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Night Ranger brings string of hits to Hogtoberfest

October 21, 2009

 Classic rockers to headline IceHogs pre-game party Oct. 23

By Jim Hagerty

Staff Writer

The ’80s was a decade of excess. Big cars, over-the-top action films and fat bank accounts were commonplace. It was only fitting that the flashy culture of the time be complemented with big musical sounds. Aside from Michael Jackson’s explosion of pop, the loudest voice came from rock-and-roll bands. Some arose with ax-shredding bad boys, while others championed their own sound and aimed to identify with the masses.

San Francisco’s Night Ranger, in the ’80s, was, by design, caught between hard rock and pop. Selling millions of records since 1982, the band is still packing venues and putting on shows with the same flair it brought to the party more than 25 years ago.

Night Ranger headlines this Friday’s (Oct. 23) Rockford IceHogs pre-game party, Hogtoberfest, outside the MetroCentre.

According to co-founder, guitarist Brad Gillis, Night Ranger has always been about the quality of its music and helping fans have fun. With songs like “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me” and “Sister Christian,” the band continues to enjoy success while a rash of its ’80s counterparts are, today, footnotes in the “remember when” files.

The band broke in the ’80s, but its music is every bit as relatable as it was when parachute pants and teased-up hairdos were the rage. Being known as an “’80s” band, however, doesn’t bother Gillis. After all, the decade provided a springboard for the band, one it used to leap into subsequent chapters of its history.

“The ’80s was a great time for music,” said Gillis. “It was a time when there was great songs with great guitar. People really had fun with music.”

Night Ranger’s history goes back to the band Rubicon, which had a No. 28 song, “I’m Gonna Take Care of Everything,” in 1978. When the band broke up, Gillis, drummer Kelly Keagy and bassist Jack Blades recruited keyboardist Alan Fitzgerald (Montrose, Gamma, Van Halen, Sammy Hagar) and guitarist Jeff Watson, which eventually became Night Ranger in 1982.

While it is still common for bands to chase exposure to get record deals, Night Ranger had other plans to attract record execs.

“We decided to work on making the album (Dawn Patrol) as strong as possible,” Gillis said. “When it was done, we wanted to come out with a big national release.”

Meantime, Gillis learned industry ropes from established veterans.

“I got a call and ended up joining Ozzy (Osbourne) after the late, great Randy Rhodes was killed,” Gillis said. “I toured for 11 months, and did an album, Speak of the Devil, which was all [Black] Sabbath material. At the time [age 24], I hadn’t really toured all that much. I did some short tours, but I really got to learn the road.”

Night Ranger’s first release, Dawn Patrol (1982), was an instant hit, spawning one of the band’s most recognizable singles, “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” which only charted as high as No. 40 on the U.S. Hot 100. A follow-up, “Sing Me Away,” didn’t chart. The strength of both singles, MTV exposure and radio play, however, helped define the band as a driving, melodic rock act with a bright future.

As MTV staked its claim as a legit music medium, 1983’s Midnight Madness hurled the band onto the world rock scene. The following year, Night Ranger was a headliner, playing around the world.

The anthem, “(You Can Still) Rock in America,” became a staple on early MTV playlists while songs like “Touch of Madness” and “Rumors in the Air” became live favorites. When the 1982-recorded “Sister Christian,” written and sung by drummer and vocalist Kelly Keagy, was released as a single in 1984, the band’s popularity, again, was given a significant boost. The song became one of the most recognizable tunes of the 1980s, and the band’s first top 10 (No. 5, U.S. Hot 100; No. 2, Mainstream Rock). Night Ranger cracked the top 10 again in 1985 with “Sentimental Street,” one of three singles from its third album, Seven Wishes.

After a successful run of five studio albums (Dawn Patrol, Midnight Madness, Seven Wishes, Big Life—which included the title track of the Michael J. Fox film, The Secret of My Success—and Man in Motion, without Fitzgerald), the members of Night Ranger went on to do other projects.

“We had a great run from ’82 to ’88,” Gillis said. “We were on the road constantly, then took breaks to do albums, which takes about two months. After that, we just decided to work on other things.”

Bassist/lead vocalist Jack Blades formed Damned Yankees with Tommy Shaw (Styx) and Ted Nugent, which released two successful albums in the early ’90s. Away from Night Ranger, Gillis released two solo albums and worked with Fiona, Derek Sherinan and Vicious Rumors. Without Watson, Blades and Fitzgerald, Gillis and Keagy also kept Night Ranger going, with 1995’s Feeding Off the Mojo with Gary Moon (Three Dog Night) replacing Blades.

As history would have it, bands that broke out in the ’80s were left in the shadow of a new sound that burst out of the Pacific Northwest. As soon as Nirvana released Nevermind, some bands disappeared from the scene. Seemingly gone were good-time lyrics, extended guitar solos and flashy stage shows that audiences had come to love, but were willing to leave behind for a while.

“When Nirvana came out,” Gillis explained, “lyrics were dark, and choruses took on new meanings.”

As bands like Nirvana and the “Seattle” sound influenced a new breed of bands, the straight-ahead rock that was shelved in the early ’90s was far from dead or played out. Tours and festivals like The Rock Never Stops and Rocklahoma continue to bring nostalgic concertgoers back to arenas and festivals in droves.

“My daughter is 18 years old,” Gillis said. “I ask her what T-shirts the kids are wearing and what a lot of them are listening to today. And she says, ‘AC/DC and Styx,’ bands their parents listen to. There has been huge resurgence in the music that came out of the ’80s.”

Cashing in on the resurgence, Night Ranger’s original line-up toured Japan in the mid-’90s and released Neverland in 1997, followed by Seven (1998) and Hole in the Sun (2008).

Today, the band tours regularly as a headliner and opens for groups it shared peak arena success with in the early days. Today, Night Ranger can be seen on the road with Journey, Styx and others. What has changed since the now-classic rockers started are the lengths of their tours, which simply don’t need to include extended periods away from home.

“We are enjoying life and having a great time,” Gillis charged. “We are weekend warriors now.”

Night Ranger, which now includes Chicago keyboardist Christian Cullen and guitarist Joel Hoekstra (Broadway’s Rock of Ages) is playing better than ever.

Aside from classic Night Ranger songs, a typical show includes some Damn Yankees hits and acoustic versions of classic cuts. Friday’s set will likely include both and something Gillis said he’s looking forward to playing.

Gillis explained: “We’ve been opening for Journey, and only doing about one-hour sets. Up there, we are going to do a full Night Ranger show, so it will be a great time.”

When asked if he ever gets tired of playing “Sister Christian” and others over and over, Gillis is quick to respond with the reason Night Ranger continues to make music.

“There is no feeling in the world,” he said, “like playing the first few notes of a song and have people go crazy. It never gets old. I never get tired of it.”

To date, Night Ranger has sold more than 16 million albums worldwide. The band can be found at www.nightranger.com.

Gates for Friday’s Hogtoberfest, on Elm Street next to the MetroCentre, open at 5 p.m. The Rockford IceHogs take on the Milwaukee Admirals at 7:05 p.m. Tickets are available at the MetroCentre Box Office and Rockford IceHogs headquarters inside CherryVale Mall. Tickets can also be purchased online at www.metrocentre.com or by calling (815) 968-5222.

From the October 21-27, 2009 issue

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