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’70s, ’80s hits resonate with fans as Lou Gramm rocks the BPO

The Buffalo Philharmonic has had plenty of celebratory achievements since the orchestra’s establishment in 1935. The BPO performed at the direction of decorated conductors like Doc Severinsen and Marvin Hamlisch. Its music danced across Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” in 1979, and the orchestra made its 24th appearance at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 2012.

So with these moments considered, where will readying their instruments to back Foreigner icon Lou Gramm on a symphonic rendition of “Dirty White Boy” rank among the ensemble’s best moments?

Time will tell. But on Friday night in Kleinhans Music Hall, Gramm and the BPO joined for a rousing tour through late-’70s rockers, early-’80s backseat ballads and a handful of the vocalist’s solo career favorites during the latest performance in the orchestra’s popular BPO Rocks Series.

The Rochester-born Gramm has been dealing his brand of arena rock wail for nearly five decades. Whether opening for KISS as a teenager with Black Sheep or driving Jordache-clad women crazy with Foreigner, the frontman has earned his place among the most powerful vocalists in 97 Rock’s rotation. But after an uneven solo career, on-again, off-again stints with Foreigner and treatment for a brain tumor in 1997, it would be understandable to question whether the aging Gramm still has the juice to carry a live performance, let alone one with a four-piece band and symphony orchestra in tow.

Friday night’s set put those questions to rest, as the soon-to-be 64-year-old expertly flowed guitarists, percussionists and flautists through his impressive list of cassette deck classics.

After conductor Brent Havens led the BPO and Lou Gramm Band through a trio of classic rock-flavored instrumentals – highlighted by Gramm’s brother Ben replicating John Bonham’s drum solo on a version of Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick” – the night’s headliner arrived to start the show’s second act with the Foreigner favorite, “Double Vision.” Pairing a black suit with his now feathered blond locks, Gramm wasted no time in matching guitarist Mike Staertow’s Les Paul licks with the same towering vocals that once soundtracked first dates and forest-set keggers alike.

But to enjoy the essence of the BPO Rocks Series, the aforementioned tandem needed to weave their talents into the night’s orchestral tapestry, one flanked with walls of supportive violins, cellos and trumpets. Once Staertow dialed back from eleven and let the strings and brass join Gramm to reconfigure Foreigner hits like “Feels Like the First Time” and “Long, Long Way From Home,” the evening found its intended direction.

This collaborative route arguably reached its emotional apex on the night’s rendition of Foreigner’s Zippo-raising smash, “I Want To Know What Love Is.” With a multitextured bed of strings joining the song’s keys and percussion – and subbing in for the original track’s church choir – the song incited the same swaying and tear-strewn sing-a-longs as it did for crowds in 1985. In front of their emoting was Gramm, whose contemplative lyrics were exhaled with a yearning first heard three decades ago.

If this moment was the show’s emotional peak, then the rest of the night was a guitar-heavy hike down a mountain of Gramm-helmed hits. Radio favorites “Urgent” and “Blue Morning, Blue Day” brought Kleinhans concertgoers to their feet with a heavy dose of Staertow chords and the addition of Gramm’s cowbell to the show’s eclectic instrumental roster.

Finally, solo effort “Midnight Blue” earned one of Friday’s many standing ovations before “Juke Box Hero” and encore “Hot Blooded” gave the BPO two more opportunities to show how their instrumental ensemble can unexpectedly enhance songs once regularly amplified out Camaro windows – and two more memorable moments to add to their esteemed and entertaining Rock Series-related history.

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