Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff
Cheap Trick, Def Leppard, and Journey: three popular, populist arena acts who took turns between 1979 and 1988 ruling the radio. Despite their aesthetic differences, it was that shared classic-rock pedigree that made them such natural tourmates for the three-ring circus at Fenway Park Saturday night.
Cheap Trick’s opening set delivered stadium-size thrills at a club-size scale. Their über-catchy brand of power pop bridged the gap between hard rock and New Wave in the late ’70s, and decades of tireless touring have given the band members the confidence of seasoned pros without robbing them of their enthusiasm. Beloved hits, lesser-known but still excellent singles like “Never Had a Lot to Lose,” even the new songs that remained firmly in Cheap Trick’s wheelhouse — all mere fuel for their rock machine. Robin Zander exuded star charisma without making a big deal of it, while Rick Nielsen uncorked fleet-fingered solos on a multitude of goofy-looking guitars, including his signature five-neck.
Thinking critically about Def Leppard is like thinking critically about a good beer buzz or getting double-jumped on a trampoline; with pleasures this primal, what’s there to think about? As they proved with the massive opening salvo of “Rocket” and “Animal,” no one cranks rock ’n’ roll up to cartoonish proportions quite like these lads (certainly, the scads of ’80s glam-metal bands they spawned couldn’t). That meant power ballads that didn’t skimp on the power, rock songs about the awesomeness of rock, and, in Joe Elliott, a singer who sold it all without a hint of irony or self-consciousness.
The band wasn’t incapable of restraint, playing it cool with a minimal cover of David Essex’s “Rock On” and the cheeky strut of “Man Enough.” They even struck a surprisingly affecting note with the wistful “Hysteria,” accompanied by a slideshow from their big-hair heyday. It was the trifecta of “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” “Rock of Ages,” and “Photograph,” however, that reaffirmed Def Leppard’s divine purpose: heavy metal as the ultimate party music.
After all that, Journey’s set couldn’t help but feel a bit anticlimactic. “New” singer Arnel Pineda (he joined in 2007) certainly tried his best, jumping and spinning around with the exuberance of someone who still can’t believe he gets to sing in his favorite band. Filling Steve Perry’s shoes is no small feat, but Pineda nailed the soaring, anthemic melodies that elevated “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)” and “Open Arms” above the corporate-rock competition.
Eventually, the generic uplift of Journey’s lesser material began to grate, like a particularly unconvincing motivational speaker. More irritating was how, seemingly every time the band started cooking, a lengthy, indulgent instrumental solo would thoroughly kill the momentum. Of course, whenever that happened, they could just pull an “Any Way You Want It” or “Wheel in the Sky” from their bag of hits and keep on truckin’. After the confetti-cannon-punctuated grand finale of “Don’t Stop Believin’,” which is still one of our nation’s most beloved songs, whether you like it or not, the credits rolled (literally — Journey concerts have their own credits) on a long but ultimately satisfying night.
CHEAP TRICK, DEF LEPPARD, AND JOURNEY
At Fenway Park, Saturday
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