days, Seger’s Silver Bullet Band is a small army of more than a dozen musicians, including three female backing vocalists and a four-piece horn section. Although not everyone was on stage at the same time, there were always enough people out front that the stage seemed empty during a pared-down reading of “Against the Wind.” There were eight musicians onstage for that number.

Most of time, the songs sounded just like they do on the radio, a testament to both the strength of Seger’s voice and skill of the musicians. Lead guitarist Rob McNelley laid down a funky groove with his wah wah pedal on “Come to Poppa” and faithfully tore into the landmark slide guitar solo on “Like a Rock.”

It helped that several band members have been playing with Seger for decades. Bass player Chris Campbell came on board in 1969. Horn player Alto Reed joined three years later, and organist Craig Frost was hired in 1979.

The music received a few interesting tweaks. Reed’s saxophone replaced the traditional pedal steel on “Mainstreet” and “Night Moves.” Seger played piano and delivered the first half of “We’ve Got Tonight” alone. Although others eventually joined him, the stripped-down setting and sped-up tempo made the performance seem like a demo of the final product and proved the single didn’t need all the gloss and production it was given to reach the radio.

In a night full of highlights, the period when Seger left the stage and let his band stretch out during “Travelin’ Man” was the most exciting. McNelley and Jim “Moose” Brown traded guitar licks, giving the song even more punch than the familiar, now nearly 40-year-old live version. On cue, Seger emerged from backstage just in time to start “Beautiful Loser” and take the music in a new direction. The songs have been played together for so long it seems strange that they were originally recorded and sequenced separately.

New material usually gets the short straw from deep-catalog acts like Seger, but four songs from this year’s “Ride Out” got the spotlight. Seger talked about hearing Waylon Jennings perform “The Devil’s Right Hand” before delivering his new version of the Steve Earle song and revealed Stevie Ray Vaughan as the inspiration behind “Hey Gypsy.”

The “Night Moves” album was the crown jewel of the set list. Five of the nine songs from the 1976 classic were performed, including nearly all of the first side. Album cut “The Fire Down Below” doesn’t get much airplay, but the crowd still threw every word back to the stage.

Less than two hours after opening the night with “Roll Me Away,” Seger said good night by reminding everyone that “Rock and Roll Never Forgets.” That may be true, but the flip side — remembering — is more fun.

Setlist: Roll Me Away/Tryin’ to Live My Life Without You, The Fire Down Below, The Devil’s Right Hand, Mainstreet, Old Time Rock and Roll, It’s Your World, Come to Poppa, Her Strut, Like a Rock, Travelin’ Man/Beautiful Loser, All of the Roads, Hey Gypsy, We’ve Got Tonight, Turn the Page, Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man. Encore 1: Against the Wind, Hollywood Nights. Encore 2: Night Moves, Rock and Roll Never Forgets.
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(Above: Ozzy performs “Mr. Crowley” at the Sprint Center on Jan. 22, 2010.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The Prince of Darkness looked more like a soaked kitten.

Ozzy Osbourne stood center stage dripping wet, covered in foam. Thanks to the fire hose he used to liberally douse both himself and fans in the front half of the floor, Ozzy looked like he’d just fallen into a bathtub. The foam would dissolve, but Ozzy would never dry out.

Ostensibly in town to promote a new album, Ozzy performed just one new song.  Most of the rest of the setlist could have been written months in advance by a causal fan. But while the songs didn’t hold any surprises, many of the performances were still vital.

Experiencing Ozzy perform “Crazy Train” is a classic rock ‘n’ roll moment up there with hearing the Stones do “Jumping Jack Flash” or seeing Pearl Jam perform “Alive.” Despite being more than 40 years old, “War Pigs” still packs a powerful punch.

Although some of his solo material hasn’t aged as well, the three-quarters full house still reveled in the night, pumping their fists during solos and singing along. During “The Road to Nowhere” and “Mama, I’m Coming Home” the room lit up with lighters.

“Mr. Crowley” was an early highlight. Keyboard player Adam Wakeman, son of Rick Wakeman, turned the room into a giant cathedral with his ominous organ. As he played, a sheet of sparks feel from the rafters behind Ozzy, creating a curtain of fireworks.

Although there was a large video screen behind the band for most of the set and plenty of pyrotechnics, Ozzy’s oversized persona was the best visual effect of the night. Waterworks aside, he was constantly in motion, urging the crowd to clap, hopping up and down like a frog or bowing to his audience. During “Fire in the Sky” he writhed his arms and body during the lengthy guitar solo as if performing some Satanic jujitsu.

