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Journey's uncanny new vocalist wows at Verizon
by Ben Wener - OCregister
July 17, 2008

Arnel Pineda, the band's Filipino surprise, delivered a performance to rival Steve Perry in Irvine, topping a bill bolstered by wailing from Heart and Cheap Trick.

Without hearing a word of their conversation, I knew exactly what was being discussed between the two women in front of me Wednesday night at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater just minutes into the headlining set from Journey, the Bay Area band that has once more been reconstituted - and is once again selling. Indeed, the quintet sold out this stop on its summer tour, though surely it helped to have fellow classic-rock favorites Heart and Cheap Trick on the bill.

The pantomime I watched these ladies perform - I suspect something similar happened throughout the Irvine venue as one stunned fan after another got a load of the group's remarkable new singer, Arnel Pineda.

First: a perplexed look from the woman on the left, accompanied by shrugged shoulders.

Next: a halting gesture from the one on the right, raising her hand to cover her friend's eyes.

And then: the exaggerated reaction. Whoaaaaaa doesn't quite convey it.

It's positively baffling: What your ears hear doesn't quite connect to what your eyes see. How is it possible that this tireless Filipino spitfire with stringy black hair, who guitarist Neal Schon discovered last summer via YouTube clips of him singing covers in his former band the Zoo, could sound so eerily like Steve Perry, that rarely rivaled voice of every Journey smash?

Words really don't do the uncanny resemblance justice. It's not just that Pineda can nail - I mean, flat-out perfectly nail - all of Perry's helium-high notes. It's more so that he unerringly mimics everything else about his voice - the tonal qualities, the phrasing and inflections, the way it can be both bell-like yet passionately gritty at the same time.

It's crazy frightening what Pineda can do, and it makes me wonder if the 40-year-old, long a successful working musician back in Manila, learned not just how to sing but how to speak English from listening religiously to "Wheel in the Sky" and "Don't Stop Believing." Not many other explanations make much sense.

I know what you're thinking: OK, so this guy probably does the job better than the real thing (who is nearly 60) could at this point. Does that make this version of Journey anything more than a tribute to itself?

Yes and no. It's fitting that the band titled its 13th album (and first with Pineda) "Revelation," for not only does the term apply to the wonder vocalist, it speaks to the rebirth of the group itself, still featuring two true originals (Schon and bassist Ross Valory), longtime keyboardist Jonathan Cain (on board since 1980) and drummer Deen Castronovo (keeping time since '98).

The new disc doesn't exactly break new ground for hard rock, yet it restores Journey to the sweeping, chugging, anthemic stuff that defined its 1978-1983 heyday. Songs like "Never Walk Away," "Change for the Better" and "Wildest Dream" were here almost interchangeable with lesser-known album tracks from that platinum era like "Stone in Love," "Escape" and "Chain Reaction." No wonder the June release debuted at No. 5 and has already gone gold in another slumping summer. (It helps to have packaged it as a double-disc job with Pineda proving his mettle on a dozen staples.)

What was plainly evident Wednesday night, though, is that with Pineda leaping about - so much so that at times he left himself needlessly winded - Journey has been revitalized. No more is this a tired outfit milking the nostalgia circuit. Well, OK, it is totally milking the nostalgia circuit - though let me be the first to point to your cynical soul if you can't appreciate the sheer pleasure of 15,000 people singing along to "Lights" and "Faithfully" and the na-na-na-na-na coda of "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'."

All the same, Journey now performs with renewed vigor (Schon's solos soared as much as Pineda's voice) and has at least one eye cast toward a Benetton-ready future, thanks to Pineda's inclusion. (Asian fans, some hoisting the Philippines flag, were more prevalent than ever before.)

His discovery is a stroke of uncommon good luck that INXS and even Lynyrd Skynyrd, both surviving with viable replacement vocalists, never quite got. For some reason I think a lot of Journey fans might stop caring whether Steve Perry ever returns.

Pineda was hardly the only standout wailer this evening, of course. Heart's Ann Wilson was in characteristically robust form during the group's hour-long set, navigating the roaring passages of the Who's "Love Reign O'er Me" as adeptly as she did the dramatic pleas of "Magic Man" and "Alone," the latter smartly scaled back to just piano and guitar. (Likewise, sister Nancy's spotlight, "These Dreams," was tempered by a mellower, mandolin-tinged arrangement.)

More than it has in a long while locally, Heart here reminded why so many grunge figures revere the Wilsons; the roiling "Mistral Wind," a gritty "Barracuda" and a take on Led Zep's "Going to California" that retained bite were proof. It's shameful they're not in the Hall of Fame by now.

Cheap Trick, meanwhile, the only band still in its original form, continued to serve its past well by dishing out raw-but-not-ragged renditions of "California Man," "Dream Police" and the classic "Surrender." Drummer Bun E. Carlos and 12-string bassist Tom Petersson remain models of powerful simplicity. Frontman Robin Zander's belting benefited from more bark and bluster than usual. And guitarist Rick Nielsen remains underrated - Billy Corgan might slot just fine into the Trick, but Nielsen could hold his own on all of baldy's Smashing Pumpkins licks.

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