Sunday, January 26, 2014

With a Little Magic Power, Rik Emmett Triumphantly Continues to Fight the Good Fight -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Rik Emmett
An Acoustic Night of Triumph
w/ opening act Classical Blast
Arcada Theatre, St. Charles, IL
January 25, 2014

From the late 1970s to the late '80s, the Canadian rock trio Triumph released 9 studio albums, all of which were certified platinum or gold in the U.S. and/or Canada. rates three of these albums 4 or 4-1/2 stars (on a 5-star scale)--the best being 1981's Allied Forces--and songs like "Lay it on the Line," "Fight the Good Fight," "Magic Power" and "Somebody's Out There" were once staples on rock radio and/or seen on MTV.

The band headlined arenas and amphitheaters across North America, and in 1983 played at the massive US Festival.

But somehow, perhaps because they were often considered secondary peers of Rush--themselves a Canadian trio with a high-pitched singer, vast popularity and critical disdain--Triumph was seemingly never considered "cool."

Then again, neither was I, and I unapologetically liked the band which featured dual songwriters and singers--guitarist Rik Emmett and drummer Gil Moore--and was rounded out by bassist Mike Levine.

In September 1986, I saw Triumph live for the only time, when early in my freshman year I came home from Northern Illinois University, met up with my friend Gary who was in from Illinois State, and went up to Alpine Valley.

Triumph long ago disbanded and while I retained a fondness, I didn't even know they had reunited for a couple festival shows in 2008, or that following a 1990 solo album, Rik Emmett had remained active.

But last night, Gary and I--along with two of his family members--shlepped to the historic Arcada Theater in St. Charles to see Rik Emmett in what was billed as "An Acoustic Night of Triumph."

With no disrespect to his old bandmates, Emmett was essentially the reason I enjoyed Triumph, as I found him to possess one of rock's sweetest voices and be a gifted guitarist who often included classically-infused instrumentals on the band's albums.

(Notably, at least to me, I was seeing Emmett just 9 days removed from a show by the only other guy I know to fill the category of "singer-guitarist from a prominent '80s power trio who split songwriting and lead vocal duties with the band's drummer." That would be Bob Mould, who was originally in Hüsker Dü.)

Although in recent days, I had learned through YouTube,, Wikipedia, etc. that the now 60-year-old Emmett is still in good stead, occasionally performs and has long been teaching at a college in Toronto, I really didn't know what to expect from the concert.

I thought it would be just Rik with an acoustic guitar playing and singing several of Triumph's greatest hits.

But for the most part, I was rather pleasantly surprised.

First of all, for a guy I wouldn't be shocked to note playing at some free summer festival, perhaps not even on a headlining stage, I was glad Rik Emmett provided an excuse to finally attend the Arcada Theater, a venue built in 1926 that has been nicely restored and hosts a number of concerts by artists that were once much bigger than they are now but rather impressively can still fill a good portion of the theater's 900 seats. (Upcoming acts at the Arcada include Cheap Trick, The Buckinghams & Gary Puckett, 10,000 Maniacs, Gordon Lightfoot, Three Dog Night, Eddie Money, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Kevin Costner, Blue Oyster Cult, Herman's Hermits and Lita Ford).

An usher mentioned that 700 tickets were sold for the Rik Emmett show, but the main floor we were on--at the back for just $29--seemed almost completely full. And in a way, from the t-shirts being worn to the small talk in line for the far-too-tiny men's room, it felt less like a typical concert crowd than a convention of Triumph fanatics.

(It seems I was also oblivious to a show Emmett did at the Arcada in June 2012 with a full band; sorry I missed it but good video exists of "Magic Power" and "Fight the Good Fight.")

On this Saturday night, I didn't figure there would be an opening act, but upon seeing a cello and violin setup onstage along with an acoustic guitar, I realized I was wrong.

Being told the warmup band was called Classical Blast, I still didn't expect much, but we were treated to a delightful 50-minute set of prime cover songs with classical tinges.

