Note: This article originally appeared in May 2021.
As live concerts slowly start up again and bands cautiously plot summer and fall tours, it may be hard to tell who will be more excited: those standing in front of the stage, or those on it. For Jack Blades, singer/bassist for classic rockers Night Ranger, their upcoming Houston show (the first in a series of May dates) can’t come soon enough.
“We did our last [pre-pandemic] show on March 12, 2019. And we call March 13 ‘The Day the Music Died.’ Because on that day, everybody on the planet cancelled everything!” Blades laughs. “We’re chomping at the bit to get out there again.”
And while the band has played a handful of shows since then, he says that Night Ranger really didn’t have to woodshed or rehearse much to get back in the groove.
“You mean play these songs again that I’ve been playing my entire adult life? I think we rehearsed enough in the ‘80s!” he laughs again. “We did go over some parts. But you forget how wonderful and important it is when the lights go down and you hit the stage. I forgot how much I miss it. It’s my life and my passion and everything. And it’s nice getting back together.”
And the headliner for this Houston show, Blades says the band can “dig deeper” into not only into their own catalog, but also play covers and songs they grew up listening to. The current set list includes “School’s Out” (a tribute to band friend Alice Cooper), “Crazy Train” (a nod to guitarist Brad Gillis’ stint with Ozzy Osbourne),” and the two hits from Blades’ time in Damn Yankees (“High Enough,” “Coming of Age”). He says it wasn’t a hard sell to his bandmates.
“Things don’t have to be rushed with a [headline] slot, we have so many songs we can play. Those [Damn Yankees] songs are just an extension of who I am, and the guys in the band do a killer job with them,” Blades says. “And Bro, there’s nothing like playing a hit for an audience when everybody sings along. Hands down, that’s a pretty amazing feeling.”
The seeds of Night Ranger began when Blades and Brad Gillis (guitar) met while members of the Jerry Martini (ex-Sly and the Family Stone sax man)-led group Rubicon. After that band dissolved, the pair began putting together their own group, adding Kelly Keagy (drums/vocals) and Alan Fitzgerald (keyboards). In 1982 with the addition of Jeff Watson (guitar), they became Night Ranger and released their debut record, Dawn Patrol.
This classic lineup would stay together for much of the ‘80s, dropping hit rock singles on radio and/or in heavy MTV rotation like “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” “(You Can Still) Rock in America,” “When You Close Your Eyes,” “Goodbye,” and “Four in the Morning,” along with “Sentimental Street” the massive, monster power ballad “Sister Christian” (written/sung by Keagy and inspired by his actual sister).
Lineup changes and more records followed, and in 1989 Blades joined fellow classic rockers Ted Nugent, Tommy Shaw (of Styx), and Michael Cartellone (drums) in Damn Yankees, later playing in a duo with Shaw before returning to Night Ranger. He’s also currently in Revolution Saints, which released a record in 2020. The current Night Ranger lineup includes Blades, Gillis, Keagy, Eric Levy (keyboards), and Keri Kelli (guitar).
Usually closing their set is the classic rock anthem “(You Can Still) Rock in America.” Blades says he was inspired to write the song while on tour with Sammy Hagar for Night Ranger’s first album. At a stop, he went to a drug store and had picked up a bunch of music magazines. All of them featured pictures of then-hot new wave acts like Blondie, the Cars, Devo, and Flock of Seagulls, screaming hoary headlines of the “Rock is Dead!” variety. Blades then sat in his cheap hotel room in Springfield, Illinois, and the words came out.
“We didn’t see that, what the magazines were saying. We were out playing with Sam and the [venues] were full and the audiences were having a great time. I thought the whole thing about the magazine was wrong and said to myself ‘You can still rock in America!’ Then it was like ‘Hey! That’s a great idea for song!” Blades laughs. “We’re very grateful that our songs have stood the test of time and that one in particular is in everybody’s heads. People just jump up and sing it immediately, and I feel blessed about that.”
Blades also recalls a telling cartoon in (of all places) the alternative music-championing Spin magazine that showed two rock critics, with one of them professing a love for Night Ranger’s “Sentimental Street.” “Yeah,” the other critics sniffs dismissively. “Nobody likes them but the public.”
During the past year, Blades says that the band has used their time well, even if it’s not so original. “Well, like every other band on the planet in the least year, we put together an entire new album. Alice [Cooper] and I were joking that there were going to be 300,000,000 new albums released this year!” he says. The July release will be called A.T.B.P.O. (which stands for “And the Band Played On”).
“I think that title is pretty apropos with all the [pandemic difficulties] that have gone on and all the shit that’s going on in this country. Everything’s crashing! Everybody’s got to wear a mask! Everybody’s got to stay home! But the band played on!” he says “I haven’t had this much time off probably since before we formed Night Ranger, and you realize how much you miss it when you can’t do it.”
Unfortunately, usually new music from classic rock bands is met with a collective shrug from the casual “greatest hits” audience, and almost nonexistent on any radio station playlist, terrestrial or otherwise. But Blades likens Night Ranger to a certain big fish in terms of creative—and maybe physical—survival.
“It’s really like a shark. When it stops swimming, it dies. If I stopped creating, that’s the end of it, and it won’t be a pretty sight,” he says. “We’re lucky that we’re still getting the hi sign from [our fans] to keep doing it.”
For more on Night Ranger, visit NightRanger.com
A longer version of this interview originally appeared at HoustonPress.com