What drives you to a concert: the song or the performer?
Classic rock and pop fans have long had to struggle with that question because many acts tour with few (and sometimes no) original members on board.
This summer that question is amplified to 11 as lead singers previously in Foreigner (Lou Gramm), Toto (Bobby Kimball), Journey (Steve Augeri) and Asia (John Payne) band together as The Rock Pack. The tour plays Hard Rock Live on June 30.
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At this all-hits tour each vocalist will perform a set and then join for collaborations. The songs — “I Want to Know What Love Is,” “Rosanna,” “Don’t Stop Believin’” and “Heat of the Moment” — should prove as familiar as your significant other’s taste in coffee.
“I decided to create a unique concert concept that was start to finish full of monster hits by iconic vocalists,” said Payne, The Rock Pack founder, in a release. Payne replaced Asia’s lead singer John Wetton in 1992. He remained with the group for 14 years, before Wetton returned in 2006. Wetton died in January and Asia continues with yet another lead singer. Still, “If you like Foreigner, Journey, Toto and Asia then Hard Rock Live is the place to be,” Payne said.
Perhaps. But do you you attend the Rock Pack show to hear Foreigner favorites “Feels Like the First Time,” “Double Vision” and “Hot Blooded” with Gramm, who sang on the originals and cowrote them, or do you opt for Foreigner’s 40th anniversary tour Aug. 1 at West Palm Beach’s Perfect Vodka Amphitheater, at which current lead singer Kelly Hansen tries his hardest to sound like Gramm?
A 40th anniversary for any rock band is a significant milestone. Yet, in Foreigner’s case, only founding guitarist/songwriter Mick Jones (who, in several instances over the years, sat out the live shows) remains.
Toto, which could celebrate the 40th anniversary of its 1978 eponymous debut album next year, is on tour this summer, too. Three core members who played on the first four albums remain in the lineup.
Journey, meanwhile, recently regrouped with its third and most popular lead singer, Steve Perry, to accept its Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. But Perry didn’t sing with the band after his acceptance speech. Arnel Pineda, who replaced the man who replaced the man who replaced Perry, performed instead. Journey and Asia, with its two remaining original members, are touring together this summer. (No South Florida dates yet for Toto, Journey or Asia.)
Gramm is the most intriguing element among the Rock Pack’s lineup. While he and Kimball are the only two founding members of their respective groups, Gramm is the only Rock Packer to have a few hits as a soloist, including “Midnight Blue” in 1987.
The song or performer question can go both ways, Gramm said in a telephone interview from his home in Rochester, New York.
“Initially, it’s the song. You could have a great artist singing a lousy song, and at the end it’s just lousy. A great song and a so-so artist, it’ll still be great if it stays within the parameters of the songs,” Gramm said.
The deaths of so many classic rock musicians, including the Allman Brothers’ Gregg Allman and Butch Trucks and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell this year, will force more musicians to decide on their groups’ future without key members. After vowing the Eagles ended with Glenn Frey’s death in January 2016, co-founder Don Henley changed his mind. Eagles will perform two concerts at the Classic West and Classic East festivals in Los Angeles and New York in July. Frey’s son Deacon, 24, and country music’s Vince Gill will serve as replacements.
But Foreigner-Gramm is a distinct case.
“Something about the chemistry of that band made those songs sound the way they are,” Gramm said. “I’ve heard live versions of Mick’s band, and they sound rocky, tough. The original Foreigner had toughness and finesse.”
Gramm’s summer could get busy. Mick Jones, who owns the Foreigner name, has said there was a possibility that previous members — in particular, the lineup featured on the 1979 album “Head Games” — could be a part of the Foreigner 40 Tour.
“There has been talk about something going on, maybe original members joining on stage for one or two songs. Not at every show. Maybe half a dozen,” Gramm acknowledged.
But don’t get too excited.
“I haven’t got a clue which ones yet. It’s not up to me,” Gramm said. The picture right now, he said, is that “original members are dusting the gunk off their instruments, seeing if they remember to play.”
But he’s game to play with his old mates on one condition. “Only if it sounded up to snuff,” said Gramm, who shared a 2013 induction into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame with his old colleague. “If it was one wrong chord after another and the tempo was like a runaway train, I’d say let’s pass. I think everybody knows this will not be done every year. It’s the last time we’re going to be Foreigner together. They better have their stuff together.”
Hansen, Foreigner’s lead singer since 2005, said they do. He has long maintained that critics and original fans who call today’s Foreigner a cover band have it wrong.
“We're not trying to be anybody else; we're not trying to be a previous version. We're a forward-moving entity, like a shark has to keep moving, or you die,” Hansen said in a 2012 Miami Herald interview.
Whatever happens, Gramm enjoys the body of work he has to draw from for the Rock Pack and possible Foreigner concerts. Once rivals on the charts, now he’s performing with peers. “I listened to everybody. I liked to hear the competition and what they are doing,” he said.
The concerts are fun, Gramm added. The tour has pleased promoters by selling well. Audiences are responding warmly. “It still feels fantastic to be appreciated,” he said. The two Foreigner albums Gramm said he is most proud of are the 1981 blockbuster “4” and the overlooked “Mr. Moonlight,” an album recorded at North Miami’s Criteria Studios in 1995.
“Very few people have heard of, or let alone heard, ‘Mr. Moonlight,’ ” he said. Still, “that was the album I had probably the most input in of any of the albums. This is where Mick and I had a real, true partnership in the music and our songwriting. It was not necessarily dominated by him,” he said.
An era also ends this fall when this version of Rock Pack wraps and Foreigner 40 eyes its 41st. The songs may go on but Gramm won’t. He’s retiring.
Partly, it’s a result of the industry’s upheavals. “It doesn’t resemble the business that was the business when Foreigner got started,” he said.
Part of it is physical. Gramm, who underwent surgery to remove a benign brain tumor 20 years ago, is 67.
“I work out with a trainer. I’m on a pretty strict diet. Vocally, with about two days left to go to start, I’m doing scales and warming up and breathing exercises to ready myself,” he said of concert preparations.
The process greatly differs from Foreigner’s first time, 40 years ago. “We used to do other things before the show,” Gramm said, laughing. “I need to say no more. I wouldn’t call it exercise but it … falls into getting ready.”
Rolling Stone once praised Gramm as “the Pavarotti of the power ballad.” To show how demanding this material is, Gramm sings the hook, “I’ve been waiting for a girl like you,” as an example. “It’s tough unless you nail it right on, and you’re all alone out there if you blow that part of the song,” he explained.
“I’ve been doing this for 45 years, and I don’t have visions of grandeur or breaking into the Top 20 again. All there is is playing live, and it doesn’t get easier after 45 years. I will pass the torch. I’m anxious to spend time with my wife and four children. I also have a hobby collecting muscle cars so I’m going to spend more time doing that and go to car shows and drag races,” said the man who wrote “Rev on the Red Line” for Foreigner’s third album 38 years ago.
Gramm’s anxious to begin the next chapter. “This tour goes to October or November. I will have to wait five or six months until the snow melts, but that will be OK.”
If you go
What: The Rock Pack, Hit After Hit After Hit featuring Lou Gramm, Bobby Kimball, Steve Augeri and John Payne
When: 8 p.m. June 30
Where: Hard Rock Live, 1 Seminole Way, near Hollywood
Tickets: $80, $60, $40
Information: Ticketmaster or 800-745-3000.
Also: Foreigner, with Cheap Trick and Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience, perform at 7 p.m. Aug. 1 at Perfect Vodka Amphitheater, 601-7 Sansburys Way, West Palm Beach. Tickets: $19.77-$138. Information at LiveNation.com.