When Rick Nielsen introduced his bandmate Robin Zander as "my favorite rock singer in the world" at the Minnesota Zoo amphitheater on Saturday, it was the one time the goofball guitar hero's comments could be taken seriously. Nielsen's band Cheap Trick overcame a weirdly early start time (7:45 pm with no opener) and the even more quizzical absence of original drummer Bun E. Carlos, delivering an impressively aggressive, continually rousing 100-minute set befitting the zoo’s summertime-fun vibe.
Zander was a big reason why. He’s the rare rock ‘n’ roll frontman of the ‘70s who’s still as powerful in his 60s, and Saturday’s performance proved to be a shining example. And that’s no comment on the flashy silver leather jacket and sparkly shirt the Wisconsin native wore for the duration of the nearly sold-out show. Perhaps the band could’ve gone longer had Zander lightened his load amid the humidity. But he more than carried his weight, howling with ferocity in “He’s a Whore” and “Just Got Back” near the start of the show while showing his usual pop finesse in “California Man” and “I Want You to Want Me.” Even those of us who equate the “The Flame” with Cheese Puffs had to admire how well he wailed the late-'80s power-ballad’s most dramatic notes.
The rest of the band was rock-steady musically and charming personally, too. Tom Petersson played it cool and aloof for three-quarters of the set and then cut loose with a bass solo followed by a turn at the mic for “I Know What I Want.” Nielsen was his usual hammy self, throwing handfuls of guitar picks any chance he could and standing atop a riser to generate applause, but he also churned out seriously monstrous solos in “Heaven Tonight” and “Need Your Love.”
Rick’s son Daxx Nielsen did just fine filling in for Carlos and was especially terrific hammering out “Ain’t That a Shame.” Still, his dad’s comment that he’s “a good-looking kid” proved all too true. Daxx offsets the classic two-hunk/two-dork formula, which -- as trivial as it may seem -- is a defining trait. It just wasn’t the same without Bun E. One reason Cheap Trick has always seemed better/cooler than a lot of the bands it has opened for in recent years (i.e., Journey, Styx) was that it maintained its original lineup and seemed to be in it for more than the money.
At least Saturday’s gig proved the Trick still gives more bang for the buck than most of its peers. Here's hoping the Rockford vets will be welcomed back as a regular addition to the Music in the Zoo series. Here’s the set list:
Hello There / Elo Kiddies / He’s a Whore / Just Got Back / On Top of the World / Ain’t That a Shame / She’s Tight / Heaven Tonight / If You Want My Love / Need Your Love / In the Streets (That ‘70s Song) / Stop This Game / I Know What I Want / The Flame / I Want You to Want Me / Dream Police ENCORE: California Man / Surrender / Auf Wiedersehen / Goodnight