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Bands keep on rocking without key members. But is it still the same?

Mick Jones, founding member of the rock group Foreigner, is photographed at the Elgin Theatre rehearsal space on Feb. 5, 2018.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

At the turn of the 20th century, hawkers at baseball games would sell rosters to fans, crying out to them, "You can't tell the players without a scorecard."

One hundred and more years later, the old-fashioned peddler is needed again, this time at concerts by classic-rock bands whose lineups often bear little resemblance to their original rosters.

Next week, the veteran arena rockers Foreigner, continuing their 40th-anniversary tour, will play to fans in Toronto, Ottawa and Kingston in configurations that count only founder Mick Jones as an original member. When asked to justify touring of the band under the Foreigner banner, Jones, 73, makes a sports-world parallel. "People still go to see the New York Yankees, without all their players from the past, don't they?"

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So, Lou Gehrig no longer suits up for the Yankees, and Lou Gramm no longer sings for Foreigner. These days, band membership changes, but the music does not. To paraphrase Abbott and Costello: Who's the singer, I don't know is the guitarist, what's the bass player and I don't give a darn is on drums.

Old comedy routines aside, the question of authenticity is a legitimate one. Is the newly reformed Stone Temple Pilots genuine without late singer Scott Weiland? Can the Eagles fly without Glenn Frey? Peter Cetera is long gone from Chicago, Steve Walsh isn't in Kansas any more and Toto doesn't look the same as it used to either.

Jones, who spoke to The Globe and Mail while in Toronto recently to attend auditions for the upcoming Foreigner-based stage musical Jukebox Hero, admits that comparing a legacy band to a sports franchise is a "loose analogy." He's firm in his belief, though, that he has every right to tour as Foreigner, with or without any other original members.

"The group as it now is the best form of this band I've ever had," he says, referring to a lineup fronted by the talented but uncelebrated singer Kelly Hansen since 2005. "They're dedicated to bringing the band back to headline status. It's been blood and guts over 12 years to get back to that level, and I'm not going to throw it all away."

I want to know what Foreigner is

Foreigner was formed in 1976 by former Spooky Tooth songwriter and musician Jones, a Hampshire native. Some of the members were British, while others, including singer Gramm, were American. On the strength of hits Feels Like the First Time and Hot Blooded and slow-dance staples Waiting for a Girl Like You and I Want to Know What Love Is, Foreigner has sold more than 80 million records worldwide.

In 1980, a pair of original members were let go by Jones, and, in 1990, Gramm (dubbed by Rolling Stone magazine as the "Pavarotti of the power ballad") left for the first time. He came back two years later, but health issues caused him to leave again in 2003.

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Replacing a singer is a delicate operation. The voice of a band is deeply identified with its songs, which often contain lyrics written by the vocalist. Outfits past their prime tend to replace departed singers with anonymous sound-alikes. Journey's current singer, Arnel Pineda, was in a cover band when his YouTube videos were noticed by Journey guitarist Neal Schon. In 2007, the Filipino vocal clone of signature singer Steve Perry passed an audition, and he's been Don't Stop Believin' it ever since.

Likewise, the 2001 film Rock Star was loosely based on the experiences of Tim (Ripper) Owens, a Rob Halford imitator who replaced that singer in the metal-band legends Judas Priest in 1996. (Halford is now back with Judas Priest, which currently tours without long-time guitarists K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton, who recently announced he was suffering from Parkinson's disease.)

Van Halen, on the other hand, replaced its charismatic howler David Lee Roth with frontmen much different in style from the original. With the well-established singer-guitarist Sammy Hagar on board – and later with Extreme singer Gary Cherone – Van Halen became a supergroup of sorts. (Roth would eventually return to the band.)

Asked about replacing Gramm, Jones says that while he wanted to avoid hiring a karaoke artist – "I wanted someone who was able to interpret the songs properly and gradually be able to carve their identity out too" – he recognized the need for a familiar vocal sound. "The audience wants to get that chill they had when they first heard the songs."

