Review: Powerful Pat Benatar steals Taupō Summer Concert show from headliners ZZ Top, The Angels, Stone Temple Pilots

Pat Benatar in concert
Pat Benatar in concert. Photo credit: Getty

REVIEW: Perhaps the major concern when you rock up to watch any live concert involving iconic performers of the past is how much of their former glory has stuck with them 20... 30... 40 years after their prime.

By that stage, a band's line-up can change almost full rotation, so at what point does it become simply a cover band covering their own music?

New Zealand has hosted plenty of acts no longer even fronted by the lead singers that propelled them to superstardom - Van Halen without David Lee Roth (or Sammy Hagar), the other UB40 without Ali Campbell, Jefferson Starship without Grace Slick, Lynyrd Skynyrd without Ronnie Van Zant... Queen without Freddie Mercury for goodness sake - with varying success.

Two of the bands on the this year's round of Summer Concerts - back after a two-year COVID-19 hiatus - fall into this category.

With this trepidation front of mind, the refugees of the washed-out and cancelled Whitianga show continued down SH1 from Auckland to that jewel of the North Island, Taupō, for the series opener. Replacement tickets, accommodation and petsitter had fallen into place surprisingly quickly, so that theme spread across the weekend.

After a three-hour drive, the refugees arrived to a traffic jam at the entrance to town, with the Taupō Amphitheatre situated at the northern extremity. Anyone simply passing through to southern destinations this day were in for a wait.

Gold-coin parking across the road was a pleasant convenience, while a non-paying audience settled into their deckchairs outside the fenceline to enjoy the music from afar.

Inside the grounds, enough portaloos and short waits ensured no-one had to duck behind the bushes. After a week of torrential rain across the region, sunhat sales were doing a roaring trade, as the heat ramped up.

Overview of Summer Concert Series at Taupō Amphitheatre
Overview of Summer Concert Series at Taupō Amphitheatre. Photo credit: Greenstone

Official records show Taupō reached a high of 26C, but it felt like 36C among the 17,500 that crammed into the bowl-shaped venue. Plenty of sunscreen was applied, but next morning, concert-goers would count the cost of body parts uncovered beneath the rays.

By the time the refugees arrived, local act False Heights had performed in front of their biggest-ever crowd. At next week's Queenstown show, Wanaka band Powder Chutes will fill the important 'fluffer' role.

The line already stretched 100 metres to the only merchandise tent and ZZ Top items would sell out long before they took the stage. 

Aussie rockers The Angels were in full flight, smashing out 'Am I Ever Going to See Your Face Again', along with an inappropriate crowd response.

The Angels were formed as a pub band in Adelaide in 1974 by singer and bass guitarist Bernard 'Doc' Neeson, who sadly died of a brain tumour nine years ago. By that time, he was pursuing a solo career, so current vocalist Dave Gleeson was already on board.

Gleeson, who was six when the band formed, has had plenty of time to make their old classics his own and his youthful exuberance brought new life to their typically energetic set.

Dave Gleeson fronts The Angels at Taupō Amphitheatre
Dave Gleeson fronts The Angels at Taupō Amphitheatre. Photo credit: Greenstone

The highlight was 'Face the Day', during which Gleeson pulled off a passable cartwheel midflight, but others included 'Take a Long Line' and 'No Secrets'.

Next up, Stone Temple Pilots, another band that has lost its original lead singer Scott Weiland, who was fired in 2013 and ultimately died of drug overdose two years later.

These days, they're fronted by Jeff Gutt, who emerged from an online recruitment campaign in 2017 and has made a fine fist of recapturing Weiland's swagger.

"You guys smell great," Gutt told the Taupō crowd, referring to the aroma of freshly smoked marijuana. "Smells like Christmas."

If you're lucky enough to get close to STP as they kickstart their set with 'Vaseline', you'll find your heartbeat changing rhythm with the bassline through the speakers.

Many of the crowd had come specifically to see STP and their acceptance was the acid test for the newish frontman. The fans were not disappointed, with Austen Powers lookalike Dean DeLeo on lead guitar, brother Robert on bass and Eric Kretz on drums, as they were 40 years ago when they began.

Personal highlight was 'Sex Type Thing'  to wrap up the set, but 'Interstate Love Song' checked off a bucket-list song, along with 'Big Empty' and 'Plush'.

Jeff Gutt and Robert DeLeo in concert with Stone Temple Pilots
Jeff Gutt and Robert DeLeo in concert with Stone Temple Pilots. Photo credit: Greenstone

Most of the pre-concert conjecture around Pat Benatar centred on her apparent decision to dispense with her anthemic 'Hit Me With Your Best Shot' in response to the plague of mass shootings in the United States. How would she explain this to her audience?

Simply, she didn't - and didn't have to. Benatar packed her set with so many other hits, 'Best Shot' wasn't missed at all.

Now 70, any fears she might have lost her vocal power were quickly dispelled, as she belted out the following playlist:

  • All Fired Up
  • Live For Love
  • We Belong (an acoustic version, with husband Neil Giraldo on piano)
  • Promises in the Dark
  • Invincible
  • Shadows of the Night (another acoustic version)
  • Hell is for Children
  • Love is a Battlefield
  • Helter Skelter (a soaring version of The Beatles classic)
  • Everybody Lay Down (for the record, the Shazam app doesn't work at live gigs)
  • Heartbreaker/Ring of Fire (an awkward mash-up of her own hit with a Johnny Cash standard)
The Angels entertain at Taupō Amphitheatre
The Angels entertain at Taupō Amphitheatre. Photo credit: Greenstone

Benatar has retained her immense power through the middle range. She may not have the same high end she once had, but a quick listen to her 1983 Live From Earth album suggests it was always missing from her live act.

Personal highlights were 'Hell is for Children' and 'Promises in the Dark', but Benatar's sweet rapport with the crowd simply stole the show.

ZZ Top may be the headliners for this tour, but by the time they took the stage, the natives were getting restless under the intense heat and the Texas rockers did themselves no favours with a setlist that strayed too far from the 'Greatest Hits' template.

With four legendary acts crammed into six hours, there's less need to pad with obscure band favourites and rambling guitar solos, but ZZ Top probably tried to play test cricket in a T20 format, spending too long peddling their long beards-blues riff schtick and leaving too many of their hits on the shelf.

If "here's one from our latest album" is the most deflating phrase uttered by lead singers, "here's one from our first album (the one that didn't make us famous)" must be a close second.

ZZ Top in concert at Taupō Amphitheatre
ZZ Top in concert at Taupō Amphitheatre. Photo credit: Greenstone

After a half century with the same line-up, ZZ Top recruited band tech Elmore Francis - or Kevin Bacon with a beard, as the STP fans described him - onto bass, when beloved Dusty Hill died only two years ago. 

Yes, Frank Beard is the one without the beard, but Billy Gibbons is the personality of a band that seemed old - in a good quirky way - well before its time.

They included some of their best known like 'Under Pressure', 'Gimme All Your Loving' and 'Sharp Dressed Man', but made us wait way too long for 'Legs' and personal favourite 'La Grange' to wind up their encore.

Others like 'Tush', Sleeping Bag', 'Velcro Fly', 'Planet of Women' and 'Stages' never made the cut.

Give them a two-hour slot to work these essentials into their current playlist and a bit more space to showcase their musicianship, and this would still be a cracking show. 

And, dare we say it, even a passing shower would have kept the audience engaged until the very end.