The hair was shorter but the arena-size hooks that helped make Def Leppard and Mötley Crüe mainstream staples decades ago were on prominent display Friday night at a packed Wrigley Field.
Though a majority of their long-maned peers have long been reduced to playing county fairs and tiny clubs, both bands managed to outlast time and transcend criticism en route to co-headlining one of the year’s biggest tours. That each group arrived with a wheelbarrow of recognizable songs and pop-culture credibility didn’t hurt. Nor did the crowd’s willingness to indulge in nostalgia — or wait in long lines to snag the sorts of T-shirts that doubled as a uniform at high schools around the country during Ronald Reagan’s second term.
Dovetailing with current fashion, as well as interest in retro shows like Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” the appetite for MTV-heyday rock is robust. Originally scheduled for summer 2020 and postponed by the pandemic, the 36-date Stadium Tour — which also includes Poison and Joan Jett — has already sold more than 1.1 million tickets. The timing delay actually worked in favor of Def Leppard. The British veterans, the most studio-active band on the bill, in May released their first new album (“Diamond Star Halos”) in nearly seven years. To its credit, Def Leppard devoted nearly a quarter of its 90-minute set to recent material.
Career opportunists, Mötley Crüe last released a new record 14 years ago. But the Los Angeles rockers agreed to reunite and return to the road after their “The Dirt” autobiography — originally published in 2001 — was turned into a 2019 Netflix film. Doing so compelled the quartet to break its so-called “Cessation of Touring Agreement” it signed in advance of its alleged retirement and final show in 2015. As it turns out, ’80s music has more staying power than a legal contract.
In retrospect, perhaps Mötley Crüe should have reconsidered. Understandably, the four original members who took the stage in the wake of an exaggerated intro punctuated by throat-choking clouds of sulfurous smoke no longer resemble their youthful bad-boy selves. But time has also taken a harsh toll on the band’s abilities. Ironically, the oldest member, guitarist Mick Mars, seems to have changed the least. Thin, pale, and quiet, he still resembles a vampire that just awoke in a coffin. Primarily sticking to the shadows, Mars executed his parts with a competency that frequently served as the glue that held tunes together.
If anything, his instrumentalist cohorts, drummer Tommy Lee and bassist Nikki Sixx, overplayed. The duo repeatedly generated a muddy, bass-dominant rumble that devoured the contours of songs and saturated the mix with an indistinct sameness. They slowed down several well-known songs, including a deflated “Don’t Go Away Mad (Just Go Away)” and dulled “Looks That Kill.” And they suffocated the sass, sleaze and sway out of music that once threatened to give bystanders a transmissible disease if they got too close. Mötley Crüe’s bash-and-crash approach also functioned as a camouflage for Vince Neil’s screeching vocals, which have seen much better days.
Watching Neil trudge around was almost as uncomfortable as listening to him try to sing. During verses, he often failed to project over the din of his mates. Or he simply gave up, choosing to hold the microphone stand away from his mouth and toward the audience. Unable or unwilling to break from a tedious walking gait, he lacked enthusiasm in the same ways Mötley Crüe hurt for chemistry. For Neil, the 80-minute set amounted to a chore, a task to get through rather than a chance to entertain. His out-of-tune vocals on favorites such as “Home Sweet Home” and tendency to duck backstage for breaks couldn’t help but raise questions.
Indeed, the few bursts of energy came not from Neil or the now-tame Sixx but three female backing vocalists/dancers that did the heavy lifting on many choruses. Dubbed “The Nasty Habits,” the trio — like most of Mötley Crüe’s hedonistic fare — defied any notions of the #MeToo era. As they slithered around in revealing outfits and struck provocative poses, they provided an enormous boost to the band. Their presence further underscored how other glitzy trappings — hydraulic towers, pyrotechnics, lasers, fog and an ill-advised rendition of “The Dirt (Est. 1981)” that ultimately stood as a crass advertisement for the band’s Netflix movie — aimed at distracting.
Along with Mars’ greasy riffs, the trio largely carried “Dr. Feelgood” and “Girls, Girls, Girls.” But nothing masked the fact that the band demanded fans fill in too many blanks with memories.
Def Leppard opted for a different strategy. Afforded a huge stage, the quintet — whose ranks count three original members plus two guitarists, Phil Collen and Vivian Campbell, who have been in the band for decades — kept it simple. Save for a backdrop wall of tall screens, extended drum-riser platform and fancy lighting, Def Leppard skipped the frills and focused on music. Though aware its largest successes belong to the past, it sounded and acted like a band that still enjoys playing together. What it lacked in showiness and toughness it made up for with balance, control, sharpness and fun.
Not surprisingly, the group leaned heavily on material from its blockbuster “Hysteria” LP, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. Rather than go through the motions, singer Joe Elliott and company addressed the songs like anthems deserve to be treated — with chords that rang out for miles, rousing lead vocals, driving harmonies, tight rhythms and clean, vibrant sonics.
Owing as much to pop as any genre, and not shy about flaunting its way with catchy melodies, sparkling tones and slick beats, Def Leppard navigated the sensual curves of “Animal” with the same prowess it handled the cinematic drama on “Love Bites.” ” The group paid homage to artistic influences and simulated launch-countdown sequences on “Rocket” before cooling down to channel a mix of anticipation, anxiety and lust on “Hysteria.” Propelled by a meaty riff and insistent groove, “Armageddon It” used question-and-answer exchanges to extend an invitation to dance.
Albeit minor, Def Leppard’s sole misstep owed to mid-concert pacing. Gathered nearer to the crowd at center stage for a semi-unplugged mini-set anchored by the sappy “Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad,” the band gave stunted its momentum and people excuses to run to restrooms. A handful of new tunes — the singalong “Kick,” bleacher-stomping “Fire It Up,” glam-fueled “Take What You Want” — fared better and fit with the group’s glossy pop-rock mold. Tellingly, the “Diamond Star Halos” selections were the only post-1993 songs Def Leppard played.
Thankfully, the group acknowledged its New Wave of British Heavy Metal roots with an inspired version of the 1981 power ballad “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak” and segue into the instrumental “Switch 625,” culminated by a short solo by drummer Rick Allen. The one-armed percussionist also found himself at the center of the action during the booming “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” Receiving its proper due in a setting in which it helped make possible for live music to thrive — a stadium — the double entendre-laden staple felt as massive as it originally did in 1987. And that’s no ff-foolin.’
Bob Gendron is freelance music critic.