If the Divided States of America needed another battleground on which to clash, Poison and Cheap Trick appeared at the Darien Lake Amphitheatre on Tuesday night ready to oblige. The seemingly incongruous pairing served as a musical microcosm of a culture war that has stifled progress and woven partisan vitriol into the fabric of public discourse. In one corner was a band maligned for its association with the well-documented debauchery of LA’s Sunset Strip while, in the other, was a critically beloved group whose 2016 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame served as nothing more than an arbitrary validation of something three generations of fans already knew. Pop Evil had the unfortunate pleasure of being caught in the middle, because, despite a decade of solid supporting work under its belt, the lack of western New York radio support meant that many people didn’t bother showing up until after their set had concluded.
The narrative heading into the evening centered around how insulting it was that Cheap Trick had been packaged with another ’80s act perceived as valuing style over substance, so social media wasted no time dismissing Poison as lame, simplistic, and unworthy of the position to which they’ve ascended. Whether or not one agrees with that assessment is a matter of taste, but attacking Bret Michaels, C.C. DeVille, Bobby Dall, and Rikki Rockett personally is just lazy and indicative of the ongoing demise of intellectual disagreement. Even Poison’s fans were looked down upon leading up to the show, as critics dismissed them as a constituency incapable of appreciating anything with true artistic depth. Yes, the “Us vs. Them” dynamic was palpable, but, as someone who owns original pressings of both “Heaven Tonight” and “Look What the Cat Dragged In” on vinyl, I wasn’t having any of it.
Cheap Trick turned in a masterful 14-song set in which they pulled from all corners of the catalog and still found time to include their shuffling cover of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man” with bassist Tom Petersson crushing the lead vocal. Spot-on versions of “Big Eyes,” “Southern Girls,” and “California Man” blended seamlessly amongst the hits of “Dream Police” and “I Want You to Want Me” in a way that no one should have felt short-changed. Robin Zander’s impossibly perfect vocal ability defied age (especially on “The Flame”) and Rick Nielsen’s guitar playing was as feisty as ever, so, again, where was the conflict?
Had Cheap Trick been relegated to a 25-minute squash set featuring only tracks devoured by Top-40 radio, then I could see the argument, but the set played out beautifully with fans from both camps being able to acknowledge the greatness on display. If the guys themselves were bothered by the booking, they were too busy killing it to let such triviality affect their performance.
Poison took the reins around 9:30 p.m. with a raucous “Look What the Cat Dragged In,” the title track from their 1986 debut, as frontman Bret Michaels had the women in full-on swoon mode from the moment he stepped out of the shadows. Say what you will about his reputation and between-song platitudes, but he remains an intrepid showman aimed at delivering exactly what the name of the tour promises: Nothin’ But a Good Time. I’ve seen him with and without Poison a number of times during the last 15 years, and sometimes a carefree night of music with minimal ambition is just what the doctor ordered. “I Want Action,” “Ride the Wind,” and “Talk Dirty to Me” all came off as the intentionally excessive party anthems they are, which wasn’t surprising given how enthusiastic the band continues to be night after night.
In an era dominated by viral videos, there’s something to be said for the old-school direction that Poison took to get to where they are in 2018. They were masters of marketing at a time when flyers meant everything and played every sweatbox from Gazzarri’s to Fender’s Ballroom before getting any attention from a major label. Add in the reality that all four original members are surviving and thriving out on the road together after 30+ years, and it’s clear they’ve earned more respect than what the critical community chooses to give them.
Not everything needs to be at the level of “Bitches Brew” or “Close to the Edge” to be enjoyable. Sometimes, having a good time is good enough.