Cheap Trick Live At Cardinal Stadium, Ky. State Fair AUG. 21 1999

Cheap Trick Live - Royalty In Exile

By Robert Gruber

The idea of Cheap Trick playing a free show at the Fair seemed rather odd to me. After all, this is Cheap Trick we're talking about - Rick Nielson, Robin Zander, Tom Peterson and Mr. Bun E. Carlos. These guys were like gods when I was in high school. They epitomized everything that was cool in our measly little world.

Everybody else was into Zeppelin, Journey, Nugent, etc., etc, but it was a select individual who dug Cheap Trick. My wife was one of those individuals. She and I were lunch-mates in high school. Not sweethearts. That would come years later. She was in love with Tom Peterson. She had actually seen Cheap Trick in concert and had even met Rick Nielson backstage!

Fast-forward to 1999; now we're married (long story) and Cheap Trick is the free show at the Fair. An interesting assortment of people showed up for the concert. It was like 1978 all over again, a high school reunion of sort, except more casual, because no one was there to impress anybody. We all looked the same as we did in high school, I guess - except older. Big-haired groupie types were hanging out in the front row, laughing, smoking, as though they'd materialized just for the show. Lot's of KISS t-shirts. Had it not been for the mix of '90s looking kids - pierced, tattooed, big jeans, wild colored hair - I would have thought we'd entered a time warp.

Cheap Trick sauntered out with a laid-back version of "I Want You to Want Me," and it was clear from the start that this was no nostalgia show. Cheap Trick is every bit as cool now as they were twenty years ago, and they still rock like thunder, as evidenced by the pounding version of "Come On, Come On" that came next.

Lead singer Robin Zander was melting it on like butter, looking like he'd stepped straight off the cover of Heaven Tonight. Tom Peterson looked like Paul Westerberg with his shaggy hair and his wide collar, that big "Yeah, I ROCK for a living" smile on his face all night long. Bun E. pounded out those instantly recognizable beats on his pared-down kit.

And Rick Nielson? Once the pop-eyed Bowery Boy-looking freak in the baseball cap and sneakers, now he's the wizened, bespectacled freak in the baseball cap and sneakers, looking oddly professorial in his curly moustache and braided goatee. Oh, but he still kicks out the jams - a different guitar for every song, my friend! - and he tosses out those trademark guitar picks by the handful, giving them major distance. The crowd scrambled for every single one.

And the hits kept on coming. Not radio hits, mind you, album tracks. Songs the fans know, like "Hot Love,""Southern Girls,""Woke Up With A Monster." They did about half the songs off of the monster hit Live at Budokan album. "Ain't That a Shame" was huge, a tremendous moment of pure rock power that had us enthralled. Same with "Need Your Love," which showcased Nielson's under-rated lead guitar skills. Peterson took lead vocals for his song, "I Know What I Want," a giddy rock 'n' roll toss-off that made me laugh.

But let's face it, girls, Robin Zander is still all that and you still want him. He's like Sinatra was in his prime - mid-forties, smokes, probably enjoys a cocktail or two, but when it's time to sing, by golly he's letting you know - rock 'n' roll used to be a young man's game, but now it's for those who have "the stuff," and he's got it in spades, baby! When he pulled out the acoustic guitar and sang "Voices" - not a dry eye in the joint! Those bendy notes in "Dream Police" - he was on every one. His big showcase came during the encore, "Ballad of TV Violence," a very complicated piece of music, Zander doing his best "Cold Turkey"-style Lennon shouts at the end.

When they did "Surrender," it became transcendent. Nielson brought out the 5-neck guitar for that one, and everybody knew this was why we came. This is why the young turks (Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, STP, etc.) sing the praises of Cheap Trick. This is why they still pack out clubs and have a reputation for being one of the best live rock 'n' roll bands out there. They've still got IT.

Had they wanted to, they could have whipped the crowd into a riotous frenzy; Cardinal Stadium could have been reduced to rubble, the energy was there, IT was there. Cheap Trick are still gods, free show or no. Let the poor dumb beasts who flounder in mediocrity shell out to see the Doobie Brothers hack up the hits - we who saw Cheap Trick for free saw royalty in exile, and it was beautiful.