Disclaimer – Those of you that have checked out other concert reviews on this site know that my reviews are accompanied by professional photos taken by me using a photo pass provided by the band. Journey did not allow any outside photos so media passes were for review purposes only, there are no photos included.
It feels rare these days for a concert to come through with a major headliner and a top-tier opening act, but that is exactly what played the XL Center in Hartford on March 4. Journey finally received their long-overdue Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2017, cementing their legacy while Toto, probably one of the biggest Rock Hall snubs, is still awaiting their first nomination, although their string of hits over 40+ years qualifies them as top-tier.
Toto took the stage to “Afraid of Love”, a deep cut off of their classic IV record, which set up an hour filled with hits. Led by founder Steve Lukather and long-time vocalist Joseph Williams, the current version of Toto is rounded out by multi-instrumentalist Warren Ham, keyboardists Dominique Xavier and Steve Maggiora, bassist John Pierce, and drummer Robert “Sput” Searight. It was clear from the beginning that this was a band, not 2 classic members and the hired help. Ham, Xavier, and Maggiora each contributed vocals and all members had their time in the spotlight.
Lukather and Williams traded lead vocals throughout the set with Lukather sprinkling bits of band history between songs. With a one-hour opening slot, Toto stuck mainly to the hits, leaving out anything after 1988’s The Seventh One. The classic songs were made fresh by the ace band assembled by Lukather, illustrated by the funky new arrangement of the debut album staple “Georgie Porgy” by Xavier. The packed crowd loved every minute and erupted into a singalong as the band ended with the back-to-back classics “Rosanna” and “Africa”.
Journey was up next, continuing their tour for last year’s Freedom release and celebrating their 50th anniversary. I will say that I have always loved this band, I was in attendance at Barclays Center in Brooklyn when they were inducted into the Hall of Fame, and I am a big fan of current frontman Arnel Pineda. That being said, it is hard to set aside the drama surrounding the band and just enjoy the live performance. From the 2020 firing of original bassist Ross Vallory and classic-era drummer Steve Smith by Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain for an “attempted corporate coup”, to a lineup change in 2021 that brought back drummer Deen Castronovo as well as bringing in bassist Todd Jensen (the current lineup is rounded out by keyboardist Jason Derlatka), to a scathing article in Billboard Magazine just the day before this show, it seems like the music is secondary to the drama of Journey.
With all that being said, once the music starts, the playing is flawless. A Journey show is two hours of hits that keep the audience dancing and singing. There is little interaction with the crowd, a few comments by Pineda and Cain along the way, and unlike Toto, the performance, at times, feels more like a perfunctory run through rather than a joyous celebration of a great band. Pineda and Castronovo kept the energy up throughout the evening while the rest of the band turned in solid performances.
There are two types of concerts, those where the band mines their catalog and takes the audience on, well, a journey (see Bruce Springsteen for the art of using a setlist to tell a story). The other type is a jukebox run-through of the hits, which is what Journey does. Even though the band did put out a new record in 2022, it did not have much of an impact on the setlist. The pacing and sequencing of the show sometimes felt a little off. For example, the monster hit “Don’t Stop Believing” showed up as the third full song on the night, which seemed to take a little energy and anticipation out of the night and a long guitar solo followed the relatively low-energy playing of “Girl Can’t Help It”.
After experiencing some vocal issues in previous tours, Pineda’s voice was in fine form. He has always had a little Janick Gers, over-the-top energy (yes, an Iron Maiden reference) but with a palpable tension between Schon and Cain, Pineda sometimes seemed like the kid trying to draw attention so you don’t notice mom and dad fighting. Most of the capacity crowd didn’t seem to care about in-fighting and member turnover, they were there to sing along to the music that was a huge part of their lives, and in that sense, a live Journey show is a major success. As the show drew to an end with the principal members on opposite sides, one can only wonder if Journey will join the ranks of classic bands with two versions, one with Schon and Castronovo (and presumably Gregg Rolie), and one with Jonathan Cain and Arnel Pineda.