It’s glorious. The curtain drops, and there they are. They look brighter than everything around them, and it’s not just the expertly planned-out light show that always highlights the exact right band member at the exact right moment. The light seems to emanate from within them. They don’t look real. And they sound so clean. It’s ridiculous. They’re not even playing one of their great songs; it’s “Let’s Go,” a single from the 2015 self-titled album that you could be forgiven for ignoring entirely. But with them right here, in front of you, it sounds grand and huge and world-annihilating. It’s a sign: We’re in good hands. Even when they’re committing the cardinal legacy-act sin of performing new songs — of opening with one of those new songs — they still sound bright and pretty enough to take the top of your head off.
Def Leppard are playing Charlottesville, Virginia. They’ve never been to the small Southern college town before — never once, in their 40-year history as a band — and yet they’ve packed out the local basketball arena. The University Of Virginia is plainly not ready for a crowd this big and this ready to party; the line to park goes back blocks and blocks, and drivers are cussing out attendants for forcing them to miss Tesla’s opening set. (I miss Tesla, too, because the sign says sometimes it’s OK to walk in late.) Inside, there are parents with kids. There are girls in pink frilly tutus and legwarmers and shirts that just say “The ’80s” on the front. There are grizzled biker types and there are ungrizzled middle-management types. There are AC/DC shirts and Guns N’ Roses shirts and Breaking Benjamin shirts. There is one highly excited five-foot muscleman who comes very, very close to beating up the security guard who tells him not to stand on his folding chair during “Rock Of Ages.” (That guard probably outweighs him by half, but it wouldn’t have been any contest at all. That tiny little man had blood in his eye, and if his girlfriend hadn’t pulled him away at the last possible second, there would’ve been a puddle of security guard being mopped up off of the arena floor.)
Def Leppard still look like Def Leppard. That’s the amazing thing. Bassist Rick Savage, the most outwardly charismatic member of the band onstage, even still has the hair, feathery and flowing. (He also has bright-white hi-tops and vinyl pants and a muscle shirt that comes down to his knees. He’s great at doing the thing where he runs across the enormous stage and arrives at his microphone at the exact moment that he has to deliver his backing vocals. A surprising amount of the time, he plays bass with one hand while blowing kisses to people in the audience with the other. I want to be his best friend.) Guitarist Phil Collen still has the exact same receding hairline that he had 30 years ago; somehow, it has receded that far and no further. He is also weirdly jacked, though his tiny shirt stays on for this entire show — a rare thing, judging by the live videos I’ve seen. Singer Joe Elliott keeps his slight paunch hidden under his vaguely Affliction-y T-shirt, but he still hits all his climactic high notes, something I certainly cannot say about Poison’s Bret Michaels.
Vivian Campbell, the band’s other guitarist, doesn’t look the same. With his angular face and stringy hair, he once looked like an overly excited young wizard, or maybe like Dr. Who if he’d somehow become a hesher. But Campbell’s been fighting Hodgkin’s lymphoma for the past few years, and so maybe that’s why he has short hair now, making him look like a slightly emaciated but still hale and healthy Bruce Springsteen. Campbell, formerly a member of both Dio and Whitesnake, is the new kid in Leppard, the only one who hasn’t been in the band since at least the early ’80s, but it’s been 25 years since he signed on. (Campbell replaced founding guitarist Steve Clarke, who drank himself to death in 1991.)
And maybe that’s the other amazing thing: Def Leppard are still Def Leppard. It’s pretty rare for a band to last through all these decades with only minimal turnover. For a band from Def Leppard’s glam-metal moment, it’s positively unheard of. (All four classic-lineup members of Poison are in the band now, but it took time and chaos and healing for them to get to the point where they could team up again.) Consider the case of drummer Rick Allen, who joined Leppard in 1978 and who lost his left arm after he crashed his Corvette while racing it on New Years Eve 1984. Allen stayed in the band when the rest of the band encouraged him to redesign his drum setup, building a whole high-tech kit around pedals and electronic triggers. The band ended up changing its entire sound, redesigning it around those enormous electronic drums, and that led them to putting together 1987’s Hysteria, an absolute masterpiece of immaculate, futuristic rock production. On the Charlottesville stage on Friday night, Allen takes a drum solo, as cameras on his kit let us in the crowd see, on the huge screen behind him, what his feet are doing, all the work that goes into a one-armed drummer playing a kickass solo. Allen gets what might be the biggest cheer of the night, and he looks overcome. It’s a real triumph-of-the-human-spirit moment.
Actually, the whole night is sort of a triumph-of-the-human-spirit moment. Considering probabilities and possible trajectories, Def Leppard shouldn’t still be here, shouldn’t be packing them in the arenas of America’s backwaters. Elliott tells the crowd over and over again that, if he’d known Charlottesville was going to get down like this, they would’ve been here a lot earlier. That’s a canned line, a Spinal Tap line, but I believe him. This crowd loses its shit for every moment of the set, new songs included. And if Leppard are surprised, well, so am I. But that doesn’t mean Leppard are taken off-guard. They belong here because they never stopped playing arenas — not in the grunge era that slightly overlapped with their commercial peak and not in the nu-metal or teenpop or Adele or EDM eras that followed. They’ve done a few things over the years to grab for attention: a single with Tim McGraw here, a CMT Crossroads special with Taylor Swift there. They licensed “Pour Some Sugar On Me” to the movie Rock Of Ages so that Tom Cruise could sing a frankly terrifying version of it. But they’ve continued to crank out big, clean, anthemic rock music, and their recent albums don’t represent that much of a decline. And more importantly, they’ve continued to tour tirelessly, playing their hits to crowds who are very, very happy to hear them. Which is more people than you might think.
