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No Cheap Trick: Why the time is always right for nostalgia rock

Time keeps on slippin', slippin', slippin', into the past.

In the last two days, I have seen online articles promoted on Twitter with accompanying photos that harkened back, for no appropriate reason, to the past. An ESPN feature on baseball road trips used a black-and-white image of an old Buick pulling a vintage Gulf Stream trailer. A Paste piece on cross-country adventures featured a wood-panelled station wagon straight out of the space age. So, nostalgia was being employed, as if a trip to what already was is preferable to the now or the future.

Speaking of journeys to the past, at the Molson Amphitheatre last week, the high-voiced heavy melodicism and swooning balladry of Journey was on display. A veteran arena rock band whose seventies albums were titled Look into the Future, Next, Infinity and Evolution, the San Francisco band hit its sales-peak stride in the early eighties. Original vocalist Steve Perry left in the mid-nineties, with Arnel Pineda, a Filipino knockoff of Perry, handling the sky-scraping vocals since 2008. Pineda, at the amphitheatre, crooned about summer nights, open arms and a wheel in the sky – "don't know where I'll be tomorrow."

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Opening act the Steve Miller Band, whose riff-and-blues-based classics have aged better than the schmaltz and squeal of Journey, may not know about tomorrow either. But the white-haired Miller did know where he had been: Phoenix, Tacoma, Philadelphia, Atlanta and L.A., if the rapturously received Rockin' Me from 1976 was any indication. (Miller's tour itinerary back then was crazily conceived, judging by the geography of the lyrics.)

On the hypnotic Fly Like an Eagle, Miller sang about time slipping into the future. I sensed none of that; his audience was on a retreat – a slip back to home, youth and summer. Fly like an eagle, maybe, but back to the nest.

This year Molson Amphitheatre, a likeable waterside summer shed owned by concert promoter Live Nation, celebrates its 20th anniversary. Upcoming rewinders at the venue include Goo Goo Dolls, Soundgarden, Lionel Richie, Kiss, Def Leppard and the promised final go-around of Motley Crue, a hair-metal house call complete with unsubstantiated Dr. Feelgood claims. Also appearing, as usual, are the adored Canadian country-rock pros Blue Rodeo, a lovely bunch of fellows who make being lost together seem so appealing.

Earlier this week at the amphitheatre, legacy acts Cheap Trick and Boston happened on a well-muscled double bill. The Trick, with its original membership mostly intact (drummer Bun. E. Carlos is estranged from the band), has kept up appearances better than most of its arena-rock peers. Their power-pop status is secure with younger musicians, in 2009 they landed the theme song to the Transformer 2 film, and on stage they perform at their original fighting weight – still tightly muscled, but with an even greasier, glammier and grimier approach than I recall. At Molson, guitarist Rick Nielsen (daddy) was all right, singer Robin Zander (mommy) was all right, and they both seemed the best kind of weird. An audience in their 40s and 50s cheered at an anthem loudly, confident that while they may have given parts of themselves away over the years, they had never surrendered out right.

As for Boston – mastermind composer-keyboardist-guitarist and sonic technician Tom Scholz and whomever he surrounds himself with; original singer Bradley Delp died by suicide in 2007 – its epic guitar and keyboard symphony was as perfectly received as its quaint philosophy. They implored with Don't Look Back, but earlier in the set, when they sang about paying dues and people living in competition and the future "coming much too slow," it would have been easy for some of the throng to reach to the summers of the mid-1970s for some of Boston's Peace of Mind, "take a look ahead" notwithstanding.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with music evoking nostalgia, but there are more progressive ways to achieve it than simple jukebox revelry and yearbook yearning. William Tyler, a young, gifted guitarist and southerner who makes circular, cosmic instrumental-folk music, recently posted a podcast on Soundcloud, in which he mused and played music on the theme of "noise, nostalgia and radio." He talked about composer Charles Ives's use of sound to evoke memories as he interpreted the America of his youth. He played Joe South's wistful country-jangled 1969 hit Don't It Make You Want to Go Home?, with its despondent message about rivers that no longer flowed as they had in one's childhood.

South's biggest hit, of course, was Games People Play. And don't they ever.

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Tyler's latest EP release Lost Colony – the title is inspired by a vanished North Carolina settlement in the 16th century – includes a version of his We Can't Go Home Again, an eloquent jam and serene steel-guitar adventure. I have a feeling Tyler listens more to Thomas Wolfe and his ideas on the limits of the re-attainable past, than, say, Journey's romance with distant summer nights and loves.

Journey's career was rejuvenated by the popularity of Glee's cheery take on the already insanely upbeat power ballad Don't Stop Believin'. The song was the penultimate one performed by Journey at the amphitheatre. I watched the crowd unsmilingly stream out after the song ended (in a shower of confetti tossed by cannons positioned around the venue.). I couldn't help feel that some of the middle-aged audience no longer believed in the journey. Indeed, if they did, they wouldn't have been there in the first place.

Editor's note

A photo caption on an earlier version of this article stated that Cheap Trick performed the song Don't Stop Believin'. In fact, the band Journey performed this song.

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