'That wheel in the sky keeps turnin? 

One of the highlights of last year’s St. Patrick’s Day Festivities on the Waterfront surely must have been the featured appearance of one of the country’s premiere Journey tribute bands.

From the onset I was loathe to admit the possibility that such a show could be impressive, let alone, entertaining. However, in preparation for writing a profile of the band, I heard of their studio demos.

Boy, was I ashamed.

Not only could these guys play those ridiculously over-the-top songs with what seemed like relative ease, the lead vocals were eerily similar to those of the band’s most famous – and quite gifted – singer, Steve Perry.

Armed with the knowledge that this might actually be worth seeing, I braved the River Street crowds and made my way past the Waving Girl statue to the front of the main stage for their evening set.

Although a mighty wind often threatened to dislodge the custom-made wig of the group’s Perry substitute, they put on a very entertaining show – and while I’ll be the first to admit that most tribute bands should never leave the garage – occasionally, you’ll stumble upon the perfect combination of musicians and an inspired choice for them to ape.

Journey was just such a choice, and the event gave me cause to go back and reconsider the catalog of this group that most modern music fans wouldn’t be caught dead listening to.

Perhaps more than any other FM radio staple of the 1970s and 1980s, Journey epitomized all that was giant about the most popular hard rock of the time.

Their mainstream hits were grandiose, anthemic masterworks of melody and bombast, while their album cuts were much more self-indulgent and (dare I say) experimental.

It almost seemed as if there were two completely different strategems going on in that band at once. One was concerned solely with scoring monster radio hits and filling stadiums with cheering fans, while the other was intent on proving their naysayers and critics wrong through technically-impressive rat mazes of fret, stick and keyboard work.

And, as if that weren’t enough, they were always known for their songs, rather than their light shows or pyrotechnics.

The Bay Area band was formed in 1973 by two members of Santana – guitar prodigy Neal Schon and keyboardist Greg Rollie – as well as bassist Ross Valory, vocalist George Tickner and drummer Prairie Prince. Initially, they were thought of as a progressive fusion group and were known for extended improv-heavy explorations that were a bit too pop for jazz, but not nearly structured enough for crafting radio singles.

Numerous lineup changes followed over the next few years, which helped to push the band into what has become known as their trademark sound: highly-sophisticated and dramatic hard rock with trace elements of their prior jazz odysseys.

By the early 1980’s, their triple-album whammy of Infinity, Evolution and Captured (a live 2-LP set) saw them enjoying some of the greatest fame and success of any American band of their time. Several of their iconic hits now seem to almost define that time period, such as “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Who’s Cryin’ Now,” and the power ballad “Open Arms” (perhaps the single greatest prom song the Western world has ever coughed up).

Though Steve Perry left the band for good in 1996 (citing health reasons and vocal problems) the group soldiered on with yet another lineup. One which featured both old and new faces.

It is that lineup which is still on the road today, touring behind an astonishing grab-bag of chart-topping megahits.

Though they parted ways with their longtime label Columbia/Sony in the winter of 2001, the band continues to record. Their latest effort, 2002’s Red 13 EP, sounds about as much like classic Journey as one could imagine.

It’s all there: Schon’s soaring guitar leads; current frontman Steve Augeri’s near-operatic vocals; the busy, technical percussion of former Bad English drummer Deen Castronovo; the bottom-heavy melodic bass of Valory; and the piercing synthesizer pads of ex-Babys member Jonathan Cain.

To date, they’ve released 20 full-length albums and sold more than 50 million records worldwide. That’s almost hard to fathom in this age of disposable bands who are dropped before their 3rd release.

Reports from the road suggest the band is regularly playing almost two straight hours of their biggest hits as well as a few obscure cuts for hardcore fans, and while I can’t say I’ll make this show, I have no doubt that while Perry has been replaced, fans of this band will likely not be disappointed with this rather impressive – and official – package. Fri., Center Court at Harbor Town (Hilton Head).

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Jim Reed

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