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Concert and Venue Review: Cheap Trick at The Sound
New outdoor amphitheater in Clearwater gets a mixed grade, but Cheap Trick still has it.
Thank you for spending part of your day with Michael’s Record Collection. Today I thought I’d comment on a show I saw recently from a band I’ve been enjoying since the late 1970s, who played at a brand new concert venue in Clearwater, Florida.
Before getting into today’s story, I wanted to share some thoughts on how vital music can be. I spent last weekend with family, traveling from my home in the Orlando suburb of Sanford, Florida, to Charlotte, North Carolina. That drive can be eight to nine hours, depending on traffic, and I went by myself. The drive up was fraught with heavy traffic on I-95 from Daytona Beach up to the I-26 exit in South Carolina. The drive back was plagued by almost constant rain that varied from a light drizzle to heavy, torrential downpours.
Both trips were made much easier by my constant companion — music. I hit shuffle on one of my playlists on the streaming service Tidal (I switched from Spotify last year due to Tidal’s better stream quality and because they pay artists slightly more). I picked another playlist and did the same thing for the drive home. Each drive took eight hours but the time and miles seemed to fly by because I was enjoying one great song after another.
Sure, I could have listened to an audio book or to podcasts, but I doubt either option would have provided the experience that the music did. Those eight-hour trips felt like they were half that long. I highly recommend finding the time to put together playlists with a mixture of favorite hits and deeper tracks to make long drives more pleasant.
Now let’s get to the “proper” part of the newsletter.
For some reason, I had not seen Cheap Trick in decades. I love the band, although I’d sort of lost track of them a few albums after “The Flame” became a big hit in 1988. I saw them in 1985 and again in 1987, but I hadn’t seen them since. I’d been meaning to see them again, and I missed a few of their nearby shows in recent years because of either conflicts or because they were opening for an artist I wasn’t interested in seeing.
So, when a friend of mine said he had an extra ticket and asked if I was interested in going, I jumped at the chance. The show was over in Clearwater, Florida, which can be a drive of about an hour and a half from where I live if conditions are good, but it can stretch out well over two hours if there’s a lot of traffic. This show was on a weeknight, so I knew the drive would be a long one. I was leaving from work, which shaved about 25 minutes off my drive, but driving in the Orlando area can be…let’s say problematic. We decided to meet south of the city in ChampionsGate in the midafternoon to minimize the time we had to take off work, thinking that would be early enough to get over to Clearwater and eat prior to the show.
Traffic, however, had other ideas. My buddy Ben, who had gotten the tickets free for being a patron of Clearwater’s Ruth Eckerd Hall, struggled to reach the rendezvous point due to a major crash on State Road 429 — with a fatality, as it turned out — while the other two of us who were meeting him there had issues with heavy congestion on Interstate 4 near Disney World. As a result, we left ChampionsGate much later than anticipated. Combined with rush-hour traffic in Tampa, it put us well behind our schedule. I had volunteered to drive because Ben got us the tickets and because I knew he had to go back over to the Gulf Coast the very next night to see The Cure.
We eventually arrived in Clearwater. I was unfamiliar with the venue, because it was a brand new one — The Sound at Coachman Park. Cheap Trick was the first concert at the new outdoor amphitheater, as lead singer Robin Zander apparently lives in nearby Safety Harbor. Because the tickets were general admission, we decided to go straight to the venue to get situated, rather than stop for dinner.
Parking was free and quite easy, and we walked the couple of blocks over to Coachman Park to check out the new venue. Entry was easy and the amphitheater was picturesque, sitting just a matter of feet from the water and a nearby marina. It was a gorgeous setting to see a show. We staked out some seats in a good spot near the middle of the venue. I was eager to find out what the evening’s sound quality would be like.
Although the place looked beautiful, with its striking white canopy and the sun setting behind the stage, the amenities weren’t quite what I expected. Bathroom facilities seemed fine — both spacious and clean — before the concert. But off to the side there was only one concession stand selling candy, pretzels, soda, etc. I think there was a table selling barbecue near the back of the place, but we had passed that on our way to find seats.
