Foreigner Rides the Zeitgeist

Forty years after its founding, the band is more popular than it's been in decades. See them Saturday, Sept. 2 at Shoreline.

Foreigner (Photo by Laurence Harvey)

When you’ve been a rock star for more than a quarter-century, you can pretty much see all your contemporaries, all your heroes, and all your idols in concert. And for Thom Gimbel, Foreigner’s guitarist and saxophonist for well over half the band’s four-decade existence, the best show he ever saw was Queen.

“That was so good it was absurd,” he says, referring to the period in the mid-’80s when Freddie Mercury’s stage presence seemed to displace football as the primary purpose of Wembley Stadium.

“Billy Squier was on the bill,” Gimbel adds, speaking of the musician who would go on to tour with Foreigner for a while. He “was awesome, too — but Queen? I don’t get it. That was way too good.”

Forty years after the release of Foreigner, the band continues to sell out large venues. It will swing through the Bay Area over Labor Day weekend, playing Saturday, Sept. 2, at Shoreline Amphitheatre with Cheap Trick and Jason Bonham, son of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham. Almost exactly a year ago, Cheap Trick played the same venue, along with Joan Jett and the inimitable Heart — a testament to the enduring appeal of the blurry edge between hard rock and soft rock.

But something about the zeitgeist of the past few years seems to have come right into Foreigner’s corner pocket. It might be the space that has opened up for legacy acts on the festival circuit, the resurgence of “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” pulling Journey’s contemporaries to the stratosphere in its wake, or just the motion of the wheel of time itself, but Foreigner is bigger than it’s been in some time, showing up on Orange Is the New Black and at NASCAR events. In other words, even though cultural divisions have cleft the country in two, the band remains a touchstone on the left and the right.

Foreigner isn’t averse to the trappings of arena rock or to the need to fill giant stages visually as well as acoustically. At each point on the tour, a high-school choir joins them on “I Want to Know What Love Is.” (This weekend, it’s Saratoga High School.) The set list consists of hits, drawn out and played up.

“We do jam a bit on a song like ‘Jukebox Hero,’ ” Gimbel says. “We don’t play the songs just straight off the album and go to the next song. There is a live element. Doing ‘Urgent,’ we do a key shift, and I get to do a bunch of tricks on the saxophone.”

As the crowds have swelled once more, Gimbel has noticed more young people in the audience. Mostly, he credits this to the resurgence of vinyl and to kids combing through their parents’ LPs, but he’s amused at the youngest fans, too: “We had this girl who brought a sign that said, ‘Juice Box Hero,’ so we’re very big in the 4-to-8 set.”

Meanwhile, progressive rock has come up for critical reappraisal — former King Crimson member Ian McDonald was Foreigner’s founding guitarist and sax player, so the band can be said to be a prog stepchild — and power ballads, sax solos, and even outright cheese have come back in style. Witness HAIM’s new album, Something to Tell You, which drew immediate comparisons — most of them favorable — to Fleetwood Mac and even to Wilson Phillips. You could argue that Maya Rudolph’s charisma in Bridesmaids was already enough to make Carnie Wilson and Chynna Phillips cool again, but “Hold On” is soft-rock at its softest, and it had been banished to limbo for decades.

Foreigner was never consigned to the dustbin of anything; quite the contrary, “Cold As Ice” and “Hot Blooded” have been staples of the classic-rock rotation almost without interruption. Just as the sun never set on the British Empire, you know that somewhere, a radio station will have a Foreigner cut in the next hour’s programming.

Indeed, the band’s achievements are even more impressive in hindsight, considering the disposability of industrialized pop music and the short lifespan of most indie darlings. Among its credits, Foreigner has 16 Billboard Top 30 hits, nine of which made the top 10 — which is exactly as many as Fleetwood Mac and only one fewer than the Eagles. The uppermost echelon of rock-stardom is a closed group, but Foreigner occupies a strange place in the pantheon. Even a casual listener can tick off five or six songs they know, and probably hum along with a few more, even if it’s in an “Ohhh, that’s Foreigner?” kind of way.

“I don’t know why these songs sound so great, but they just hold up well over time,” Gimbel says.

It might have to do with the individual members’ respective pedigrees. As the band has had a fluid lineup almost since its late-’70s inception, there have been quite a few members overall — particularly drummers, although Chris Frazier has been behind the kit for the last five or six years. Besides McDonald’s tenure with King Crimson, Gimbel played with Aerosmith for a time, and founder Mick Jones had shuffled through a number of bands. Foreigner has also toured with plenty of its contemporaries — Journey, Styx, Def Leppard — which seems to consolidate the power of arena rock the way a bundle of steel wires becomes a suspension-bridge cable. If there were any rivalries, they’re long gone, Gimbel says, referring to Cheap Trick et al. as “compatriots.”

“There might be some of that between Mick Jones and [Cheap Trick guitarist] Rick Nielsen, but it would always be just in fun — and I don’t think it exists anymore,” Gimbel says. “It might have back in the ’80s, but now we’re kindred spirits on the same mission.”

That mission, broadly understood, happens to include two people of the same name. Like Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child and Michelle Williams the actress (and widow of Heath Ledger), classic rock contains two Mick Joneses. Does anybody mix up Foreigner’s guitarist with the guitarist from The Clash and Big Audio Dynamite?

“It’s pretty rare,” Gimbel says. “The one time they had a chance to say hello there were plenty of photographers there. We thought it was like if you ever got the two of them in a room they would both disappear or the stars would explode.

“He’s a well-known figure,” Gimbel adds. “They both are, and they just happen to share the same name. There’s plenty to go around for everyone.”

Foreigner, With Jason Bonham and Cheap Trick, Saturday, Sept. 2, 7 p.m., at Shoreline Amphitheatre, Mountain View. $23-$619; livenation.com

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