The two-hour set lagged quite a bit toward the end. It would have been difficult to maintain the energy and momentum of the opening numbers, but back-to-back, cliché-ridden guitar and drum solos deflated the show. Everyone would have been better served had the band performed two 45-minute sets with an intermission.

Fortunately Ozzy still had plenty of goodies buried in his catalog. “Crazy Train” brought the crowd back to life, while “Mama” and “Paranoid” ensured most of them would show up next time for his inevitable return.

Slash: Axl Rose is notorious for making fans wait hours before appearing; Slash came onstage 10 minutes early. His one-hour set was basically a truncated version of the show he put on last fall at the Voodoo Lounge. It was heavy on Guns ‘N’ Roses, with most of the songs coming from “Appetite For Destruction.” The Velvet Revolver material held its own, but some of the newer songs lost the crowd, especially “By the Sword.”

For a band so reliant on its guitarist, the mix was atrocious. All the instruments were trapped in a mush under bellowing drums and vocals that sounded like they emanated from a tin-can telephone. Fans may have been better served sonically by asking their next-door neighbor to play “Appetite” at full volume, then retreating to their basement and listening to it from there. Although the sound got better at times, the closing solo during “Paradise City” was practically inaudible.

Ozzy setlist: Bark at the Moon; Let Me Hear You Scream; Mr. Crowley; I Don’t Know; Fairies Wear Boots; Suicide Solution; Road to Nowhere; War Pigs; Fire in the Sky; Shot in the Dark; guitar solo > Rat Salad > drum solo; Iron Man; I Don’t Want to Change the World; Crazy Train. Encore: Mama, I’m Coming Home; Paranoid.

Slash setlist: Ghost; Sucker Train Blues; Mr. Brownstone; Back From Cali; Civil War; Nothing to Say; By the Sword; Nightrain; Sweet Child O’ Mine; Slither; Paradise City.

Keep reading:

Review: Slash

Review: “I Am Ozzy”

Review: Megadeth

 

 

 

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(Above: Chicago and Earth, Wind and Fire team up to rock “25 or 4 to 6.” That song ended the duo’s three-hour performance at the Sprint Center on Sunday.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Chicago and Earth, Wind and Fire took the stage Sunday night at the Sprint Center armed with enough musicians for a intramural football team and sufficient horns to start a Glenn Miller Orchestra franchise.

The 18-strong band opened with a tag-team of each other’s hits, opening appropriately with “Beginning” followed by “Never” and an extended “We Can Make It Happen.” The bands played like there was a penalty for letting the energy leg, barely pausing to take a breath between numbers.

With the crowd warmed up, Chicago departed leaving Earth, Wind and Fire to entertain on their own. The soul veterans were more than up to the task. They kicked off their hour-long set with “Boogie Wonderland,” which activated the hidden springs in each seat that forced everyone to their feet.

Serpentine Fire” and the Latin-influenced “Evil” made sure everyone kept moving until the cascade of slow jams: “That’s the Way of the World,” “After the Love is Gone” and a cover of Chicago’s “Wishing You Were Here.” That number got a smooth jazz make-over that featured original member Philip Bailey’s pillow-soft falsetto.

The spotlights turned on the energetic crowd for a sing-along through “Got to Get You Into My Life,” which found the band working the lip of the stage shaking hands with the crowd. After “Fantasy,” the stage went dark and three huge neon drums were wheeled to center stage. Armed with neon drumsticks and shirts with lights the ad hoc drum corp. created an impressive groove that segued into the set-ending “Let’s Groove.”

Chicago did themselves a favor by scheduling a 20-minute intermission before their set, but they still had a hard time matching EWF’s energy. “Saturday in the Park” got things off to a good start and their cover of “I Can’t Let Go” returned the favor EWF paid with “Wishing You Were Here.”

Unfortunately, the band slipped into soft rock mode after an spirited “Alive Again.” “Look Away” melted into “Hard Habit To Break,” “You’re the Inspiration,” “Just You and Me” and “Hold Me Now.” True, all the songs were hits and drew enthusiastic vocal support from the crowd, but putting them all together killed the pacing and energy.

After coaxing the audience back to their feet, Chicago’s 50-minute set closed with “Stronger Every Day.”
Despite just seven original members across the two groups, strong arrangements meant key departed musicians like Maurice White and Peter Cetera weren’t missed. With so much talent onstage, special effects took a back seat – the musicians were more than enough spectacle.

