Pronto Pups? Check. Cheese curds? Check. Rock bands that were on the radio during the Carter and Reagan administrations? Triple check.
The Minnesota State Fair’s grandstand concerts kicked off in classic classic-rock fashion Thursday. Def Leppard, Styx and Tesla together added up to the first of the grandstand’s three sold-out concerts. And like the Midway, Coliseum and Space Tower, all three bands’ live acts haven’t changed much in at least three decades.
Opener Tesla had fans partying like it was 1984 from the get-go with its hits “Little Suzi” and “Love Song.” Scarecrow-looking Tesla singer Jeff Keith gave a perfectly Jeff Spicoli-like rah-rah speech to kick off the festivities, too.
“Everything is cool, bitchin’ and outta sight in Minnesota tonight,” he yelled.
Styx was … just so Styxy. The Chicago-reared ’70s prog-rockers turned power-balladeers piled on the corny rock-starry gestures and theatrical drama of songs like “The Grand Illusion” and “Renegade” as if they were Michelangelo showing off the Sistine Chapel.
Singer/keyboardist Lawrence Gowan, who filled the large vacancy left by Dennis DeYoung in 1999, especially proved insufferable Thursday. He pranced around the stage like the star of the band, then he sat down and delivered a melodramatic, piano-bar-ready medley of “Piano Man” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The only way to make the moment any cheesier, of course, was to then launch into “Lady.”
Def Leppard’s set was actually reminiscent of Depeche Mode’s commanding performance at the grandstand two summers ago, and not just because of the plethora of leather pants and plucked, greased-up bared chests. Both of the (otherwise dissimilar) bands lived up to the visual appeal of their MTV heydays without all the ozone-depleting hair spray and gloss of that era, and both did their songs justice without the slick production of those old records.
Always a band that had spotty success living up to the mega-slick, big-chorus vocals on its albums, the Def jammers fared OK in that department Thursday, with frontman Joe Elliott decently nearing the key high notes. And anyway, they could have unplugged all the mics during songs like “Animal” and “Love Bites” (early in the set) or “Photograph” and “Rock of Ages,” and the 13,000 fans’ voices would have filled in just fine.
Already a band known for its resiliency — drummer Rick Allen lost his arm in a car wreck in 1985, and guitarist Steve Clark died of alcoholism in 1991 — Def Leppard’s usual show of strength was buoyed greatly this time out by Clark’s replacement, Vivian Campbell. The guitarist, 53, is on tour despite being in remission from Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Campbell looked and sounded like a true rock star Thursday, his long curly locks shorn but his smile sticking to him like the scarf around his neck. The sentimental high point came as the crowd gave him a big, hearty cheer when Elliott introduced him to kick off “Armageddon It” — a little Minnesota Nice to kick off the Great Minnesota Get-Together.