The criticism that Foreigner has to face is much the same as that fielded by Journey and Boston: The current lineup touring under the classic band name bears little resemblance to the group of people responsible for recording the hits that created the brand in the first place.
At least Foreigner, unlike both Journey and Boston, didn’t find its new singer online. But still, guitarist Mick Jones is the only member who was in Foreigner prior to the 1990s, and guitarist/saxophonist Thom Gimbel is the only other one there prior to 2000.
Those sorts of wholesale changes will inevitably lead to some “glorified tribute band” claims that are tough to debate. In defense of Mick Jones, he has assembled a band that has retained the spirit of the original group. The fact that the first singer Lou Gramm isn’t in the act has as much to do with health issues as anything else, and former Hurricane frontman Kelly Hansen, who has taken over, does a great job. On bass is former Dokken- and Dio-man Jeff Pilson, and he’s been with Foreigner for thirteen years.
“I feel like we’ve made a lot of progress, and we have worked very hard to get ourselves back in a position where we’re where we are,” Pilson says. “Here we are headlining a fortieth anniversary tour, and I think that kind of capsulizes the success that we’ve had in all this time and in working toward this goal. I feel very, very good about it.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Pilson says that the current incarnation of Foreigner has received far less criticism than he would have expected. Naturally, he acknowledges that there are very few original members in the band and accepts that some people will have an issue with that.
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“Sure, you get some criticism, and that’s bound to be, but overall people have been extremely accepting of this band, and I think it’s because they know that we put out 150 percent every night, Kelly sings his heart out every day, and when they come to a Foreigner show, they’re gonna hear a lot of great songs,” Pilson says. “Really, the truth of the matter is, what is really the legacy of Foreigner is the music and the songs. As long as we do that with respect, which we do, I think we get a lot of credit for that. And for me, it’s been a very pleasant experience of acceptance from fans that I wasn’t even necessarily expecting.”
It helps to sooth matters when the one studio album that Pilson and Hansen have recorded with Foreigner, 2009’s Can’t Slow Down, is actually very good. Sure, there isn’t a “Juke Box Hero,” “Cold As Ice,” or “I Want to Know What Love Is” on it, but it’s a solid hard-rock album all the same.
“Listen, when Mick Jones is involved in something, he has very high standards, so chances are it’s not going to be a piece of crap,” says Pilson.
Still, it’s been eight years since that record, and there are currently no signs of a new full-length studio effort. The album before Can’t Slow Down was Mr. Moonlight in 1994, fifteen years earlier. The band has hardly been prolific in recent years, something Pilson blames on the current state of the record industry. After forty years in it, things are bound to have changed.
“I think the reality is in this day and age, it just doesn’t make sense to do full records anymore,” he says. “We did just come out with a record called 40, which does have a couple of new recordings on it. It makes more sense to do a couple of songs rather than a whole record now, because we tour all year round. That’s where the bread and butter of the business is, as opposed to years ago when you toured so people bought records. Now we make records so people come and see us when we tour. It’s exactly the opposite. When we did Can’t Slow Down, a lot of that had to be done on the road, and it was very difficult. I’m glad we did it — it was important that we made a statement, that we made a record with Kelly’s voice and all that, but it taught us that it really makes more sense to just do a couple of songs at a time, when we can, rather than forcing it and getting ourselves to do a whole record when it just doesn’t make sense anymore.”
Playing to the sort of crowds that Foreigner enjoys isn’t entirely new to Pilson, having performed around the world with both Dokken and Dio previously. He says that the experiences are comparable.
“It’s remarkably similar musically in that what we in Dokken patterned ourselves after were bands like Foreigner,” he says. “When Foreigner came out, it was a hard rock band with great songs and great singing. That’s essentially what we wanted to do with heavy metal. Every band is different as far as the structure of it goes and how it’s run. With Dokken, we were a democracy, which was great, but also it led to a lot of chaos and a lot of in-fighting. With Foreigner, because Mick is the leader, it’s really a question of following through on his vision. But the beautiful thing that Mick does is he allows us all to do what we do, and I think that’s why he chose us, because we honor his legacy but we also perform functions that he values. It’s not like he steps on anybody. Ronnie James Dio was a bit the same way.”
Fans at a show in Wantagh back in July were treated to a semi-reunion, when Gramm plus original members Ian McDonald and Al Greenwood joined Foreigner onstage for the encores. Of course, people want more and calls for a full reunion have been near-deafening. Pilson doesn’t know about that, but says the experience was a blast.
“Lou Gramm is my favorite rock voice of all time,” Pilson says. “He really is, and it was a thrill for me. He’s a wonderful person. We got together and rehearsed the day before. It was just a great atmosphere. You can really feel everybody appreciating and being excited about the fortieth anniversary. To have him part of it was really special. It meant a lot to me. I know it meant a lot to Mick. And Lou came out there and did his thing, and it was amazing. I was really pleased. We all got along great. I think we were all surprised at how smooth it went. It was very smooth. Let’s hope there’s more of that.”
On September 4, Foreigner brings the fortieth anniversary tour to Red Rocks. The bill includes Cheap Trick and Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience.
“You want to give them the most bang for the buck. I tell you, on this tour, we do,” says Pilson. “Jason comes out there and does almost an hour of an amazing set. I saw Zeppelin in ’72, and it really reminds me of that, which was at the peak of their powers. And then Cheap Trick come out, who are one of the greatest live bands on the planet. They were on Foreigner’s first headlining tour in 1978, so it’s coming full circle here, which is really great. I can’t express enough how proud of this package I am.”
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As for the Foreigner set, Pilson is full of confidence.
“I guarantee it’s the best show of this summer,” he says.
You can’t ask for more than that.
Foreigner, with Cheap Trick and the Jason Bonham Led Zeppelin Experience, 7 p.m., Monday, September 4, Red Rocks, 18300 West Alameda Parkway, Morrison, 720-865-2494.