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RIDGEFIELD — Hot on the heels of a new, high-energy album released to celebrate Night Ranger’s 35th anniversary last year, bassist, singer, and primary songwriter Jack Blades told The Newtown Bee that he and co-founders Kelly Keagy (drums/vocals), and guitarist Brad Gillis barely have a place to shoehorn a couple of new numbers into a concert set jam-packed with familiar tunes.
Blades took a few minutes to field some questions ahead of Night Ranger’s upcoming show April 25 at The Ridgefield Playhouse, where he, Keagy, Gillis, and his two other brothers of the road — keyboardist Eric Levy and guitarist Keri Kelli — pledge to deliver fans a full evening of instantly recognizable hit singles and signature album tracks including “Sister Christian,” “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” “When You Close Your Eyes,” the anthemic “(You Can Still) Rock In America,” and other popular favorites like “Sentimental Street,” “Goodbye,” “Sing Me Away,” and “Four in the Morning.”
Having sold more than 17 million albums, Night Ranger is still mixing up its crowd-pleasing concoction of evocative lyrics, buzzsaw guitar chords, intricate dual leads, and precise harmonies with fine results on their brand-new studio album Don’t Let Up. Blades said even the title was cast to reflect the fact that his band still has loads of rocket fuel left in the tank.
While its trio of co-founders began playing together in 1979 as the band Stereo, the outfit did not officially change its name to Night Ranger until 1982. Hitting the concert scene with its debut album Dawn Patrol already completed, Night Ranger was catapulted to international fame not only on the strength of its strong first single, “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” but of the high rotation the song’s video enjoyed on the fledgling MTV network.
The band went on to have almost a half-dozen number one videos on MTV.
Over the years, Night Ranger music has continued to pop up in many different areas of media and popular culture, from TV Shows like The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, American Dad, Glee, Grey’s Anatomy, and Parks & Recreation to the Rock Band, Guitar Hero, and Grand Theft Auto video games.
Night Ranger’s familiar numbers have also been used in the hit Broadway musical Rock of Ages, and films including Friday the 13th, Teachers, Sixteen Candles, The Secret of My Success, the Oscar-Nominated Boogie Nights, and even the audio brand JBL’s “Hear The Truth” commercial campaign.
Like many acts, Night Ranger saw its share of comings and goings, with Blades breaking from the group in 1989 to form Damn Yankees, a so-called supergroup with Ted Nugent and Tommy Shaw of Styx. Blades already had a longstanding friendship and professional collaboration with Shaw in an on-again off-again outfit called Shaw/Blades that produced the 1995 album Hallucination, as well as a post-Yankees collection of cover tunes called Influence in 2007.
More recently, for its 30th anniversary in 2012, Night Ranger went acoustic with the concert DVD and CD release 24 Strings & A Drummer, on which Blades sings and trades his electric bass for six-string guitar. Perhaps more than ever, the stripped down arrangements on 24 Strings showcased how well constructed the group’s songs really were, and how underrated Gillis’s lead guitar chops were when buried in full electric effects and distortion.
Blades also stayed busy over the years, producing two solo albums and co-writing material for Aerosmith, Cher, Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper, and Roger Daltrey, as well as producing or co-producing albums for Night Ranger, Shaw/Blades, Great White, and longtime pal Ted Nugent.
Turning his attention back to the upcoming Ridgefield Playhouse show, Blades called on fans and anyone who loves “good old American rock and roll,” to come out, clap their hands, sing along with their favorite hits, and lose themselves for a couple of hours in the kind of feel-good music that Night Ranger has been pumping out for decades.
We launched our conversation with Blades digging — and digging into the new album:
The Newtown Bee: I just pulled a college style cramming session listening to Don’t Let Up a half dozen times, and it sounds excellent – what took you guys so long to put out a new studio album?
Jack Blades: We like to take our time, and actually we released it to coincide with the 35th anniversary of the band. We thought the title was pretty apropos having been around since ‘82 when we released Dawn Patrol. And here it is 2018 and we’re releasing our latest album. So Don’t Let Up is really the theme of who we are right now. We’re not letting up, and we’re going to keep it going for a long time to come.
The Bee: “Nothing Left of Yesterday” really caught my ear – tell me the backstory on that one.
Blades: Brad and Kelly and I were sitting around writing songs at Kelly’s place in Nashville, and we started strumming an acoustic thing, and I started singing some of the words… (singing) ‘Standin’ in the pouring rain, tears fill in the eyes, how could she be so blind…’ Then Brad stated slamming the guitar, and I’m going, (singing loud) ‘HEY, you’re gonna live, you’re gonna live to love another day once you walk away…’ You know I love the lyrics of that song, too. That one and “Truth,” wait, “Truth” and “Don’t Let Up,” are my favorites, wait, there’s also “Somehow Some Way” (laughing). These are killer songs.
The Bee: “Somehow Some Way” really kicks.
Blades: “Somehow Some Way,” was one I came up with when I was working in my home studio, just rocking out. And then Keri our other guitarist came over and we started fooling around with the bridge and he was the one who came up with some of those great chord changes. But the lyrics are sort of biographical, you know. Because we moved to San Francisco, and I met my wife in Sausalito, so there’s a lot of realism in that song. The whole idea is you just don’t let up on your big picture dreams. You never know what’s going to happen when you keep holding on, like Night Ranger has done for the past 36 years.
