As Tom Keifer and the six other members of his Keiferland band took the stage at the Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood, NJ earlier this month, their entrance music couldn’t have been more timely.
The Rolling Stones’ classic “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” blasted over the theater’s PA, while that legendary band — whom Keifer has held a lifelong affection for — performed a mere ten miles away at Met Life Stadium. The enormity of that neighboring event, combined with it being a Monday during the height of summer vacation season, reduced the former Cinderella frontman’s audience on this night to a size that he is not accustomed to. Judging by his superb performance, it couldn’t have affected him any.
The night began with “Touching the Divine,” a hard-driving song from his upcoming album Rise (release date: Sept. 13), before he and fellow guitarist Tony Higbee kicked the show – and the crowd – into gear with a propulsive rendition of Cinderella’s “Night Songs,” the title track of the album that introduced Keifer to the public more than 30 years ago.
The lighter fare of “Coming Home” followed, foreshadowing what would be in store for the rest of the night: a seamless mix of Keifer’s atmospheric hard rock and traditional rock ‘n’ roll.
Cinderella Era favorites would continue to arrive — 11 in all, including “Gypsy Road,” “Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone)” and “Somebody Save Me” — but Keifer’s performance of the title track of Rise was also a highlight. The song’s slow build was delivered via harrowing backing vocals from Savannah Snow (Keifer’s wife) and Kendra Chantelle, while the floating keyboard/organ tones of Kory Myers hung above the escalating rhythm of drummer Jarred Pope and bassist Billy Mercer. It all meshed beautifully, earning “Rise” one of the most enthusiastic reactions of the night for any of Keifer’s songs, new or classic.
That Keifer was able to sing at all, never mind belt out songs in his patented growl, was something not to be taken for granted. He has famously fought a decades-long and continuing battle with vocal cord paresis, subsequent hemorrhages and at least seven surgeries, leading to many years of intensive voice rehabilitation.
This backstory made the strong voice Keifer possessed on this evening noteworthy, along with the brave choices he continued to make with his voice onstage. He gamely tackled the screams, howls and wails that accent his best known songs, sometimes delivering those flourishes even more passionately than he did on the recordings. At other moments he added pieces that weren’t on the recordings at all.
It felt almost reckless, and fans notice such things. The audience was engaged and vocal all evening, and appeared to have a collective understanding that they were witnessing a strikingly honest performance.
That became abundantly clear during Keifer’s rendition of his greatest commercial hit, “Nobody’s Fool”. After launching it as an acoustic sing-along, Keifer abruptly stopped halfway through the song’s amplified middle and dropped to his knees, frenetically imploring the crowd to share their energy with the band. As he rose to his feet he shouted and gestured to the audience, not unlike an athlete who had just made a big play. Most notably, he continually punched at and pointed towards his heart, a gesture he would revisit throughout the show.
This was surely a planned piece of stagecraft, but it looked and felt genuine. At this stage of Keifer’s life and career, after the near total loss of his instrument, doubting his sincerity might be a bad bet.
On this night, he seemed unconcerned with commerce on any scale, even sheepishly promising his audience that he would pitch his new album to them only once.
Instead, he appeared hellbent on emptying every bit of himself into the performance they had already paid for – sweat dripping from his hair and face, road-worn guitar hanging from his neck, trademark voice intact, his musical (and matrimonial) family behind him, and a heart he wore so far out on his sleeve that there was no need for him to point it out.
Robert Ferraro engages in conversations with pop culture figures. Recent guests include Melissa Etheridge, Paul Stanley, Ann & Nancy Wilson of Heart, comedian Gary Gulman and model Bobbie Brown.
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