For dinner, we’d need to hit one of the food trucks parked next to the facility. Much of the crowd had yet to arrive, but there were already sizable lines at the trucks. In the end, I settled for a truck with a shorter, quicker-moving line, which was a bad call. My “bang-bang chicken” was not good, nor was it cheap.
I visited the merchandise stand, hoping to grab a Cheap Trick t-shirt. I’m used to the $40 prices at concerts for shirts, but I was not prepared to pay that for what was being offered. There were only a couple of designs I liked, but they were one-sided and the white Cheap Trick logo shirt was on such thin material that I could see through it when I saw someone wearing one. I was disappointed in the selection and the prices and didn’t end up purchasing any swag from the band. Zander’s son, Robin Taylor Zander, who was the opening act that night, had nicer t-shirts than his dad’s legendary band.
A few more issues with the venue became obvious after we were fed and Robin Taylor Zander took the stage to support his debut album, The Distance. One, it was ungodly hot under that canopy. Despite being right on the water, there was no breeze at all. There were fans high overhead, and they were on, but they offered no relief from the sweltering heat. Sweat was rolling down my face and body the entire show. Every once in a while, a pleasant gust would blow through and it felt like air conditioned heaven, but those moments were fleeting and the air was stagnant and thick with humidity all evening.
Another problem was the seating. The chairs were hard plastic. I mean hard. Some of the other attendees around us were smart enough to bring seat cushions but we were not. The chair was murder on my back and I had to stand and stretch periodically to get some relief. The other problem with the seating is that the chairs were set up on sloped ground, so they weren’t level. They were also slippery, so it was a challenge to even stay on the chair. Every 30 seconds or so, I had to arrest my slide and push myself back up against the back of the chair.
Finally, whether it was just because it was the first show or because there’s an actual acoustic issue, it was difficult to understand Zander when he spoke to the crowd between songs. The sound was a bit muffled. The music and vocals seemed fine when blended together, but an individual speaking into the mic lacked clarity.
Robin Taylor Zander’s set was short and it was fine. The music and vocals were generally good. I was unfamiliar with the songs, and the performance didn’t blow me away, but the set he and his band played was good enough that I’m planning to check out his album soon.
Of course, not everyone felt that way. A well-lubricated jerk a row or two behind me was just brutal (and quite vocal) in his disdain for the opening act. It’s hard to enjoy something when someone behind you is yelling about how much it sucks, but some people just can’t sit by quietly and allow others to enjoy their evening.
Cheap Trick finally took the stage as the sun was setting. Another potential issue with the venue is the opening above the back of the stage. This time of year, the sunlight shoots straight into your eyes until it drops low enough for the backstage to block it out. Mercifully, it finally did just as the headliners were coming on.
The band launched into the familiar guitar-driven intro to concert-opening staple “Hello There,” and the crowd stood in unison to greet Cheap Trick. Lead singer/guitarist Robin Zander sounded familiar on the song, accompanied by guitarist Rick Nielsen and bassist Tom Petersson. The three classic-era members of the band were joined by Robin Taylor Zander on guitar and backing vocals (and even lead vocals on “Downed”) and Nielsen’s son Daxx on drums.
Whatever power or range Zander’s voice has lost over the years was filled in quite nicely by his son. There’s no need for legacy bands to use backing tracks if they’ve got kids who sound enough like them to fill in the gaps.
The band mostly sounded great, particularly for three guys north of age 70. There were a few hiccups but it’s hard to tell if they were band-related or venue issues. It would be truly impressive if the venue got everything right on opening night.