The Bee: When I came out to LA in 1984, you guys were just breaking – you were all over MTV, and I think I saw you at Universal Studios at one point in either ’85 or ’86.
Blades: Good lord, that WAS a long time ago!
The Bee: How much of the work putting “Don’t Let Up” together involved all or most of the five of you in the studio at the same time?
Blades: It was a combination of both. First it was just Brad, Kelly and I getting together and jamming out some stuff. Then we brought in Keri and Eric Levy our phenomenal keyboard player to add some parts. So it was kind of done in different locations across the US. But at the same time it was a cohesive process because the main parts were down. So a lot of the work involved nuances and the sweetening here, there, and everywhere, you know what I mean? And we all had to be together working out and recording all the singing.
The Bee: Were any of the songs on Don’t Let Up more challenging to put together or getting them to sound the way you wanted them in the finished product?
Blades: When we were making this new album, we wanted to make it sound more like our live show, which is why there aren’t a plethora of ballads on it. It’s more energetic from the first song into the next and on and on. The way we stacked it up it’s a much more aggressive and rocking album. But in the end, it’s just the next album that you made. It’s like what Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top once told me when I was all panicked after we finished Midnight Madness, and we had to gear up to write and record our follow-up album, Seven Wishes. I was telling Billy that I was freaking out with so much pressure on us to follow-up this four million-plus selling record. And he looked at me and said, ‘Hey man, you just gotta go in there and make another record, then you make another record, and you keep going in there and do what you do.’ And it was like — BOING — a lightning bolt hit me; I just needed to get out of my head and do it. So I love each record, and each one has its high points, but there are an awful lot of high points on Don’t Let Up.
The Bee: How much of this new material is showing up in the setlist for the show we’re going to see here in Ridgefield on April 25?
Blades: Wow, you know it’s hard because we have so many songs to choose from. People always want to hear the songs you’ve made famous over the years, whether it be “Sister Christian,” or “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” or “When You Close Your Eyes,” or “Rock In America,” or “Sentimental Street,” “Goodbye,” or “Rumors In The Air” or “Sing Me Away,” or “Four in the Morning.” So there’s nine songs out of a 12-song set already, but we will throw in a couple new songs, too. We’ll throw in “Truth” sometimes, “Somehow Some Way,” we’ll throw in a couple of Damn Yankees songs that I wrote with Ted and Tommy — heck, Dan Yankees ain’t playin’ them so we might as well, right? Those are killer songs. So there’s a lot of music to choose from in a Night Ranger set. And if you come to different nights, you’re going to see a different show because we like to mix them up.
The Bee: Do you get requests through your social network pages and play obscure cuts for people who are coming to specific shows once in awhile?
Blades: Oh sure, but mostly it’s funny because people are shouting out songs they think we’re not going to play. They shout out, ‘Play ‘Sing Me Away,’ (laughing) and of course that’s in practically every setlist somewhere. Sure, one in awhile they go deep, but then it’s like, hey, we haven’t played that since the Cow Palace in 1985, we can’t possibly pull that one off.
The Bee: You’ve been lucky enough to call Tommy Shaw a friend and worked with him in two great acts. But I swore if I ever interviewed either one of you, I’d ask about the dynamic of working with Ted Nugent in Damn Yankees.
Blades: Aw, you know Ted’s great, he’s just the fumiest guy in the world to be around. We were smart at the beginning of Damn Yankees when we decided to check our egos at the door whenever we got together. But I think what made it easy for me to work with Ted was getting right in his face about songs and ideas. Up to then, I think Ted was used to being surrounded by ‘yes people,’ you know — just telling him whatever he wanted to hear all the time. But it wasn’t like that with me, I would be like, ‘dude, that guitar part just isn’t right, you got something better?’ (laughing) I mean up to then, how many people do you think stood up in front of Ted Nugent and asked him to come up with something better? So Ted and I from the get go, trusted my judgetment, and my opinions. He’d ask me something and I’d give him a straight answer, instead of some baked over BS. And it’s been that way for 25 or 26 years with Ted. It’s the same with Tommy, who is terrific to work with.
The Bee: Do you guys have an eye on maybe doing some sort of Damn Yankees anniversary tour? It’ll be 30 years in 2019?
Blades: Probably not, which is a shame. There’s been talk about getting back together and it’s too bad because that was such a great band. I’d love to do it and you never say never.
The Bee: …and there’s a lot of room for zeros on a check to entice you guys back out.
Blades: That would work, too! (laughing)
For tickets to see Night Ranger ($75) contact the box office at 203-438-5795 or ridgefieldplayhouse.org. The Ridgefield Playhouse is a nonprofit performing arts center at 80 East Ridge, parallel to Main Street.
Check out Night Ranger performing ‘Somehow Someway’ @ T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on November 3, 2017
Jack Blades and buddy Tommy Shaw (Styx) perform ‘High Enough’ — the hit they made famous with Damn Yankees at the 2009 NAMM convention: