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Music

Foreigner woos India

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A pop-rock band that has always been a jukebox hero in India.

Back in the 80s, it was difficult to spend a day without listening to at least one of their songs on the radio. Hits like Waiting for a girl like you and I want to know what love is made Foreigner, with its brand of pop rock, the leaders of the 'rock radio' pack. They've sold more than 70 million albums and any discussion of classic rock is incomplete without mentioning the 35-year-old band.

On its first tour of India, and with only Mick Jones from the original lineup still around, Foreigner comes across as a charming cross between a nostalgia act and a contemporary rock band. There was nothing glitzy about the set up, just a black background with 'Foreigner' written on it. Instead of screaming fans, it was a sit-down concert. Maybe that had more to do with the fact that sitar maestro Niladri Kumar was opening for the international act. Niladri, who plays the electric sitar like it's the electric guitar, and his energetic young band - Gino Banks on drums, Sheldon D'Silva on bass, Aggi Fernandez on keyboards and Satyajit Talwalkar on tabla - had the crowd on its feet, leaving it warm and receptive for Foreigner's much awaited Indian debut.

There were many elderly faces in the audience, but perhaps that is the norm at any Foreigner show today. Jones, who started the band 35 years ago, though remarkably active for 67, is, like his fans, a greyer and older version of his 32-year-old self.

For those who were 15 in 1985, the new-look Foreigner would seem a bit...foreign. Bassists have left and joined, drummers have changed. But Jones and Lou Gramm were what made Foreigner a crowd favourite. Gramm, after flirting with the option of going solo, finally left the group in 2003. Adamant on keeping it going, Jones recruited Kelly Hansen, of Hurricane fame, and the decision seems to have worked. The band has spent the last few years touring extensively. "When the band was revamped, we felt the need to re-establish the new lineup, " Hansen told TOI-Crest before the band performed in Delhi. "We've been to a lot of places in the past few years, places where Foreigner had never been to, like Russia. It's all just part of the process to let the world know that the new Foreigner is still around."

Hansen worked the crowd on Friday night at the Talkatora Stadium. He jumped off the stage and into the crowd, and shook hands with fans. Hansen's vocal range was perfect for the rock ballads that Foreigner is so famous for, and if there were any fans who were missing Gramm, their cries were drowned out by the very vocal support that the 50-year-old Hansen received.
"I like to say that I brought my own shoes. I'm not trying to be someone else and this band is not trying to be a version of something else, " said Hansen.

Given that reinventing songs is a trend most bands succumb to, it's refreshing and reaffirming that Hansen has stayed true to the originals. He could very easily have turned the hit songs on their head, but chose not to. "We felt the songs should be sung the way they were conceived, because when I go to a concert I want to hear the songs I grew up listening to on the radio, " he said. "They are great songs and they have great melodies. They don't need me to reinterpret them. Of course, I'm doing them my own way, but when you're singing songs that are this well known you should sing them in the melody they were written in. That was one of the key things that let fans know that we cared. "

And it showed. The band performed most of its well-known hits such as Feels like the first time, Cold as ice, Urgent, Dirty white boy, and Head games. But it was the signature hits, including Hot Blooded, that had the crowd on its feet. When the first strains of I want to know what love is drifted into the air, it took a few seconds for it to become one big sing-along.

There's visible bonhomie between the bandmates, ties that have been strengthened by the constant touring over the last few years. There's Thom Gimbel, who plays guitar, saxophone and flute, Michael Bluestein on keyboards and synthesizers, Jeff 'Animal' Pilson on bass and backing vocals, and the most recent member, Jason Sutter, on drums. But the star is clearly Mick Jones, who indulged himself with a performance of the lesser-known track, Starrider.

Jones plays on four different guitars during a single show and introduces the band to the audience. After Gramm's exit, he is, for most fans, all that is left of the Foreigner of yore. And for Hansen, one of the biggest reasons for joining Foreigner.

"It's really great to be working with Mick, " said Hanson. "He seems like this great, refined English gentleman, but he's also a guy who has spent his life around music. It's a great thing for me when I look to my right on stage, and there's Mick Jones, because I don't have to worry about anything going wrong. One would think that someone with those many hits and at that level would be hard to get along with, but he's not. He's a real team player. "

Its ninth studio album, Can't Slow Down, which debuted at No 29 on the Billboard chart, did the band's reputation no harm, but the India tour is more about refreshing memories than enhancing album sales. Foreigner has left with its reputation as jukebox heroes intact.

(Foreigner has performed in New Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Kolkata and will end its 5-city tour with Bangalore on Feb 20)

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