The set borrowed heavily from the band’s iconic 1978 live album, At Budokan. Cheap Trick played seven of the 10 songs that helped launched the band to its zenith in the late 1980s. As far as how the band represented its 20 studio albums in the setlist, there were four songs from In Color (1977), three songs from Dream Police (1979), two each from Heaven Tonight (1978) and All Shook Up (1980), and one song each from Cheap Trick (1977), Next Position Please (1983), Lap of Luxury (1988), and their most recent offering, In Another World (2021). Of the remaining three songs performed, two were only previously released on At Budokan and there was a bass solo performed by Petersson.
The songs were performed well, but it was again difficult at times to understand what the musicians were saying in between songs. Daxx Nielsen did a fine job filling in the role formerly held by longtime Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos, including performing the lengthy instrumental intro to the Fats Domino cover “Ain’t That a Shame” just as Carlos had done it on At Budokan 45 years earlier.
Whether there were monitor issues or it was simply to get some respite from the heat, Rick Nielsen and Zander left the stage several times in places where you ordinarily wouldn’t expect to see them go off. Rick played his guitar while off the stage to the left, talking to his tech a few times. If the band was having monitor issues, it may explain why the power ballad “The Flame” didn’t quite come off right. It’s sometimes easier for an aging vocalist to sing with power than the precision needed on a ballad like “The Flame,” especially one so high. It wasn’t just the vocals though, because Rick’s guitar didn’t quite sound right during that song.
Otherwise, the band cruised through its set. “Big Eyes,” “Ain’t That a Shame,” and the underrated “Borderline” were early highlights for me in the first half of the show. The bass solo later was well done but seemed a bit overly self-indulgent and I’d have rather heard another full original song. The end of the set was like the grand finale in a fireworks display, as the band rocked out to classics “I Want You to Want Me,” “Dream Police,” and “Surrender” to a constant standing ovation before closing with “Goodnight Now.”
The set was just about 90 minutes, which seems short for a headliner that’s been around since the late 1970s. Still, despite the show being an hour and a half, the band performed 18 tracks. I didn’t feel cheated, despite wanting to hear more of my old favorites, like “She’s Tight,” “If You Want My Love,” and “I Can’t Take It,” or deeper cuts like “The Way of the World” or “The House is Rockin’ (with Domestic Problems).” But then again, always leave ‘em wanting more, I guess.
The show was well worth the heat and the long drive. The three permanent members of the band may not have the same level of energy as the band I last saw 36 years ago (who does?), but they still sounded good. If you’re on the fence about seeing Cheap Trick at an upcoming show, take the plunge. The final few songs alone are worth the price of admission, even if you didn’t get a free ticket like I did.
Cheap Trick Setlist 6/28/23
The Sound at Coachman Park — Clearwater, Florida
Hello There (In Color)
Just Got Back (All Shook Up)
Big Eyes (In Color)
Borderline (Next Position Please)
He's a Whore (Cheap Trick)
California Man (Heaven Tonight)
Ain't That a Shame (At Budokan)
Light Up the Fire (In Another World)
Need Your Love (Dream Police)
Stop This Game (All Shook Up)
Downed - with Robin Taylor Zander on lead vocals (In Color)
I Know What I Want (Dream Police)
The Flame (Lap of Luxury)
I Want You to Want Me (In Color)
Dream Police (Dream Police)
Surrender (Heaven Tonight)
Goodnight Now (At Budokan)
For more thoughts on both The Sound at Coachman Park in Clearwater, or on the Cheap Trick show and setlist, check out the video below or download/stream Episode 112 of the Michael’s Record Collection podcast. I’m joined by my friend Ben Montgomery of the excellent Records Revisited Podcast. Ben and I attended the Cheap Trick concert together (Ben procured the tickets, so big thanks to him!) and compared notes on our experiences. Look for me on an upcoming episode of Records Revisited, as we spoke with Roger Clyne (Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers, The Refreshments) and gave our song rankings from the major label debut by The Refreshments, Fizzy, Fuzzy, Big & Buzzy, an album I consider one of my ‘desert island discs’ and which I’ve previously written about in great detail.
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