Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Def Leppard remains a consistent crowdpleaser at PNC Tuesday

Def Leppard's story is one of overcoming and soldiering on be it through the loss of drummer Rick Allen's arm, the death of guitarist Steve Clark, or in the wake of news of guitarist Vivian Campbell's returning cancer little more than a week before the band's US tour was to kick off last week.

Yet Tuesday night at PNC Music Pavilion (where the venue's name has changed three times since Def Leppard started playing there in the early `90s) Campbell was back on stage, having only missed the first two dates of the tour.

Singer Joe Elliott introduced him as "healthy and happy" earlier in the set (pictured above), but the warmth and spirit of band brotherhood and achievements well beyond massive album sales came to a head later in the set during "Hysteria." Following Allen's crowd rousing drum solo which ended with his face contorted in elation, the band broke into the mid-tempo pop hit as a homage to Clark, whose image flashed on the screen. For a moment as they cruised into the second verse Campbell smiled, took his hands from his guitar and clasped them together as if in thanks that he could join his comrades on stage. The meaning of the band's perseverance was wrapped in that shared moment with Clark's photos and the gracious guitarist that replaced him over 20 years ago.

The other side to Def Leppard's appeal is a knack for rousing pop-metal anthems that have been in radio rotation for so long the words are seared in fans' minds. That was the case for much of the night as the British hard rock giants shifted from the opener "Rock Rock (Til You Drop)" and "Animal" to later era Leppard "Promises" and "Paper Sun."  The latter weren't the monster hits that "Love Bites" and closer "Pour Some Sugar On Me" were, but many of the fans still knew all the words.

Styx (guitarists Tomy Shaw, back and James "JY" Young, front, above) did a lot to rally the crowd early in the night. Following a set of Tesla's bluesy hard rock, which included its own monster hits "Love Song" and cover of "Signs," Styx proved youthful, bombastic showmen most comfortable utilizing the sprawl of the amphitheater stage (they've also played the smaller Fillmore and Uptown Amphitheatre). Styx's production consisted of a revolving keyboard platform for animated vocalist Lawrence Gowan and four sets of stairs leading to a walkway running the length of the stage above drummer Todd Sucherman's kit. The set-up was slightly more elaborate than Def Leppard's, which - like last year - made more use of LED screens than tiered levels and height.

After an hour-long set that peaked with "Come Sail Away" and encores of "Rockin' the Paradise" and "Renegade," the standing ovation was worthy of a headliner.

Def Leppard, who held Styx's spot as a big band in a support slot opening for Kiss at PNC last summer, played a set similar in look and songs to that tour. The video backdrops for "Rocket" and "Armageddon It" were the same, but those were some of the highlights of last year's show so the inclusion makes sense. I could always do without a cover of "Rock On" (my point of reference is soap star Michael Damian's version). I'd rather hear a side 2 "Hysteria" album track (side 2 gets no love). "Rocket" on the other hand has turned into one of the highlights of the set despite its 6 and a half minute length and sort of trippy, psychedelic chant-feel. Even as a kid I found it an odd choice for a single, but over 25 years later it works maybe even better than it did then.

The sound wasn't pristine. Elliott doesn't hit all the high notes as regularly as he once did and the lack of clarity and singing crowd helped cover that fact. He doesn't swipe at notes like some veterans his age, but seems to know when and where to push it. He may not reach for the peaks on "Love Bites" or "Animal," but he soared on "Foolin'."

He was playful, tossing a Union Jack stiletto to a fan whose high heel somehow ended up on stage and bassist Rick Savage and guitarist Phil Collen (with Elliott above) remain consistent, charismatic players.

Between last summer's Def Leppard show and Tuesday's concert, I've gained a greater appreciation for the group's history through my 6-year-old's interest in them. There was a time in my life when Def Leppard wasn't cool. An avid Headbanger's Ball and MTV Top 20 countdown viewer during the band's height when I was 12, boyfriends and peer groups eventually steered me toward "alternative" fare. But a fondness for bands like the Pixies and the Smiths, shouldn't have negated my love of Def Leppard. I thought about that as I was singing "Rock of Ages" with my son during the encore.

I'm so glad that adolescent time has passed. I - like the audience Tuesday - still find a lot of joy in Def Leppard.