Those people show up for nostalgia-related reasons, sure, but they also show up because these songs have always been great in a way that continues to transcend their original context. If you listen to Pyromania or Hysteria now, those albums don’t really sound like glam-metal. Their riffs are more sparkly and colossal than anything their big-haired peers were making. The production is too sharp and canny and experimental. Mutt Lange, the guy who produced both of those albums, had done AC/DC’s Back In Black and would go on to do some huge albums for his eventual wife (and then his eventual ex-wife) Shania Twain. On those records, Hysteria in particular, the band had found a monolithic groove that had something to do with both disco and Gary Glitter, while Lange layered on samples and laser-swooshes and weird sound effects. Musically, what Leppard were doing in the late ’80s was a lot closer to what Michael Jackson was doing than what, say, Mötley Crüe were doing.
And to hear those same guys recreating those same sounds, on a big bright stage in the year of our lord 2017, is a truly life-affirming spectacle. Savage sashays down the catwalk that goes out over the crowd, his hair somehow moving even though it’s not exactly blowing. Collen and Campbell trade off guitar solos, with spotlights slowly rising and falling on them alternately. Elliott disappears offstage and then suddenly shows up on a hydraulic riser behind the drums, a top hat having appeared on his head. Allen beams beatifically from behind his enormous kid, Union Jack headphones covering almost his entire head. It’s all just so beautiful.
Would that I could say the same thing about Poison, whose opening set is a cold reminder about the merciless march of time. Poison and I have a history. Their 1988 LP, Open Up And Say… Ahh!, was the first rock album I ever bought, unless Michael Jackson’s Bad counts, which it probably should. The band’s bold, bright party music, with its occasional lapses into cowboy melancholia on the power ballads, pretty much defined the way I thought rock bands were, at least while I was first starting to figure out what rock was. They weren’t as dangerous and Guns N’ Roses, but they seemed to have more fun, to have a better sense of how lucky they were to be making money doing this ridiculous thing. And while their music is unabashedly silly, it remains punchy and immediate and silly, in some profoundly rewarding ways. The riff on a song like “Nothin’ But A Good Time” is really just a slightly cleaned-up version of a Johnny Ramone or Johnny Thunders riff, and a hook like the one on “I Want Action” is as gloriously, stupidly horny as anything Slade ever gave us.
They still have those songs, but they don’t have much else. Bret Michaels continues to look the part. As someone who spent entirely too many hours watching Michaels’ mid-’00s VH1 dating show Rock Of Love — it should’ve been called The Trashelor — it’s fun to see that he hasn’t changed a single bit since then. He dresses the same: cowboy boots, embroidered jeans, sleeveless T-shirt of his own band, bedazzled cowboy hat. There’s a guy offstage whose job seems to be to throw Michaels his instruments mid-song — a harmonica, some maracas — and Michaels always catches them, and it always looks cool. (Michaels always throws his acoustic guitars to the same guy, and I only saw him drop one of them once.) But Michaels’ voice is shot. He can’t hit the same high notes that he once could, and he makes up for it by adding a superfluous “nyah” syllable-grunt onto the end of every line. As in: “You give me something to believe innnnn-nyah.” On the immortal sad-cowboy ballad “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” he gives up entirely and lets the crowd sing his chorus back at him. They probably do a better job.
Between songs, Michaels is somewhere on the midpoint between flamboyant good-guy pro-wrestler (I’m thinking Chris Jericho or the not-related Shawn Michaels) and approval-hungry toddler. He makes a big point out of dedicating “Something To Believe In” to our troops. He tells us, again and again, that he’s from Harrisburg, not too far north of here, and requests that some of us make the drive up to West Virginia for Sunday’s show. He tells us that it’s been a nonstop party ever since he showed up in Charlottesville a couple of days ago, which is frankly hard to picture. And he introduces every song by saying the name of his own band, almost like he’s a classic-rock radio DJ. As in: “We’re going to get into a little bit of Poison’s ‘Unskinny Bop.'” He overemphasizes the word “Poison,” like he only just learned how to say it. It’s weird.
As for the rest of the band: Guitarist CC DeVille, who spent a few years kicked out of the band and feuding with Michaels, has beautiful, flaxen blonde hair, like a horse. He plays a bunch of different guitars, and they’re all flying V’s. He starts out in a top hat and then moves to a more conservative fedora. He has on platform boots, and I’m pretty sure there are flames painted on them. Bassist Bobby Dall, who I always thought was the coolest-looking member of the band, now looks more like a working-class dad: Grey hair, scruffy beard, thick glasses, beanie. He’s skinny in a way that looks gristly, and I imagine Michaels getting snippy with him for not committing to the look anymore. Drummer Rikki Rockett now has a chin-strap beard, and he has women’s butts painted on both of his double-bass drum heads. Michaels introduces him as a “stage-four cancer fighter and survivor.” There’s a keyboard player over in the wings of the stage, too, but I can’t really see him. I’m not supposed to really see him.
So: two bands, both almost astonishingly huge in their mid-to-late-’80s heyday, both with bringing catalogs full of serious hits, both featuring at least one member fighting cancer. Both came from shitty little working-class towns — Sheffield and Harrisburg, respectively — and both escaped those towns. One band worked hard to become the epitome of Sunset Strip glam, while the other gave the Sunset Strip glam bands a commercial goal that most never even approached. One of the bands still brings it. The other doesn’t — doesn’t even come close, honestly — but remains fun to watch. A show like that would’ve packed a football stadium in 1987; it still packs a basketball arena 30 years later. There are better ways to spend a Friday night, I supposed, but there aren’t many.