John Waite and The Axemen | Chicago, IL

When The Babys recorded ‘Every Time I Think of You,' the lead single off 1978’s Head First, it struck a genuinely passionate chord. The band would go on to enjoy Top 40 fame with ‘Back on My Feet Again.' The Babys, an air-tight group with an alluring sound, boasted a silky-voiced, Lancaster-born vocalist with ginger hair. A star was born.    

The band broke up in the 1980s, but not before seriously stamping their style and sensibilities on the receptive pop/rock genre. But John Waite did not stand on ceremony. He forged ahead with plans for a solo career, perhaps a risky move for any regular performer, but he possessed all the right stuff: the look, the sound, the stories.

Mr. Waite not only continued to melt hearts with his sonorous voice, but he also attracted legions of new fans through MTV rock videos, where his charismatic persona and profoundly moving stories stunned. 1982 single, ‘Change’ from ‘Ignition’ showed off his finest chops. Just a few years later, he would make lovers swoon with a softer, steamier ballad, ‘Missing you.’ His career continued with another smash, ‘When I See You Smile,' this time under the auspices of the short-lived, 1987-formed Bad English, which broke up in 1992 and included former bandmates Jonathan Cain and Ricky Phillips.

American fans following Mr. Waite’s solo career watched ‘Missing You’ from 1984’s No Brakes’ soar to No. 1 Billboard Hot 100. The moving ballad fared almost as well in his native country, where it rapidly became a top ten singles hit. Mask of Smiles, just a year later, unveiled ‘Every Step of the Way,’ and ‘If Anybody Had a Heart,’ which enhanced the About Last Night soundtrack.

But Waite’s bedrock has less to do with the succession of hits than with the ultimate payoff: Despite the stress of facing off a changing industry for decades, he has kept his vocals as evocative as ever.

Vocalist Leslie DeNicola had opened the set. Her teary soprano, in particular on the Dolly Parton hit ‘Jolene,' was airy and heartbreaking. Her guitarist, Sergio Ortega, did a fantastic job, either employing Travis-style picking or light strums.

Midway through Waite’s set, he invited Ms. DeNicola up to join him on ‘If You Ever Get Lonely,’ which was a huge, crossover hit for Waite. The blending of their voices was awe-inspiring. 

The other 13 songs drew from The Baby’s, Bad English and the ensuing solo years. Concurrently Waite is alternating these acoustic-based “Wooden Heart” performances with a full electric band and “The Wooden Heart” lineup; this tour stop featured the lineup of the latter:  Philadelphia bassist Tim Hogan (Anna Nalick), Camden, New Jersey drummer Rhondo and Long-Island born lead guitarist Mark Ricciardi. John Waite also played acoustic guitar.    

The “Wooden Heart” billing led some fans to believe they would have to endure a compromised set of soft rock, but they were quickly proved wrong when Ricciardi played the first of several gutsy, bluesy solos right off the bat. Hogan’s sharp lines pumped up the heat on the powerhouse, ‘Change,' and Rhondo, who is heavily influenced by The Who and The Stones, recalled lots of their fitful fervor. Waite masterfully balanced out dynamics and expertly handled the mic. If he used falsetto, it was because the song demanded it; not because he couldn't handle a given key.

He introduced each song with either a light-hearted back story or with a sensitive comment: “To the dreamers in the audience…”

“All of life’s uncertainties…well they all just slip away, and you lie down in God’s shadow,” he sang smoothly, in a song inspired by an afternoon with Keith Reed. “Going back to the 80’s,” Waite quipped. “Does anyone remember the ‘80s?”

Another poignant, lyrical highlight came in the form of ‘The Bluebird Café,’ written about a young and fearless singer/songwriter looking to be discovered at the famed Nashville venue. Waite talked sincerely about fulfilling his lifelong dream of performing at the Opry.  

‘Whenever You Come Around’ imbued the warmth and pentameter of a Cole Porter standard, and allowed Waite’s love for the blues to flourish. The audience went ballistic when Waite launched into ‘Every Time I Think of you,' one of The Baby’s most successful and heartfelt ballads.

“There’s diamonds in the Avenue / As the day shift turns to night,” Waite crooned earnestly when relaying the story of ‘New York City Girl,' a visceral song that harkens back to hard-edged places.

As a change of pace, Rhondo played a fresh and dynamic drum solo. By this time, fans had yelled one particular title out repeatedly with zeal. They finally got their wish. ‘Midnight Rendezvous’ (from Union Jacks) sounded as good as we all remembered, or probably even better.

This song’s contagious urgency comes through immediately in Waite’s strong delivery and emotionally charged imagery: “Driving faster than you want me to / Can’t help myself when I’m alone with you / Alright…”

“We’ve got it all sewn up,” Waite kidded. But there was still one more song to go. ‘Head First’ featured Hogan’s soul-expanding runs and Waite’s impressive moves. He asked us to sing along, and some did, and the rest of us couldn't bear hearing ourselves when we could hear the master.

John Waite exuded complete confidence on the stage. And even when he had some guitar troubles, earlier in the set, he switched gears like a pro, inviting the audience to ask random questions about his career, or anything damn well else they wanted to know.

“Any advice for an aspiring singer-songwriter?” “Get loaded,” Mr. Waite smirked.

Sad to see it all come to an end, the audience shouted for the band’s return. At that point, the “Wooden Heart” theme morphed into a Metal freak fest for ‘Whole Lotta Love.' Waite’s vocals were uniquely his, yet every bit as thrilling as Robert Plant’s. Not surprisingly, The Axemen pulled out all the exhilarating stops: pendulating riffs, blues-centric solos, and killer backbeats.   

“We only know one song. It’s kind of a rave-up,” Waite had warned in his self-effacing, light-hearted manner. Whether you call what happened a rave-up, an impromptu jam or whatever, it certainly hit the spot.  

SET LIST

Best of What I’ve Got

When I See You Smile

Back on My Feet Again

If You Ever Get Lonely

In Dreams

In God’s Shadow

Change

Bluebird Café

Whenever You Come Around

Every time I Think of you

New York City

Drum solo

Missing You

Midnight Rendezvous

Head First

Encore

Whole Lotta Love

Photography: Randal Hickes

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