The road that Journey has taken since the band’s beginning in 1973 has had a few speed bumps along the way, but today they are cruising on a super highway that is not unlike the eastern span of the newly re-opened San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge. Arguably one of the top five rock bands to emerge from San Francisco, on a typical tour the band would play both the Concord Pavilion and Shoreline Amphitheater in the same week, and sell out both venues. But this time around, Journey played one night: at the relatively intimate (9,000 seats) America’s Cup Pavilion on the docks of the San Francisco Bay.
What an incredible place to stage a concert! The temporary America’s Cup Pavilion was constructed on Piers 27-29 so racing fans could gather to watch the world’s most famous yachting races, but it has also been in use by Live Nation since June for concerts, comedy, and other entertainment. It will all be dismantled by the end of October.
The cool fall evening started off with Tower of Power, another Bay Area band that has had a long history. Emilio Castillo and Doc Kupka, two of the original horn players from the band’s beginning in 1968, are still going strong. The 10-piece band has been fronted since 1999 by lead singer Larry Braggs, who is nothing short of exceptional. The place came alive when the band played a string of their hits, including “You’re Still a Young Man,” “Down to the Nightclub,” “What is Hip,” and “So Very Hard to Go.” In the middle of the set, the sharp dressed Braggs broke into a great James Brown medley, which kicked some serious booty.
The sold-out crowd was on their feet as Journey took the stage with “Separate Ways,” which then segued into “Anyway You Want It.” The band still has the fire in their hearts, and you could tell that being back home in the City was special for guitarist Neal Schon, keyboardist Jonathan Cain, bass player Ross Valory, drummer Deen Castronovo, and lead singer Arnel Pineda. Arnel has been with the band since 2007. He has the voice of Steve Perry, but he brings unbridled energy and a personality that is uniquely his. I forgot about the Steve Perry comparison after the first song. “San Francisco is the best city in the world,” said Neal Schon. “I love it here, I love playing here, and I grew up here, so how can you get better than that?”
Journey has been around for so long now that there was a multi-generational thing going on this night, with mothers attending with their daughters, who had grown up listening to Mom sing along to the band’s power ballads throughout their childhoods. There were also plenty of kids who had caught the Journey bug during the San Francisco Giants’ recent two World Series wins, and hearing the team’s unofficial theme song, “Don’t Stop Believin’” at every home game.
The younger Journey fans probably don’t know the story of Neal Schon, then a 15-year-old guitar phenom from San Mateo, who was invited to join two iconic rock bands: Eric Clapton’s group during the Derek & the Dominos period, and Carlos Santana’s band. Neal chose Santana, so he would be closer to home when he wasn’t on tour…and besides, Santana called him first. After Santana closed the legendary concert venue Fillmore West in 1971, Neal and his Santana bandmate, singer/keyboardist Gregg Rolie, decided to form their own band. That turned out to be the first incarnation of Journey.
Schon’s guitar playing has always been second to none, and he is in the same league as Jeff Beck, Pete Townshend, Jimmy Page, Clapton, and Santana. He can play it all, but he knows that when he’s playing with Journey, he has an obligation to play the classic rock versions of the band’s long song list of hit music. Still, he’ll throw in some surprises. That night, he treated the audience to a blistering version of the national anthem.
Jonathan Cain’s keyboard playing and vocal harmonies are nothing short of gorgeous. The crowd itself was at full vocal throttle, singing along with the band to the ballads “Open Arms” and “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Cain’s intros to these songs and others were improvisational and beautiful.
Journey’s bass player Ross Valory has been there from the beginning, except for a short period of time when Randy Jackson (of American Idol fame) filled in. Ross’s big bad bass playing and the wacky faces he makes have a distinct personality of their own.
Drummer Deen Castronovo joined Journey in 2001 for the recording of Arrival. An alumni of the band Bad English (along with Jonathan Cain), Deen’s stomping drums are a major part of the band’s strength.
Journey is still selling out concert venues all over the world. A lot of the credit for that has to go to Neal Schon, who relentlessly searched for a new lead singer when Steve Perry bowed out of the band. He found Filipino singer Arnel Pineta on YouTube in 2007, and the rest is Journey history. A great 90-minute documentary, Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey, tells how the band found a guy on the other side of the planet who would end up taking Journey to new heights.
At the end of the night, Jonathan Cain dedicated the band’s last song to Oracle Team USA who made a spectacular come back to defeat Emirates Team New Zealand a week later to retain the America’s Cup for the United States.
Journey Set List, America’s Cup Pavilion, San Francisco, CA. September 16, 2013