Poison & Cheap Trick In Las Vegas
Let’s rewind to 1986. Upon arrival, a few unassailable truths would still be waiting for us as we unwrapped Poison’s Look What the Cat Dragged In cassette and heard “Cry Tough”. For one, none of us young teens would have thought, hey, this song just lifted the opening from The Ronette’s “Be My Baby”. Back then, we couldn’t access millions of songs with our phones and we weren’t spending hours reading snarky music blogs that demystified each new rock-n-roll album by highlighting the various pieces of DNA that it consisted of. Rather, Poison was an explosion of absurd color and irresistible pop song craft that blew our collective minds. Oh, and Cheap Trick sucked.
I had been a teenager for all of six months when Look What the Cat Dragged In, so for better or worse, the album represents my coming of age as a music obsessed teenager. For those of us in that micro-generation of kids who discovered music via MTV and didn’t have an older sibling to open a door into the music of the 1970s, Cheap Trick was a non-entity in 1986. They had just released their worst album, The Doctor, which works best as a thesis statement on why certain rock bands should never be allowed access to a synthesizer. Loverboy, on their worst day, sounded better than anything on The Doctor. In 1988, we begrudgingly tipped our hat to them when “The Flame” became their first #1 single even though it seemed a lot like “Eternal Flame” by The Bangles. If someone had told me that Cheap Trick and Poison would someday tour together, I would have thought you insane. But here we are on a Saturday night in Las Vegas.
Pop Evil opened the evening with a no frills approach to modern rock. Drummer Hayley Cramer beat the living shit out of her kit and the band kept up admirably. Sadly, I could not determine if the name meant they intended to “burst evil” or if pop was evil which would seem ironic for a tour with two of the most popular bands in classic rock history. By the time I came to no conclusion, the short set was over and the crowd was inching forward to witness rock royalty.
From 1977 to 1979, Cheap Trick released four of the best power-pop rock albums in music history and tossed in one of the most famous live albums of all time for good measure. The missteps of the 80s might have tarnished their crowns at the time but anyone who has listened to their early material knows that they are the quintessential American rock-n-roll band. Rick Nielsen might not jump as high with his guitar and Robin Zander’s voice has lost some range but the band still possesses the energy and songs to blow just about anyone off the stage.
While the two aforementioned gentlemen will always be the heart of Cheap Trick, bassist Tom Petersson provided one of the night’s musical peaks with a bass solo on his legendary 12-string that gave rise to a wonderfully loose cover of “Waiting For the Man” from The Velvet Underground. Pulling from all corners of the American
songbook, Cheap Trick delivered their trademark covers of Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame” and Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel” before delivering the knockout with a blistering run of “I Want You to Want Me”, “Dream Police”, and “Surrender”. For the once-young Poison fans who didn’t “get” Cheap Trick when Poison ruled the world, it was a master class in the art of rock-n-roll concerts.
If knowing your audience is the key to success, it is little wonder why Poison can continue to sell out venues across America. Keeping the set list lean, the band pulled from their three biggest albums and focused on the hits. As always, “Look What the Cat Dragged In” kicked off the party as a healthy looking Bret Michaels worked the catwalk in front of the stage while an impeccably dressed C.C. DeVille reveled in the slutty distortion that made it one of the high points of the glam metal era. Recorded for under $25,000, Look What the Cat Dragged In was the sort of album the 1990s were supposed to bury but Poison’s blue-collar work ethic has always defied expectations. They continue to outwork their contemporaries and the longevity of the band is their just reward.
The ideological differences between Cheap Trick and Poison, as well as the two decades they ruled, came into focus early in Poison’s set. The raunchy rocker “I Want Action” pretty much sums up the ethos of the Sunset Strip in the 1980s. Forget wanting to be wanted like Cheap Trick (who offer to shine their shoes and wear a brand new shirt), Poison are “not looking for a love that lasts.” The sinister undertones of a line like “I won’t give up until they give in” would be far more concerning if delivered by W.A.S.P. or even Motley Cure. Bret Michaels has always been a heart-on-his-sleeve lover that women flock to and feel safe around. You could take him home to mom even when he had better make-up than your sister. That is one of the secrets to the bands continued to success.
“Ride the Wind”, the motorcycle anthem that made it cool for guys in leather to finally admit that Poison rocks, follows “I Want Action” and the band sounded stronger than they have in quite some time. All four guys are full of smiles and appear thrilled to be headlining a tour together again. The VIP pit, full of veterans and guys in leather vests, were cheering just as loud as their girlfriends as Michaels delivered a barrage of high fives. Few performers have the earnestness of Michaels and his genuine appreciation for the fans would verge on corny if it wasn’t so authentic. No matter how many times he told the crowd they are awesome, it came straight from his heart.
Michaels carefully steered clear of taking a political stance while introducing “Something To Believe In” which feels profoundly relevant in 2018. Who knew Poison were so ahead of the times with dissecting the political climate to come. The only clunker of the night was the Loggins & Messina cover of “Your Mama Don’t Dance” which has always felt slightly inferior to Motley Crue’s equally uninspired cover of “Smoking In the Boys Room”. As someone who still listens to entire Poison albums, it seems like the band could swap that for a deeper cut each night which would give the most loyal fans a bolt of joy (I’m requesting “Let Me Go the Show” if you’re listening Bret).
Perhaps it would be impossible to ever match charisma and star-power of Michaels and DeVille but the Poison rhythm section shines bright. Rikki Rockett’s showmanship offers a show in itself and a very relaxed Bobby Dall seems to be having a lot of fun taking in the crowd’s reaction all these years later. The hits continue to flow with “Talk Dirty to Me”, “Unskinny Bop”, and Nothin’ But a Good Time” as well as the ultimate hair ballad “Every Rose Has It’s Thorn”. Pound for pound, it would be hard to find a 80s rock band that can match the amount of memorable hits Poison unleashed on the world.
By the time Poison wrap up their 80 minute set, the band has done the unthinkable and played their way into the discussion as one of the definitive American rock-n-roll outfits. We may resist Poison embodying what it means to be an American rock band but they didn’t fall from the sky in a spaceship fueled by Aqua Net. Their image and their attitude were exactly what we wanted from a rock-n-roll band in 1986 and judging by the sold-out audience, we still want C.C. to pick up that guitar and talk to us.