The ‘70s and ‘80s overlapped with the ‘90s on Saturday when Richard Marx and John Waite appeared for a double bill at Evans Ampitheater at Cain Park.
In what was likely a deliberate juxtaposition of styles, Waite thrilled the house with a set of career-spanning rock songs performed by a plugged-in band, whereas Marx played solo, enchanting with only with a pair of acoustic guitars and a piano.
Looking regal in a throwback suit whose violet-red hue complemented his moppy hair, Waite emerged at 8:10pm ready to tear it up. But the Lancashire native had to restart the first number because his microphone didn’t work.
“Well that was a shocker,” Waite said afterwards. “Let’s pretend that didn’t happen!”
The singer brushed aside the technical glitch like the pro he is, then practically erased it from the crowd’s mind with a jubilant run through his Babys hit “Back On My Feet Again.” But one got the impression Waite was going to strangle his soundman later.
1982 solo hit “Change” came off without a snag, as did Babys numbers “Every Time I Think of You” and “Midnight Rendezvous.” Waite noted that the former was augmented on record by an orchestra with strings and full brass section, but that his band was willing to try it because they were “feeling brave.”
It went over well, with guitarist Kyle Cook (Matchbox 20) and drummer Rhondo singing backup on the familiar How our love, how our love would go refrain. Meanwhile, bassist Tim Hogan planted the low end on a black Gibson bass with his spindly fingers.
Waite, 63, said Cleveland was his favorite American city, and recounted starting his musical journey in Northfield (where he resided for several months). Returning to England to form The Babys, he got his big break—and was able to parlay his soulful pipes into a successful solo career in the ‘80s.
“If there’s ever a city that deserved to have the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it’s Cleveland!” he said.
Waite delighted with “Whenever You Come Around,” a country-rock song written with Vince Gill in 1994 (and which he played with Gill and Alison Krauss at the Grand Ole Opry). Another rural-flavored gem, “If Ever You Get Lonely,” arrived courtesy Waite’s latest studio effort—2011’s Rough & Tumble—recorded with Cook in Nashville. Waite strummed a Telecaster on the latter as Cook conjured pedal steel-like swells with his own guitar’s volume knob and soloed using a glass slide.
Yet another countrified offering, “Bluebird Café,” chronicled a lowly waitresses’ struggle to be discovered on open mic nights at the famous Tennessee nightclub.
“Young hearts can fly, restless and wild,” crooned Waite.
A brief drum excursion by Rhondo rolled right into “Missing You,” Waite’s monster smash from 1984’s No Brakes. Anybody not on his or her feet before was up and animated now, swaying in place to Cook’s guitar arpeggios and singing along with Waite’s earnest vocal.
If 1978 Babys barnburner “Head First” was a predictable penultimate number, Waite’s cover of Led Zeppelin zinger “Whole Lotta Love” certainly wasn’t an expected closer. But damn if it wasn’t a note-for-note rendition, replete with a trippy echo effect on Waite’s vocals that made him sound even more like Robert Plant.
Marx strode out nonchalantly after a half-hour set change (by which time night had fallen over the park) and peeled off 1987 hit “Endless Summer Nights” on a sunburst Gibson J-45 acoustic guitar.
It was a fitting opener that set the tone for the rest of the evening; Marx went to his alternate guitar only two or three times, and sat at his grand piano only twice.
Repeat Offender single “Satisfied” got fans clapping along. Rush Street entries “Take This Heart” and “Keep Coming Back” saw Marx maintaining his momentum.
“This is the band,” joked Marx, gesturing at a pair of monitors.
“I wanted it to be just you and me tonight,” he said of his standalone, coffeehouse approach.
“When I saw pictures of this place in a brochure, I just knew it had to be here.”
Indeed, the rustic outdoor ampitheatre and woodsy Cleveland Heights environs were an ideal setting for Marx’s unplugged set. You could even hear cicadas chirping during the quieter spots.
Marx said he almost didn’t make it:
“American Airlines almost kept us apart,” he said.
His Twitter feed was more colorful: “Pilots didn’t show up, might miss Cleveland gig,” he posted earlier that afternoon.
“American Airlines gives less than zero f—ks.”
Thankfully, Marx was calm and collected by show time. And rather than take any residual frustration out on ticketholders, he reveled in being with them.
“I feel like you guys just came over to my house,” he said of the intimate setting.
“But don’t ever do that—I don’t have enough beer!”
It was our first Marx concert, and while we anticipated a competent performance by a masterful songwriter, we weren’t prepared for his wit: The singer’s funny anecdotes and clever one-liners kept fans in stitches between songs all night long.
For example, when an overzealous female in the audience shouted the song title to a number Marx was carefully setting up with a background story, the star sighed, feigning displeasure.
“Do you open your presents on Christmas eve?”
Said song was “Hazard,” whose lyric Marx based on familiar character archetypes and tropes found in pulp mystery novels. He said he knew the piece was haunting when he wrote it, but doubted its chart potential so much that he bet his friends it would go nowhere.
“It went to number one in fourteen countries,” said Marx. “And I was out $150 bucks!”
The Chicago-bred singer also played songs he wrote for (or with) other artists, such as N’SYNC’s “This I Promise You” (from the boy band’s 2000 disc No Strings Attached) and Keith Urban’s “Better Life.” Sliding behind his piano, Marx mesmerized with the brand new “Not in Love With You,” a ballad composed recently with chanteuse Sara Bareilles.
Marx sat on a stool for another country ballad designed more for laughter than dancing: “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away” detailed the frustration of a smothered Lothario with an accuracy that probably struck close home for many listeners.
“Please, make me miss you,” pleaded Marx, injecting a bit of faux twang into his voice.
Then it was nothing but adult-contemporary hits from the ‘80s and ‘90s, with Marx punctuating each with an exuberant “Yeah!” or “Thank you!” “Hold On to The Night” was poignant. “Now and Forever” was moving. “The Way She Loves Me” and “Should’ve Known Better” were upbeat—and showcased Marx’s jaw-dropping range. At a couple points during the show the singer would nail a high note and sustain it for dramatic effect, drawing from an apparently limitless reserve of air.
“I’m just trying to impress you,” Marx confessed with a mischievous grin.
Encore songs included “When You Loved Me” and 1987 Richard Marx pop breakthrough “Don’t Mean Nothing.” Contrasting sharply—but elegantly—with Waite’s closing number, Marx took to the piano again for a tear-jerking “Right Here Waiting for You.”
We knew going in just how talented a writer Marx was, but we came away with a renewed appreciation of his skills as an entertainer. Armed only with a guitar and one’s own voice, there is no place for a lesser troubadour to hide. But Marx excelled without the safety net of a backup band, transforming threadbare renditions of his most popular songs into opportunities to cozy up to Cain patrons.
He thanked folks spending their hard-earned to come and see him and Waite in down economic times. But we’re fairly certain most in attendance would be happy to pay again—and pay more—to relive such terrific sets.
We spotted one young fellow in the crowd (perhaps all of four or five) with a T-shirt celebrating his “First Concert.” Conversely, it was Jennifer Bach’s twenty-sixth Marx show.
“I don’t know whether to be flattered…or call security!” mused the singer.
Marx’s current studio album is Beautiful Goodbye, out now on the Zanzibar label. Waite issued the two-disc compilation Best last year.