Let’s talk about the art of the set list for a moment. Paramount to any rock band’s staging, as important as the stage plots, strobes, spandex, smoke and rotating video screens, is determining just what the band will play.
The “what” is nearly as important as the “how long,” and even the “how.”
So Aerosmith fired up the old V8 last night at MGM Grand Garden Arena and put on a frequently inspired but maddeningly gutted 90-minute show. You give the band allowances for its age -- Steven Tyler is 61, and Joe Perry is 59 -- but still, such icons as Springsteen and the E Street Band and Paul McCartney (and The Rolling Stones and several other major acts in their late 50s and 60s) manage to put on 2 1/2-hour shows without leaving out their signature songs. (Rush, an Aerosmith contemporary, plays for nearly three hours with an intermission and no opening act.)
But Aerosmith, boosted by special guest ZZ Top (more on these guys in a bit) and asking a top ticket price of $194, mostly cruised through the performance and left a lot off the table. Granted, it’s not easy figuring out what to play when you have so much to choose from -- you can’t sample from the entire buffet, as it were. A band with the catalog (which is rock speak for “songs”) and duration of Aerosmith obviously has scads of material from which to choose. This is a band that has been recording music on a somewhat regular basis since the Nixon administration. It spans the eras of LPs to Rock Band, 45s to iTunes. But you wonder what happens in these meetings as the songs the band will play on a given night:
“Alright, we’ve got ‘Cryin',’ ‘Walk This Way,’ ‘Last Child,’ ‘Love in an Elevator,’ ‘Livin’ on the Edge,’ ‘Sweet Emotion,’ Joe’s solo on ‘Combination,’ ‘Eat the Rich,’ ‘I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing,’ Joe’s contest against himself on "Guitar Hero" and a long solo by the backup bassist. Any questions?”
Yes, here’s one: Where’s “Dream On?”
Aerosmith played just long enough for most fans not to complain that the show was too short before a near-sellout of 11,700. They did not play “Dream On,” which, I would argue, is one of its five most recognizable songs and without a doubt one of its most important -- the first single from the band’s first album, 1973’s cleverly titled “Aerosmith.” I can understand shelving, say, the cover of “Come Together.” But no “Dream On?” I’m reminded of how Pat Benatar says she doesn’t play “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” because it deteriorates into a trite sing-along. So what? Some rock bands are built on trite sing-alongs. Sometimes you have to concede to the fans, those who first heard “Dream On” droning from the tinny factory-issued radio of a 1974 Mustang Fastback.
This was likely a game-time decision, as the band has played “Dream On” on other tour stops (including Dallas on Monday night). It also was reported in Thursday’s R-J, in an interview with none other than lead guitarist Joe Perry, that the band would play in its entirety what might be its best album, 1975’s “Toys in the Attic.” What was offered were two songs from that release, “Sweet Emotion” and “Walk This Way.” They didn’t even play the song “Toys in the Attic,” and brother, were fans confused. After the show, a guy seated behind me asked if the band had played “Toys in the Attic” all the way through -- as if he’d blacked out 50 minutes of concert performance. Later, I went through a quick list of what was not played: “Jaded,” "Angel," "Pink," "What It Takes," “Back in the Saddle,” "Amazing," "Crazy," "Same Old Song and Dance," “Janie’s Got a Gun,” “Just Push Play” and “Dude Looks Like a Lady.” The omissions could have filled the first album of a two-CD greatest-hits compilation.
As for the “how,” Tyler is, understandably, limited in his movement and even vocally these days. Giving Perry the mic, allowing for a curiously placed bass solo from David Hull (standing in for cancer survivor Tom Hamilton, recovering from what the band’s publicist describes as “non-invasive surgery”), playing a well-paced 90 minutes gives him time to rest his voice and increasingly fragile body. Tyler has suffered foot and leg injuries over the past couple of years and tore a muscle in his leg early in this tour. So even as he sings, “Yes, I’m movin’, I’m really movin’,” it’s evident he’s not movin’ like he used to.
But when Tyler takes center stage, still credibly clad in skin-tight leopard-patterned pants, the gold-splashed scarves on the mic stand flying and his hair fanned out like a lion’s mane, he’s every bit the rock star. Perry, too, is the model for a rock lead guitarist. In a rather sad sell-out moment, he did compete against himself in Guitar Hero -- during the encore, which would have a good spot for “Dream On” -- and said, “I’m tired of people telling me they kicked my ass on this game.”
For sure, if anyone knows how to kick ass, it’s Aerosmith. But last night, it was just a sparring session.
More from the show
Does it get any cooler than ZZ Top? The legendary trio, which remarkably dates to 1969, played for nearly an hour. They resurrected their unique brand of slow-motion choreography (the slight sway of the shoulders and occasional Elvis double-leg shake) and offered a heavy dose of “Eliminator.” As expected, and even while smoking cigars, they tore through “Sharp Dressed Man,” “Legs” and “Gimme All Your Lovin.’ ” They also dropped in “Cheap Sunglasses,” “Tush” and the Jimi Hendrix classic “Foxy Lady.” Billy Gibbons’ first band, Moving Sidewalks, opened for Hendrix in the late ’60s. … Speaking of set lists, why didn’t ZZ Top bust out its terrific version of “Viva Las Vegas?” … Slash, celebrating his 44th birthday (which was Thursday), showed up to jam, and the audience sang “Happy Birthday,” then the band performed "Mama Kin" off Aerosmith's debut album, with lead guitar duties handled by Slash … Give the green-jacketed MGM ushers credit for rapid response any time the fragrance of pot wafts through the air. Those people have remarkably keen noses. … Ever notice how Perry plays the guitar as if it weighs, like, 150 pounds? He sometimes seems like he’s about to topple over. Keith Richards does this, too, one of the many comparisons you can make between those two. Perry’s in great condition, though, a distinguished streak of gray shooting through his dark hair. He’s got a great guitar collection; my favorite was the clear, green-tinted six-string he broke out late in the set. … During “Walk This Way,” Tyler ducked behind a set of black curtains off to the side of the stage and pushed the mic toward a young woman, who helped him shout the chorus. The woman was his daughter Mia. … The triplet-babe violin trio Alizma attended the show. They never seem to appear individually, and I wonder what will happen the day I run into a single Alizma. I always call them “Alizma” collectively. Better learn the first names … Thought that went through my head during “Sweet Emotion,” “The first time I heard this was on eight-track!”
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