Have audience, will tour

Fan favourites such as Foreigner, Journey, Boston, Kansas, Chicago, Eagles and Styx (who tour with moonlight-desiring Canadian singer-keyboardist Lawrence Gowan) no longer record albums with the regularity they once did. What they do is hit the road relentlessly, often in packs. Chicago will co-headline a tour this summer with REO Speedwagon. Journey will do the same with Def Leppard, as will Steely Dan with the Doobie Brothers.

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Concert promoters are tasked with presenting the band as the real deal, even when acts are nothing more than glorified tribute bands. Without Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman, the Guess Who plays in clubs, to audiences happy to hear the familiar songs even if the faces on stage are unrecognizable.

Promoter Elliott Lefko, a Canadian with California-based live-music giants Goldenvoice, is of two minds when it comes to bands carrying on without key members.

"Personally, as a fan, it's definitely not the same thing. For me it's a little disappointing if I see a group like that."

But Lefko and other promoters live by the adage that one books with one's head, not the heart. The demand is heavy for music from the past. And if the bands grow old, nostalgia never does.

Don Fagen will tour Steely Dan this summer despite the death last year of band co-founder Walter Becker. What Fagen sang on Reelin' in the Years in 1972 has taken on a wistful resonance that can now be applied to a classic-rock generation: "Your everlasting summer, you can see it fading fast/ So you grab a piece of something, that you think is gonna last."

If Lefko is a bit cynical as a fan when it comes to faceless bands, as a promoter he is a realist and, as a human being, he is not without sympathy. "Musicians have to make a living, and the audiences are so hungry to see groups that maybe they don't need to see the original lead singer any more. Who am I to begrudge them?"

Growing Up the Hard Way

Chicago, the long-running, self-described "rock band with horns," changed its lineup recently. Among the new faces is Neil Donell, a high-voiced Torontonian from the Chicago tribute band Brass Transit.

Replacing a long line of tenor-singing bass players that began with Peter Cetera, Donell handles lead vocals on 25 or 6 to 4 and ballads If You Leave Me Now, You're My Inspiration and Baby, What a Big Surprise. (Baritone hits such as Saturday in the Park are still sung by keyboardist Robert Lamm, one of the band's original members.)

What Donell doesn't do is play bass, which was a problem in 2015 when he first auditioned (on the strength of YouTube videos) for the band. While Chicago management and founding members loved Donell's voice, they voted against hiring a stand-alone singer.

Still, Donell, a long-time fan of the band, kept in touch with management and even guested with Chicago when it played Canadian shows. And when the band decided to make a change again recently, Donell was offered a job.

"I think they came to the realization that it was the music that counted," Donell told The Globe earlier this month. "The look or the presentation didn't matter. They knew I could deliver the sound and interpretation that could work."

If the band accepted him with open arms, Donell admits that shade has been thrown his way by fans. "People don't like change. If you replace an iconic voice, some people are not going to be happy with it. But that goes with the turf."

Generally, though, history has proven that it is the songs and sounds that matter, not the singer. Chicago's hits stretch back to the turn of the 1970s, and when the veteran band asks the question Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?, the fans neither know nor care, just as long as the music takes them back to another era of their lives.

On the ongoing Foreigner tour, some original members (including Gramm) have been brought back for select shows. But, on other dates, especially corporate gigs, the leader and lone remaining member takes the night off, making Foreigner a band of strangers to some audience members.

That leader doesn't think it matters. "If you go out and present the quality, it comes from me," says Jones, Foreigner's architect and (with Gramm) chief songwriter. "I know how to get this band sounding the way it does and the way it should. They bring the house down, and, I hate to say it, they can do it without me."

Foreigner plays Toronto's Sony Centre, March 22; Ottawa's TD Place Arena, March 23; Kingston's Rogers K-Rock Centre, March 24 (

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