Tom Keifer does justice to old hits and previews new songs at BergenPAC

Tom Keifer review


Tom Keifer, formerly of Cinderella, performs at BergenPAC in Englewood on Aug. 5.

As Tom Keifer and the six other members of his Keiferland band took the stage at BergenPAC in Englewood, Aug. 5, their entrance music couldn’t have been more timely.

The Rolling Stones’ classic “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” blasted over the theater’s PA, while that legendary band — whom Keifer has held a lifelong affection for — performed a mere 10 miles away, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford. The enormity of that neighboring event, combined with it being a Monday night during the height of summer vacation season, reduced the former Cinderella frontman’s audience at BergenPAC to a size that he is not accustomed to. Yet judging by his superb performance, one would never have known it.

The night started with “Touching the Divine,” a hard-driving new song from his upcoming album Rise (release date: Sept. 13), before he and fellow guitarist Tony Higbee kicked the show (and the crowd) into gear with a propulsive rendition of Cinderella’s “Night Songs,” the title track of the album that introduced Keifer to the public more than 30 years ago.

The lighter fare of “Coming Home” followed, foreshadowing what would be in store for the rest of the night: a seamless mix of Keifer’s atmospheric hard rock and traditional rock ‘n’ roll.

Cinderella Era favorites would continue to arrive — 11 in all, including “Gypsy Road,” “Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone)” and “Somebody Save Me” — but Keifer’s performance of the title track of Rise was also a highlight. The song’s slow build was delivered by harrowing backing vocals from Savannah Snow (Keifer’s wife) and Kendra Chantelle, while the floating keyboard/organ tones of Kory Myers hung above the escalating rhythm of drummer Jarred Pope and bassist Billy Mercer. It all meshed beautifully, earning “Rise” one of the most enthusiastic reactions of the night for any of Keifer’s songs, new or classic.

Keifer, right, with Tony Higbee at BergenPAC.

That Keifer was able to sing at all, never mind belt out songs in his patented growl, was something not to be taken for granted. He has famously fought a decades-long and continuing battle with vocal cord paresis, subsequent hemorrhages and at least a half dozen surgeries, leading to many years of intensive voice rehabilitation.

This backstory made the strong voice Keifer possessed at BergenPAC noteworthy, along with the brave choices he continued to make with his voice onstage. He gamely tackled the screams, howls and wails that accent his best known songs, sometimes delivering those flourishes even more passionately than he did on the recordings. At other moments he added pieces that weren’t on the recordings at all.

It felt almost reckless, and fans notice such things. The audience was engaged and vocal all evening, and appeared to have a collective understanding that they were witnessing a strikingly honest performance.

This became abundantly clear during Keifer’s rendition of his greatest commercial hit, “Nobody’s Fool.” After launching it as an acoustic sing-along, Keifer abruptly stopped halfway through the song’s amplified middle and dropped to his knees, frenetically imploring the crowd to share their energy with the band. As he rose to his feet he shouted and gestured to the audience, not unlike an athlete who just made a big play. Most notably, he continually punched at and pointed towards his heart, a gesture he would revisit throughout the show.

Tom Keifer’s backing vocalists Savannah Snow, left, and Kendra Chantelle at BergenPAC. Snow is also Keifer’s wife.

This was a planned piece of stagecraft, but it also looked and felt genuine — the two realities are not mutually exclusive. At this stage of Keifer’s life and career, after the near total loss of his instrument, doubting his sincerity might be a bad bet.

Still, you can have a strong voice and stage presence, but without good material there would be nothing to be sincere about. Keifer has no concerns there. To watch and hear him perform a setlist pulled from his four decades of songwriting is to gradually perceive him as a hard rock jukebox — filled with a canon of songs that includes five Top 40 hit singles and led to sales in excess of 15 million albums.

On this night, Keifer seemed unconcerned with commerce on any scale, even sheepishly promising his audience that he would pitch his new album to them only once.

Instead, he appeared hellbent on emptying every bit of himself into the performance they had paid for — sweat dripping from his hair and face, road-worn guitar hanging from his neck, voice very much intact, his musical (and matrimonial) family behind him, and a heart he wore so far out on his sleeve that there was no need for him to point it out.

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