No matter what your age, there’s a first time for everything.
Just ask celebrated American rock band Journey, which finds themselves on their first true cross-Canadian tour.
Speaking with the MusicNerd Chronicles in advance of their show at the Moncton Coliseum on Thursday, Journey guitarist Neal Schon is at a bit of a loss to explain why it’s taken so long to get a proper Canadian tour together:
“I really love Canada,” Schon unabashedly notes. “Every time I come here, I have the best time. I’m glad we are finally doing an extensive tour of the country. We should have done it long ago. I don’t know why it never happened in the past, but we are glad to finally be finding our way across Canada.”
Canadians are a forgiving bunch, of course. And really, it’s not as though Schon and his Journey band mates have been sitting at home merely twiddling their thumbs.
In the 40 years since Journey’s self-titled album was released, the group has become one of the best-selling artists of all time. With 19 Top 40 singles, 25 Gold and Platinum records and sales topping the 40 million mark in the United States alone, the group has certainly had their work cut out for them.
While he is endlessly grateful for the career that he has carved out for himself, Schon recalls a time when things didn’t come to the group quite as easily:
“Before [former Journey vocalist] Steve Perry joined the band, we were what would be considered a progressive-rock band by today’s standards. We were doing well for ourselves, selling a respectable amount of tickets while opening for everyone under the sun.
“Those first few years, we paid some serious dues. In fact, at one of the shows on this Canadian tour, someone brought a poster from a show where we opened up for Cheech and Chong,” Schon laughs, recalling the memory.
After having supported a wide variety of other bands including Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Thin Lizzy and Kiss, Schon says the band finally “connected” with an audience via a somewhat unlikely headliner:
“We hooked up with Lynyrd Skynyrd, and that was when things changed for us. To this day, I don’t know why their audience took to us, but it proved to be a huge break for the band. We started getting in front of big audiences and started thinking ‘This is going to be great.’”
Regardless of the in-roads the band might have been making on the live scene, Schon says their record company remained thoroughly disappointed with sales of the first three records. The group was ultimately given an ultimatum: Revamp your sound and start selling records or be sent packing.
The group recruited vocalist Steve Perry in 1977. The following year, Infinity, their first album with Perry, but fourth overall, sold one million copies. Subsequent studio releases Evolution (1979), Departure (1980) and 1981’s Captured would be afforded a similar, rousing reception from fans.
It was their second album of 1981 – Escape – that would bring the band their biggest success to date, however. Bolstered by singles such as “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “Open Arms” and “Who’s Crying Now,” Escape would go on to sell more than 9 million copies in the U.S. alone.
“We’ve been very fortunate to have built such a legacy behind the band,” Schon says. “I learned early-on that the art of writing and making a statement with a three-and-a-half-minute song was not as easy as being able to stretch out and play a ten-minute solo.”
Given the roots of the band, Journey’s current Canadian tour is proving to be a full-circle kind of moment for Schon.
His solo project Vortex, whose sound is more closely related to Journey’s first three albums, has been performing as the opening act, meaning Schon has been pulling double-duty as both an opener and a headliner.
“This is the first time I’ve been the opener and the headlining act! It’s been a lot of work, needing to be at the venues earlier than usual in addition to completing two soundchecks and playing two shows. I tell you, Vortex only plays for 30 minutes or so, but it is a seriously intense workout up there. I come off stage wringing wet and out of breath, only to need to dry off and get rehydrated before going back out and doing it all over again.
“It’s been such a great experience, though. Despite being an instrumental act, Vortex is being well received by Journey fans. It seems to be the type of music that people ‘get’ when they see it live. That’s where we are making the connection with the audience.”
Schon also reveals that he recently reunited with the original members of Santana, with whom he played in the early 70’s. The reunited group cut a studio record, Santana IV, which is due for release in the future.
He says that getting to work with Carlos Santana again was a wonderful experience, crediting Santana as having helped give him a world view on music.
“Getting to work with Carlos [Santana] again is definitely a full-circle kind of moment for me,” he says. “It feels really good. I have always admired Carlos’ work as a guitarist because he turned me onto so much different music. He really helped open my imagination to appreciate different styles of music. Carlos has been an inspirational music figure throughout my life.”
Despite being at an age where most people are counting down the days until retirement, the 61-year-old Schon has given little indication he will be hanging up his guitar anytime soon, much to the delight of millions of Journey fans worldwide.
What: Journey with special guests Neal “Vortex” Schon
When: Thursday July 30, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Moncton Coliseum, 377 Killam Dr., Moncton
Tickets start at $45 plus service charges. Advance tickets available online at tickets.moncton.ca or by phone at (506) 857-4100