The stage featured a two-tiered riser with a drum kit on each side at the top which made the structure resemble twin pyramids. There was plenty of space out front for the artists to run around. None of them made better use of this space than EWF founding bass player Verdine White, who strutted in fringed bell-bottoms and appeared to be having the time of his life.

The upper deck of the Sprint Center was curtained off, leaving a cozy lower bowl that didn’t have many empty seats. The sound was good. Not clear enough to pick out each specific instrument, but each section was distinct. Drums thumped, guitars sizzled and horns punched.

This was the groups’ third tour together and it’s easy to see why both musicians and audiences keep coming back. While similar outings could turn into a battle of the bands, Chicago and EWF complement each other well. Both are known for soaring vocals and intricate horn lines and really are two sides of the same coin.

The night ended the same way it began, with both bands onstage trading hits. EWF’s “September” led into Chicago’s “Free,” which featured the sax players from both bands sparring over a White bassline that recalled the finer moments of Maceo Parker and Bootsy Collins in James Brown’s band.

The bands nailed the night shut with a run on “Sing A Song,” “Does Anybody Know What Time It Is,” “Shining Star” and “25 or 4 to 6” that didn’t leave any other option but to dance. Three hours after taking the stage together, the musicians celebrated each other like a sports team winning the pennant. In a way, they had.

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Above: Neil Diamond delivers the excellent “Pretty Amazing Grace.”

By Joel Francis

The Kansas City Star

For nearly two hours on Monday night, Neil Diamond and his beautiful noise turned an arctic December evening to a hot August night.

After opening with high-energy performances of “Holly Holy” and “Beautiful Noise,” Diamond slowed down for “Love on the Rocks.” Strolling the perimeter of the stage, the applause swelled every time Diamond approached a new seating section. Although the Sprint Center wasn’t full – the end sections were curtained off up top – Diamond worked the crowd like he was playing a massive living room.

Diamond revisited the first side of his classic live album “Hot August Nights” with the one-two of “Crunchy Granola Suite” and “Done Too Soon.” He followed that up with a different, but equally moving pairing. Prefacing the autobiographical “Brooklyn Roads” with a story about growing up in the borough, Diamond performed the song as childhood photos floated by on the screens above the stage. It was followed by another song about New York, “I Am… I Said.”

The old songs were the highlights, but the new songs got the best performances. “Home Before Dark,” found Diamond seated on a stool at stage left, fingerpicking an acoustic guitar. “Pretty Amazing Grace” started with a stripped-down arrangement that worked its way into a calypso groove. It was on these numbers and the main-set closers of “Man of God” and “Hell Yeah” that Diamond’s singing was at its most heartfelt and expressive.

Forgoing special effects, Diamond’s stage was decorated with his 13-piece band on a series of six risers that slid back and forth across the stage. As expected for such a large ensemble, the arrangements were epic and cinematic, recreating orchestras for “Play Me” and Cinemascope arrangements for “Crunchy Granola Suite.” The only time the band failed him was on a slowed-down reading of “Solitary Man.” Diamond’s new tempo made the song even lonelier, but the intrusion of the backup singers on the chorus broke the spell every time.

Despite working a notoriously audiophobic room with so many instruments, the sound was great. The mix was so precise individual instruments could be singled out without harming the overall sound.

The houselights came on for “Forever in Blue Jeans” and they stayed up for “Sweet Caroline.” That one had everyone on their feet and singing along like it was Fenway Park. Diamond was so pleased he gave the number a victory lap. Even though he has performed the song a million times and even though he had just performed it, Diamond sang with conviction, drawing out the last night as if he didn’t want it to end.

The night ended with the sure-fire crowd pleasers of “Cracklin’ Rosie,” “America” and Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” that had everyone on their feet, singing along.

Setlist: Holly Holy/Beautiful Noise/Love on the Rocks/Play Me/Cherry Cherry/Home Before Dark/Don’t Go There/Pretty Amazing Grace/Crunchy Granola Suite/Done Too Soon/Brooklyn Roads/I Am…I Said/Solitary Man/Forever in Blue Jeans/Sweet Caroline/Sweet Caroline (reprise)/You Don’t Bring Me Flowers/I’m a Believer/Man of God/Hell Yeah//encores: Cracklin’ Rosie/America/Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show

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