- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 30, 2004

When Neal Schon was just a teenager, he became a guitarist with the iconic rock band Santana. Today, he’s 50, and for most of the intervening years, has been lead guitarist for Journey, a group that’s never come close to achieving Santana’s critical acclaim.

Peaking at such a young age has turned great men mad. In Mr. Schon’s case, though, it just marred Journey’s otherwise enjoyable show Monday night at Wolf Trap.

Journey, in the perceptive words of one writer, is “somewhere between hard pop and light metal… defiant without the implied danger of nihilism or punk.”

Indeed, relationships provide the foundation for countless Journey tunes (six song titles on the “Essential” album include the word “love”). Optimistic, feel-good rock supplements the package with such titles as “Any Way You Want It,” “Be Good to Yourself” and “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

Given Journey’s profile, one labors to find an explanation for Mr. Schon’s antics Monday night. The band’s third song was a marathon guitar rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner.” And just as the crowd was fully recovered from that cacophony, Mr. Schon covered Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child.”

By the time band members launched into the title track from their multi-platinum “Escape” album, it had to coax dispirited fans to rise from their seats.

Maybe all the years of touring and facing mockery by rock critics have left Mr. Schon and the rest of the band embittered.

Journey should accept its white-bread status, and be happy with what they’ve accomplished: five Top 10 albums, 17 Top 40 singles, more than 50 million albums sold, a Journey video game, “the most popular rock act of 1983 (according to Gallup),” and an airing of “Any Way You Want It” in the timeless film “Caddyshack.”

But the glory days are a distant memory. When Journey came to Washington in 1983, they sold out two consecutive nights at 19,500 seat Capital Centre (R.I.P.). Monday, they failed to sell out the 7,000 seats at Wolf Trap.

Yet Journey continues to loom large on America’s pop music landscape. Everyone from Britney Spears to Wesley Clark has identified themselves as Journey fans (Miss Spears covered “Open Arms” during her first nationwide tour).

The band was even profiled last year in the New York Times. And in an episode of “The O.C.” a few months back, the brooding Ryan (actor Benjamin McKenzie) scolded nebbish Seth (Adam Brody) for daring to criticize Journey.

While Journey’s lineup is almost identical to when I first saw them on their 1981 Escape tour, there’s one big change: Lead singer Steve Perry is long gone (track down VH1’s legendary “Behind the Music” episode for all of the gut-busting details).

He’s been replaced by Steve Augeri, who matches his predecessor’s remarkable range, and more than exceeded expectations at Wolf Trap with renditions of such megahits as “Send Her My Love,” “Wheel in the Sky” and “Lovin,’ Touchin,’ Squeezin’.”

Perhaps Journey’s real legacy is helping to popularize a much-mocked musical genre: the power ballad. “Open Arms” and “Faithfully” certainly deserve membership in the power ballad hall of fame (alongside Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” and Kiss’ “Beth”).

The band belted out both Monday night, and though Wolf Trap aggressively bans smoking, that didn’t stop patches of thirty-and fortysomething concertgoers from holding their butane lighters aloft, a warm gesture, perhaps, to the flickering memories of bygone youth.

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