Night Ranger - Detroit Riverfront
July 14, 2017 by Jeremy Porter
I first saw Night Ranger some 30 years ago, in August of 1987, at the Upper Peninsula State Fair in Escanaba, Michigan. Concerts were few and far between in the U.P., so we didn’t miss them when they came, even if they weren’t our A-list bands. I was 2 months out of high school, and still reeling from missing Cheap Trick on the same stage a year earlier as a punishment for wrapping my parent’s Monza around an elm tree in downtown Marquette with an open Old Milwaukee in my hand. Great White opened, who I initially liked with their heavy metal debut EP, but quickly tired of as they started butchering the blues as only white dudes with poofed out peroxide hair can do. Brad Gillis, Night Ranger’s guitarist who replaced Randy Rhoads in Ozzy’s band and played on the live “Speak of the Devil” album, handed me his guitar pick after the solo in (You Can Still) Rock In America. They were great. It was a cool night, and sort of a symbolic end to my high school years.
I loved (and still love) Don’t Tell Me You Love Me and (You Can Still) Rock In America, but, I didn’t hold their biggest hit Sister Christian in the same regard, preferring power ballads by slightly heavier bands like Scorpions, Ozzy and Cinderella. By the time I first saw Night Ranger I was listening to The Clash and Black Flag and driving to Milwaukee to see The Replacements, REM, and Hüsker Dü, but I never abandoned them. They were over-polished, but they had a certain power-pop element with ahead-of-the-beat energy and easy hooks that provided some salvage to the MTV onslaught of Tears for Fears, A-Ha, and other, less engaging drivel. Jack Blades was a cool rock star. I liked the way his bass hung low and sat on his leg, like a short, blonde Nikki Sixx with cleaner hair. And the harmonies, melody and lyrics of When You Close Your Eyes had me the same way some of the better indie songs of the time did, though I knew it wouldn’t make it into those conversations. I liked the line about “a hard night of drinking” which seemed like something other bands wouldn’t touch so blatantly in their radio hits. I wasn’t a fan of the Miami Vice look that they adopted, and I couldn’t put them on at a party with my friends, but It seemed to me like Night Ranger weren’t trying as hard as the other bands to be cool, and that made them even cooler.
[Now that I’ve spent 2 paragraphs justifying my appreciation for Night Ranger…..]
So it’s 2017 and here I am again, at a Night Ranger concert. No one would go with me - my friends, band-mates and co-workers chuckled, as if I wasn’t even serious about it. My wife probably would have enjoyed it, but she was out of town. I spent the 48 hours before the concert talking myself in and out of going, but 6pm Friday night came and I was in my car with the Detroit skyline and it’s centerpiece - the Renaissance Center - looming in the distance. What the hell was I getting myself into? And really, this is what it’s come to? I am going to Night Ranger concerts by myself now? Time to re-evaluate? I stopped into the Checker Bar for a shot of courage and walked into the crowd.
The setting was a thin patch of concrete and stone between the Ren-Cen and the Detroit River in the center of the city. Somehow I managed to quietly and stealthily weasel my way into the “friends of the band” section (I am not a friend of the band and had no business in there) which offered a great vantage point. The 2 openers were local cover bands delivering largely predictable and generic-at-best classic rock staples. The first band’s version of Say What You Will by Fastway had me entertained for a minute, but the Bryan Adams, Billy Idol and multiple Led Zeppelin covers had me still questioning my decision to come. I almost left about every 3rd song, to be honest, but I stuck it out.
At 9pm sharp Night Ranger came out with the 1-2 punch of Touch of Madness into Four in the Morning. “I get hiiiiggghhh when I want to” Blades crooned to the revved up Detroit crowd. This was their 35th anniversary tour and he didn’t let us forget it, incorporating the fact into virtually all between-song banter. They did a couple Damn Yankees songs, his band with Tommy Shaw from Styx and the Motor City Madman, thinking that the crowd would be more into hearing Ted Nugent’s name hollered out than they actually were. They also covered Alice Cooper (guitarist Keri Kelli did a stint with Alice) and Ozzy (noting Brad Gillis’ tenure in his band) and the energy level stayed pretty high throughout. Things really picked up towards the end. When You Close Your Eyes isn’t a full-blown rocker, but as I said, I’ve always had a spot for that tune. Don’t Tell Me You Love Me is arguably their finest moment - it pretty much kicks ass and stands up with most stuff from that genre, though I could have done without the transition into Hotel California and Highway Star in the breakdown, and (You Can Still) Rock In America holds it’s own as an anthem despite the easy and obvious patriotic plug. Sister Christian was in there too, giving drummer and second vocalist Kelly Keagy another opportunity to come out from behind the drums (set up stage left, at a right angle rather than center back) and croon to the ladies. Eric Levy even adopted the beard-n-beret look that original keyboardist Alan Fitzgerald had back in the day, rounding out the complete experience.
The band was tight and energetic, looking fit and running around like dudes half their age, while still hitting the changes right on beat. The harmonies, often 5-ways, were impressive as hell. The sound was surprisingly good, though I think at one point one of the mains blew, causing some cackling in parts. There was certainly a nostalgia-act aspect to the show, but it was ultimately better than that - the band was on fire, having a blast, and at least putting on like they believed every minute of it. The songs hold up surprisingly well, and even the deep cuts had some teeth. They could have skipped the covers and the Damn Yankees songs, but at the same time most that stuff is a part of this band’s past, so it wasn’t as frivolous as it might appear on the surface. I knew everything they played except the new one, and stayed easily engaged until the end.
I can sure think of a few worse ways to spend a Friday night in Detroit with the wife out of town. I doubt I’ll head back down to the Riverfront to see .38 Special or Everclear, but I’d go see Night Ranger again. After all, there’s some comfort in knowing that (You Can Still) Rock in America.
Touch of Madness, Four in the Morning, Sing Me Away, Somehow Someway, Coming of Age (Damn Yankees cover), Sentimental Street, The Secret of My Success, School's Out (Alice Cooper cover), Crazy Train (Ozzy Osbourne cover), Eddie's Comin' Out Tonight, High Enough (Damn Yankees cover), Goodbye, When You Close Your Eyes, Don't Tell Me You Love Me / Hotel California / Highway Star, Sister Christian, (You Can Still) Rock in America
Jeremy Porter lives near Detroit and fronts the rock and roll band Jeremy Porter And The Tucos. Follow them on Facebook to read his road-blog chronicling their adventures and see his photo series documenting the disgusting bathrooms in the dives they play. He's a whiskey snob, an unapologetic fan of "good" metal, and couldn't really care less about the UofM - OSU rivalry since he once saw The Stones at the Horseshoe. Still, go blue.