By Chad Nance
“All right Tokyo! Are you ready!”
With a punch to the gut riff on “Hello There” Jerry Chapman, Doug Davis, Corky McClellan, and Randall Johnson (of the Wilmington Johnson’s) opened the ball on the Vagabond Saints Society’s latest “re-imagining” of a classic rock album. This time the band tore through Cheap Trick’s iconic At Budokan at The Garage. The Saints brought a bar-band energy and intensity to the proceedings that alternated between a full-bodied appreciation of Cheap Trick’s arena legacy with a wink and a hug to a packed house that was obviously tuned to the same channel as the boys in the band.
Memories of tattered, checkerboard vans, Phoebe Cates, and Vision “Gator” skateboard decks stayed fixed in my head through the whole first set. The image of my best friend’s older brother washing his primer spotted Camaro in the drive-way while “Dream Police” played on a boom box sitting next to the rusty basketball goal pole stayed front and center in my mind. The Vagabond Saints brought the nostalgia hard with a grow-up’s craft that shifted the mood from elegiac to ironic to full commitment four bars at a time.
Clay Howard was a laconic presence out front working more as a guide through the set for the audience than the kind of arena-rock hype man that Cheap Trick lead singer Robin Zander was at the original Budokan show. Howard handled the high-end lead vocals, met Davis and Chapman on their own ground with the harmonies, and completed Zander’s on-stage patter with a wink and a smile to the audience that invited mutual affinity rather than ironic snark.
Jerry Chapman’s arrangements are a major reason the show worked as well as it did. The approach was faithful to the work of Rick Neilson without coming across as a Xerox copy. Chapman clearly understands Cheap Trick’s work from a technical standpoint and was able to add his own tweaks and flourishes in a way that commented on the original work while staying vibrant and fresh for the Garage’s audience- no easy trick for a performance that could have coasted on nostalgic good will. Instead Chapman, Davis, and particularly the rhythm unit of Randall Johnson on 12-string bass and Corky McCllen on drums managed to jangle up the proceedings with a sound that was as much well-oiled garage band as it was Cheap Trick.
The first half of the album set was smooth, workman-like, and admirable. It was during the second half, beginning with “Ain’t That a Shame”, that The Saints truly began to own the material. Johnson, McClellen, and Chapman formed a tight unit that punched up the Fat’s Domino number and brought a crispness that isn’t there on the original “At Budokan” album. The Saints seemed to power the song up in the silences where Cheap Trick laid across the melody a little more.
Doug Davis on Vox and harmony vocals filled in the gaps so that The Saints stripped down sound still had the ass it needed pushing. Davis also made a solid foil for Chapman’s more manic energy while Howard seemed to truly own the material on the classic “I Want you to Want Me”. The whole unit peaked with “Surrender”. That was the moment in the entire show where the past and present came completely together and everyone in the Garage lost their affected middle-aged cool and just became a bunch of bouncing kids at a kick ass rock show all the way through “Clock Strikes Ten”.
The second set rambled around the Cheap Trick songbook with uneven results. Various local artists were brought in to stand in for Robin Zander, the best of which were singer Jeffery Dean Foster and Patrick Ferguson from Vel Indica. Ferguson brought a Sam Kinison-like energy to “ELO Kiddies” (which appears on the complete Budokan recording) and most notably on a late-night “Dream Police”.
Foster made an interesting front man investing heavily in the music with a polished vocal and almost New-Wave stage presence sporting a crushed velvet jacket and a voice more than capable of handling Zander’s formidable tenor.
Other notables were Todd Eric Verts on “If You Want my Love”, Kresha Waldrop on “Southern Girls”, and Timothy Beeman II on “Voices”. Each singer brought different sauce to the proceedings while the core back up unit of Chapman, Davis, McCllen, and Johnson held fast to the solid continuity they had created in the Budokan set.
The Garage itself was a factor in the success of the latest Saints’ outing. The sound was full, balanced, and allowed just enough of the crowd to come through that a communal energy was possible with the band fully out front without bludgeoning the ear holes in the rather intimate space under the Big Ass Fan.
The Vagabond Saints gave patrons their money’s worth using the Cheap Trick songbook to solid effect. All left sweaty and satisfied with only one question hanging in the air for the Saint’s… what next?
Would you like to do a number with me…
Photos by Carissa Joines and Jennifer Kiger