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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Cheap Trick Has Something Up Its Sleeve--Ex-Bassist Petersson

December 29, 1987|DUNCAN STRAUSS

"This is our first show with this four-piece band since 1980," Rick Nielsen announced early in Cheap Trick's concert Sunday at the Coach House, underlining the fact that original bassist Tom Petersson has rejoined the group.

Petersson's re-enlistment came as a surprise--but an entirely pleasant one for the fans and the band, judging by Sunday's show. Many people who flipped for such late-'70s classics as "In Color," "Heaven Tonight" and "Live at Budokan" are probably surprised to learn that Cheap Trick is even still around.

The huge audience the cartoonish quartet had engendered with those albums and constant touring certainly lost interest around 1980, about the time Petersson left--coincidence? After that, Cheap Trick began cranking out spotty LPs loaded with gnarly, heavy-handed stuff but light on the wit or melodic flair that once typified the band.

But Cheap Trick has continued making records, and the recent ones have actually contained some good, successful songs (the band scored a fairly sizable hit, for instance, with 1985's "Tonight It's You"). And the foursome kept on touring.

Those shows weren't pathetic exercises in feigned enthusiasm and moldy hits so common among rock's over-the-hill gangs. On stage, at least, Cheap Trick never projected any sense that it was tired or over the hill. The group always maintained its goofy dignity, perhaps feeling that the capriciousness of the music biz would once again work in its favor.

Sure enough, this rags-to-riches-to-rags tale may yet have another "riches" chapter, or at least take a large step up from the current state of "rags" (the Coach House is about one-thirtieth the size of the arenas Cheap Trick was headlining nine years ago).

Presumably because Petersson--and the ideal chemistry--was back, the band appeared to be rejuvenated, in top form and having a helluva lot of fun. Although a few tunes were a bit too metal-edged for their own good, mostly it was an evening of pure power pop for now people of all ages.

The 90-minute set represented all phases of the band's career, from decade-old gems, such as "I Want You to Want Me," to 1982's "If You Want My Love," to material from a new album that Nielsen said has already been recorded and will be released in late March.

And regardless of the vintage, most of the music sounded timeless. In the same way, it was great and entertaining--rather than stale and embarrassing--to see resident nerd/hotshot guitarist Nielsen still bounding all over the stage, still treating mugging as a high art, still doing more loopy things with guitar picks than you can shake a shtick at.

And his collection of guitars! He pulled out several instruments, including one with five necks and a double-necked one that was shaped and painted as a caricature of Nielsen, which may be redundant. (Considering how wonderfully visual Nielsen--and the band overall--is, it seemed odd that Cheap Trick refused to allow The Times to photograph the show.)

It's hard to know, of course, just what's going to happen next with Cheap Trick until the new album surfaces. But given Petersson's return, the talent in the band and the renewed vigor displayed Sunday, you would have to be a bigger nerd than Nielsen to bet against some kind of comeback.

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