By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -
When Mickey Thomas of Jefferson Starship first sang We Built This City in the 1980s, he was referring to rock 'n roll in San Francisco. When Thomas joined the Grand Rapids Pops for 80s Rewind, he was singing about orchestral pops as well as rock 'n roll for the community of West Michigan gathered at Canonsburg Ski Area.
Either way, Thomas and the Grand Rapids Pops were a big hit for the second concert of the Grand Rapids Symphony's D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops.
The Grand Rapids Symphony remembered the 1980s, with music by George Michael, Pat Benatar, Billy Joel, the Scorpions, and, of course, Jefferson Starship. Principal Pops Conductor Bob Bernhardt led the Grand Rapids Pops in plenty of big hits by some of the biggest acts of the 1980s.
Thomas was the star of the show, but his backing band did a great job of rocking the hills at Canonsburg for an audience that was on its feet by the end of the night on both Thursday and Friday, July 19 and 20.
Certainly, a celebration of music of the 80s could last for days, but in the 110-minute show on Thursday (a little shorter on Friday due to rain), the Grand Rapids Symphony and special guests served up plenty of the best of the 1980s with songs that had the audience singing along most of the night.
The funny thing about the show was that the performers singing songs of the 1980s were too young to remember the 1980s. In fact, vocalist Benjamin Caron told the audience he was born in 1987, which was good for a laugh. Nevertheless, it just goes to show that the best songs from that era are timeless and embraced by listeners spanning many generations.
Perhaps the most important skill for singers leading tribute shows is their ability to be musical chameleons, covering a wide range of singers. Christine LaFond especially was convincing with her interpretation of singers as diverse as Irene Cara and Grace Slick
Caron had the audience worked up early in the show channeling George Michaels singing Faith from his solo career as well as a lively version of Wake Me Up Before You Go Go, Michaels’ first big hit with Wham! On the flip side, he gave a fair impression of Bono singing one of U2's biggest hits on With Or Without You
LaFond was just as impressive on her version of Pat Benatar's Shadows of the Night, charming the audience in a performance topped only by her version of the epic rock anthem What a Feeling from Flashdance.
The entire ensemble revved the audience up on the Scorpions' Rock You Like a Hurricane. And when they got to Celebration by Kool and the Gang, the audience was ready to have a good time.
That set the stage for Mickey Thomas, who only came with five songs, but they were five really good ones.
Plenty of aging rock 'n roll singers at the end of their career struggle to hit the high notes that made them famous back in the day. Thomas, however, still has the goods. As he kicked off Find Your Way Back to open his set, it was immediately clear he had no trouble finding his way back.
LaFond joined Thomas on the duet Nothing's Gonna Stop Us, which Thomas originally sang with Grace Slick. But LaFond sounded so much like the Chrome Nun, you'd easily believe you were listening to both original singers.
The best surprise of the evening came when the band and orchestra kicked off Don't Stop Believing, which brought the audience to its feet with a roar. It didn't matter that it wasn't Mickey Thomas's song or Jefferson Starship's song. Thomas easily convinced the audience he could sing Steve Perry, and the band and Grand Rapids Symphony proved it could fill in for the rest of Journey.
When Thomas launched into We Built This City, the audience came roaring to its feet, dancing on the hill, dancing in front of the stage, having the time of their lives.
Which is exactly what the Grand Rapids Symphony's D&W Fresh Market Picnic Pops is all about – kicking back, relaxing and having a good time in the great outdoors with great music.