In what may be the only time I knew every lyric sung by an opening act, Classical Blast performed U2's "Beautiful Day," R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion," The Cure's "Lovesong" Metallica's "Nothing Else Matters," Oasis' "Wonderwall," Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb," Supertramp's "Breakfast in America" and the end part of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," with a violin solo substituted for Jimmy Page's guitar solo.

Although back in the day, R.E.M. and the Cure may have been played on different stations than Triumph, the fans seemed to really enjoy the set, during which the singer/guitarist Daniel Kav was demonstrably gracious, saying "Success isn't having what you want, but wanting what you have," and that being onstage there and then was exactly what he wanted. (I notice via the Classical Blast website that the band also includes a bassist and drummer, not present at this acoustic gig.)

It soon became apparent that Emmett would not be performing solo nor completely acoustic.

Though seated for most of the performance, Emmett played an electric acoustic guitar and was joined by (as I now know) longtime sidemen Dave Dunlop on guitar and Steve Skingley on bass & keyboard.

In yet another unexpected occurrence, they opened with a song that often closed Triumph shows of old: "Fight the Good Fight."

At 60, Emmett's great voice has deepened a bit, but somewhat appealingly so, and he seemingly still has his full range. And as the next song, a Triumph instrumental--I think it was "Petite Etude" off Allied Forces--demonstrated, Rik Emmett is still a hell of a terrific, dextrous guitarist.

Another classic, "Lay it on the Line," was played before Emmett--quite amicable and engaging throughout--noted that "A Night of Triumph" was a bit of a marketing ploy.

But though a song written and sung by Dunlop ("Light of Day") was then played, and another one later ("Only Time Will Tell," with lyrics by Emmett), virtually all the songs on this night were either by Triumph or fully in the spirit of Triumph.

There were lovely instrumentals including "Midsummer's Daydream" off Thunder Seven, the fine album cut "Ordinary Man" from Allied Forces and even a cover of Joe Walsh's "Rocky Mountain Way," which was actually one of Triumph's earliest singles.

Only another solo Eagle cover, Don Henley's "The Boys of Summer," was truly beyond the Triumph terrain, and it was wonderfully played and sung.

Emmett and his mates were onstage for nearly 2 hours--the Arcada setting was just about perfect--and they satisfied throughout. Though Emmett was warm and gracious, saying he had "music to thank for giving me a lovely life" before delivering a sublime rendition of Triumph's trademark "Magic Power" that had most of the middle-aged crowd singing along like "young now, wild now" teenagers, he also chided those who brazenly shouted out song requests.

"I know it's hard to believe," Emmett said, "but I actually rehearse. And there's actually shit I would like to do."

But though Rik was completely right in championing his artistic vision and ignoring the small but all-too-vocal jackass contingent, he somewhat short-circuited his pledge to "get to most of those songs later."

After yet another fine, but a bit too long, instrumental preceded the main set closing "Magic Power," I was hoping for a couple more of Triumph's greatest hits for encores. Perhaps "Somebody's Out There," "Hold On" and/or "Follow Your Heart."

But Emmett opted for the more obscure "Suitcase Blues"--I didn't know it--off 1979's Just a Game, and then he, Dunlop and Skingley took their bows and left the stage for good.

So while all-in-all it was a highly enjoyable "Night of Triumph," for me the victory lap came up a tad short and thus the Skokie judge is deducting a 1/2@ (from what mostly felt like a @@@@1/2 performance).

Still, although unlike a woman in front of us, I was never compelled to hold up a Bic lighter--or even the lighter app on my iPhone--I won't apologize for delighting in a Triumphant blast from the past, or for finding great resonance in this final verse of "Magic Power":
The world is full of compromise, the infinite red tape 
But the music's got the magic, it's your one chance for escape 
So turn me on - turn me up - it's your turn to dream 
A little magic power makes it better than it seems
Here's a little "Magic Power," the only video I shot: 

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