The regional rock 'n' roll faithful welcomed renowned bassist Billy Sheehan home in style Friday. Sheehan's Mr. Big -- the group he formed in Los Angeles shortly after parting ways with David Lee Roth's solo band back in 1988 -- brought its reunion tour to the Town Ballroom for a show that felt equal parts rock bacchanal and high school reunion.
Sheehan is one of our own, after all, and more than any other Buffalo export of the past three decades, he has made it clear to the world that we, to borrow a phrase from Frank Zappa, don't mess around when it comes to musicianship.
Sheehan is revered here for his work with Talas, the '70s- and '80s-era hard rock band formed with friends Dave Constantino and Paul Varga. That group brought serious virtuosity to classic heavy rock and, in a just world, would've been far bigger than many of the lesser ensembles of its era managed to become. But Sheehan has transcended what he accomplished with Talas in the time since that band's dissolution.
Mr. Big represents the bassist's greatest commercial achievement. Organized as a bit of a supergroup -- singer Eric Martin, guitarist Paul Gilbert and drummer Pat Torpey had all established themselves as reputable rockers by the time the group formed -- Mr. Big brought strong power-pop sensibilities, thick and juicy vocal harmonies, and fat, indelible chorus hooks to the post-hair metal and "shred" scene. Notably, during Friday's Town Ballroom show, none of those factors came across as dated or valuable only in a nostalgic sense.
Though this is a band of virtuoso musicians given to showing off their considerable talents as soloists -- Mr. Big still represents the era of arena rock from which it emerged -- what was immediately striking about Friday's Town Ballroom show was the strength of the vocals. Three-part -- and occasionally four-part -- harmonies marked the emotional crescendoes of every song. This was an, er, incredibly big sound, with Martin's Paul Rodgers-esque tenor sitting atop the voices of Sheehan and Gilbert and on occasion Torpey, forming a stacked chord that never faltered in pitch or consistency.
Opening with the new "Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy," the group burst through the saloon doors with guns drawn and proceeded to tear up a little bit more than 120 minutes of hard blues punctuated by power-pop hooks. Of course, the group's massive crossover hit "To Be With You" was well-received, but the rockers -- part Humble Pie swagger, part Free-style heavy rock groove, the rest pure instrumental virtuosity -- cut the deepest.
A suitable entry point for the uninitiated might be "Green-Tinted Sixties Mind," a barn-burning riff-o-rama with an incredibly catchy, harmony-heavy chorus that is much more Cheap Trick than it is "hair-metal." This tune marked the point in the show when the band made it clear that it intended to leave everything it had on the Town Ballroom stage. The performance was flawless, certainly, but it was also inspired.
Throughout the gig, Sheehan's signature bass sound -- a skull-rattling blend of rich low-end and overdriven thunder akin to both The Who's John Entwistle and Cream's Jack Bruce in their heyday -- was high and heavy in the mix. This was just what the doctor ordered for the fans, who accept Sheehan as the Eddie Van Halen of the electric bass, a man whose high-velocity chops and ebullient showmanship combine to scream "guitar hero."
Those assembled knew the songs, too, singing along with the likes of "American Beauty," "Temperamental" and "Addicted to that Rush" with audible vigor and punctuating certain instrumental passages with hoots and hollers of approval.
Many in attendance were most likely hoping for a Talas reunion of sorts during Friday's show. The entire original band was in the house -- in fact, guitarist Constantino and his smoking hard-rock/blues trio opened the show with a well-received set of of songs that featured some dazzling interplay between bassist Jim Wynne and the bandleader himself.
Alas, though Constantino watched the entire Mr. Big set from the wings of the stage and appeared to be having a blast cheering his old friend on, this was not to be.
Oh, well. Maybe next time. Don't be a stranger, Mr. Sheehan.
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Friday evening in the Town Ballroom, 681 Main St.