Journey is still measured by Infinity, Evolution, Departure, and Escape, the albums that made the band stars between 1978 and 1981. The hit singles, the lengthy tour schedules, even the albums’ iconic galactic scarab artwork combined to make the San Francisco group legitimate arena rock superstars in an era of emerging FM radio and increasing acceptance of pop crossover. Hawk-faced vocalist Steve Perry split after 1986’s Raised on Radio, of course, barring the faulty 1996 comeback Trial by Fire. And while Journey continued under the guidance of founder and lead guitarist Neil Schon, it’s their string of can’t-miss hits on the cusp of two decades that still define the group’s legacy. Well, the band’s legacy, anyway. As their July 24 performance at DTE Energy Music Theatre proved, Journey’s music runs deeper for a lot of people. Moments and memories figure in. But the band’s best songs seem to inspire social harmony, at least for three minutes.
These days, Journey tours regularly with Perry stand-in Steve Augeri, and it works because he’s been accepted by the group’s thriving contingent of diehards, but also sounds enough like his predecessor to keep casual fans sated. However, this summer there’s a new kid in town. With Augeri sidelined by illness, Journey’s latest shed tour features Jeff Scott Soto, whose credits include a stint in Yngwie Malmsteen’s band as well as something called Humanimal. (Not be confused with the short-lived 1983 TV series “Manimal.”) Soto is a really strong vocalist, so instead of struggling to emulate Perry’s laser-beam vibrato, he can get away with a style that mixes grainy power with effortless key changes.
Before the show at DTE, small groups in the parking area competed with wattage and open hatchbacks in a friendly game of “Who’s the Bigger Journey Fan?” They created a medley of classic rock staples that accompanied the amble to the front gate, but that’s where nostalgia largely ended. Memories are nice, from Gran Torino makeout sessions to roach clips and high school slow dances. But while Journey’s big hits still bring down the house, it wasn’t the conquests of 25 years ago that made a burly dude in prison tats hug a perfect stranger to the sound of “Stone in Love.”
From a wound-tight “Any Way You Want It” to the sing-along “Lights,” a rumbling “Wheel in the Sky,” and soaring “Separate Ways,” Journey and Soto came to play. But it was the crowd’s reaction to these durable radio hits that became the real story. It wasn’t nostalgia or worse, irony, that brought a sold-out crowd to its feet for the ballad “Open Arms.” No one was singing along at the top of his or her lungs, eyes squeezed shut and fists upraised, because someone on a blog wrote that liking Journey is suddenly cool again. No one commanded 15,000 people to simultaneously perform a textbook fill on their air-drums during the pre-chorus of “Wheel in The Sky.” And no one could have predicted the stunning sense of emotion that swept upwards from the stage, through the pavilion, and out onto the lawn during the ballads. From “Open Arms” to “Faithfully,” it was as if the switch everyone has nowadays, that switch that turns off empathy, community, or even humanity in a rabid quest for self-preservation, suddenly shorted out. The jail tat guy’s ham steak arms engulfed the middle-aged Tiger fan standing next to him. Teenagers screamed Journey lyrics into the sky, swaying with arms entwined. Lank-haired women looked into the eyes of uptight corporate outing jowl enthusiasts. It was blissful mayhem, and Journey — not nostalgia — made it happen.
Earlier that evening, during an opening set that included a few lesser-known jams — deep cuts the biggest fans always hope for — a guy stood alone in a long curve of empty pavilion seats. He wore black Nikes, black jeans, and black tour T-shirt tucked into his braided black belt. His haircut was uneven, like he might have done it himself, and his moustache wasn’t grown as a result of having read a trend forecast. This guy was a Journey fan, and he was hearing the real thing, Soto and all. His shoes were close together as he bent at 35 degrees, wailing away frantically on an air guitar, his fingers frantically emulating Schon’s fretwork in a mix of concentration and release. It was current for him, as now as it had always been. He was un-ironic, un-nostalgic, and completely unworried about what anyone in the quickly-filling pavilion thought of him. He was the coolest guy there, and he was in harmony.