Shaw/Blades – Hallucination (1995)

Though his work with Night Ranger and/or Damn Yankees never has or will win any awards for originality or subtlety, Jack Blades is, to me, sort of the living embodiment of rock & roll.

I mean, think about it. He isn’t the best-looking guy — kind of short and doughy — and not the most spectacular bass player or most talented vocalist. He’s got an ear for hooks and melodies, but his songs are, by and large, nothing terribly special. Like anyone who’s been making a comfortable living at music for an extended period of time, he’s extremely lucky. The thing is, unlike a lot of his peers, Blades has never forgotten this; whether hamming it up on stage or striking a cornball pose on an album cover, he always seems to be having the time of his life. That may seem like no big deal, but so many rock stars take themselves so seriously that it’s refreshing to see a guy who, after 25 years, still gives off the impression that he can’t believe he’s getting paid to do this. Having interviewed him, I can tell you that he comes off the same way in person. He’s so happy, and so excited to be making music, that you just want to buy him a beer because he gets it.

Of course, that affability has its drawbacks, and foremost among them is Blades’ apparent willingness to work with anybody. After Night Ranger evaporated in 1989, he was at loose ends — though an extremely prolific songwriter, Blades hadn’t ever really thought of himself as a solo artist. Luckily, he didn’t need to. I’m not sure whether it was the record company or the managers who came up with the idea, but before long, Blades was recording with washed-up Motor City Madman Ted Nugent and erstwhile Styx guitarist Tommy Shaw. The result, Damn Yankees, was every bit as empty and bombastic as you probably remember, and the byproduct of the band’s inevitable split was a friendship and songwriting partnership with Shaw.

As much as I like Jack Blades, I loathe Tommy Shaw. He was in Styx, for one thing. He’s a leather-wearing vegetarian, for another. Mostly, though, he just sucks — this is the guy, after all, who bitched about having to play Dennis DeYoung’s crappy ballads, then went out and released a solo album called Girls With Guns. His greatest claim to fame as a solo artist was singing the theme song for Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins. Even in an era when male rock stars were supposed to be mildly androgynous, Shaw looked and sounded a little too much like a woman.

So Hallucination should be terrible, and yet it really isn’t. Recognizing that their brand of FM rock had become passé, the duo took Warner Bros.’ advance money and used it to create a back porch album. In and of itself, that’s nothing special; hairy rockers had been going “unplugged” for years even in 1994. This change in volume rarely signified any change in artistic direction, though. I mean, acoustic Bon Jovi or Mötley Crüe is every bit as over the top as regular Bon Jovi or Mötley Crüe — it’s just a little quieter and slower. For Shaw and Blades, though, making Hallucination was an excuse to pay tribute to their shared roots. Rather than sounding like unplugged Night Ranger or Damn Yankees or Styx, the album is full of direct, affectionate references to The Beatles and ’60s/’70s songwriter rock like Buffalo Springfield, Spirit, or The Byrds.

Now, it isn’t like these roots are obscure or unique in any way. It’s just that Shaw and Blades play to them intelligently, with a wink and a smile. The album has the airy, relaxed feel of a recording made simply for the fun of it. There are certainly peaks and valleys — “My Hallucination” sounds uncomfortably like Damn Yankees after a Sgt. Pepper’s marathon, and “I Can’t Live Without You” is the eye-roller its title suggests — but on the whole, it’s better than anything either of them had done before or have done since. (I realize we’re talking about Night Ranger and Styx here, so the whole “better than” thing might be a meaningless compliment, but still.)

The rub to all this is that Warner Bros. was in an extreme state of flux in 1995, and Hallucination fell right through the cracks. This was a shame not only because some of these songs could have been moneymakers, but also because the album’s failure sent Shaw and Blades back to Styx and Night Ranger. This isn’t a knock on those bands (well, not Night Ranger, anyway), but Hallucination could have been the start of something more interesting. Then again, the duo is apparently gearing up to release a sequel later this year, in the form of a covers album that I’m certain will reek (terrifying confirmed track listing here), so maybe once was enough.

Shaw/Blades – Don’t Talk to Me Anymore
Shaw/Blades – I’ll Always Be With You
Shaw/Blades – I Stumble In