Journey | Assembly Hall | Sunday December 4 | 7:30 pm

My musical tastes developed in high school. However, I’m not sure many of you out there on the Internets were subjected to the great Iron Maiden – Journey debate.

Here’s how it went: On my high school cross-country team, Jeff Rodgers liked Iron Maiden and Jeff Kyle liked Journey. Both were seniors and both had competing boom boxes. Remember, this was 1980-something and nobody walked around with cute little iPods and mp3s were the stuff of science fiction. Everyone, way back in the stone age, had aneurism-inducing boom boxes guaranteed to wake your dear old grandmother 3,000 miles away with the sweet sounds of “Run to the Hills.”

In any case, we would go on CC road trips and JK and JR would blast their competitive boom boxes all the way to our destination. To my relatively virgin ears, I liked both bands. Maiden always pumped me up before a race nicely and Journey always was good for a cool down. Consequently, I never took a side in the Iron Maiden – Journey debate. I enjoyed them both… although it was kind of tough when they played them both at the same time.

Sunday night I had little trouble hearing the band. I was front and center for Journey at Assembly Hall. It was one of the best concerts I had ever seen with one of the most fun, energetic and tight bands currently touring. Here’s how it all went down…

5:30 pm (Two hours before show time)
I decide to go to the Journey show. None of my friends could make it down for the show, which was understandable since it was a Sunday night and they all live either too far away or have kids. I casually pull in to the mostly empty parking lot and pay my $5 for parking. Outside it was bitter cold – the kind that goes right through you like a knife under the ribs.

I call my girlfriend to remind her that I’m going to the show. She was upset that she couldn’t make it either. I’m guessing she might have been able to keep my teeth from chattering, but chances are she would have been moving through this cold like the Tin Man in need of some oil.

6:00 pm (One and a half hours before show time)
I check out the radio station van near the entrance. One of the local radio stations was giving away free front row tickets and I dropped my name in the bucket. The DJ hands me a set of free C Section tickets for braving the cold. As I’m writing my name and number in a way that pegs me for a cerebral palsy patient, a couple come up and ask if I’d like a lone ticket for B Section. I gladly accept and give back the C Section tickets to the DJ to hand out to some other lucky, brave soul.

I make a short trek across the frozen concrete tundra to the ticket office. While I did just receive a free ticket to the show in a pretty good spot, who knows what the ticket office has? Guess what… front row just opened up at face value. I wish I’d brought my camera. With my luck, I should have bought a lottery ticket.

6:30 pm (One hour before show time)
The huddled masses, frozen outside the door, are finally allowed inside. I shuffle in to find my seat. I have’nt been in the front row of a rock concert since high school. I have no idea what to expect. What do I get? Two 22-year-old girls from Ohio and a cute couple, about my age, on either side of me. A nice microcosm of the Journey audience. Old farts like me (and much older) to youngsters under ten.

I chat with the security guard and ask what the rules are for standing in the front row and moving closer to the stage. He was gracious and helpful and even posed for pics with the Ohio girls. He said, as soon as the show starts I could move closer, towards the center as long as I didn’t make an ass out of myself or push people. Sweet.

7:00 pm (One half hour before show time)
I grab a quick supper of Domino’s pizza, Sierra Mist and a pretzel. I glance at the overpriced concert shirts and flirt with buying an Escape shirt, but decide against it. I wait patiently (no pun intended) as the crowd files in.

I see Jeff Wheaton and his son. Jeff plays guitar in The Lost Boys out of Springfield. He would have enjoyed my perch, a mere ten feet away from Neil Schon.

I’m slightly amazed that the front rows have not filled up. I wonder silently if people think there’s an opening act. There isn’t one. I secretly hope that I can run up to center stage, sans other front rowers. Randomly, I wonder if Neal Schon will decide to do a version of “Flight of Icarus.”

7:30 pm (The show starts!)
As soon as the lights go out and the stage lights hit, I’m running behind the front rowers who have already grabbed some stage. I don’t care about that, I just want to stand behind them and watch the show. Confidently, I walk right behind an enormously obese couple, a fairly large girl and her friend and I stop short of the little girl going through chemo and her family. All of these people bought the Journey VIP packages where they got front row seats and backstage passes and assorted goodies for about $150.

The band kicks off with “Be Good To Yourself.” Steve Augeri is amazing on vocals. He does mess up and say Grand Rapids or something instead of Champaign. You can tell he feels terrible about the mistake. I once heard Peter Criss of KISS confuse Chicago with Champaign, but that’s a bit more understandable. In any case, the band is as solid as steel.

They run through their hits and concert staples. I heard Chain Reaction, Lights, Who’s Cryin’ Now, Ask the Lonely, Any Way You Want It, Wheel in the Sky, Escape, Only the Young, Stone in Love and probably a few others I’ve forgotten. They played three tracks off the new album (Faith in the Heartland, The Place in your Heart and Every Generation) and I actually heard many in the audience singing back.

Highlights for me included some of the older material such as Feelin’ That Way/Anytime and a track off of their first album called Mystery Mountain. A welcome change was hearing Deen Castronovo sing lead on Patiently and Still they Ride. Don’t Stop Believin’ and Separate Ways got the biggest audience reactions and Open Arms sounded better than the record.

Ross was pretty funny with his facial expressions. I was pretty much front and center for his antics (the squirt gun was a stroke of genius) and amazing playing. Neal was subdued on stage, but cranked out the licks. I learned later he was fighting bronchitis, but I couldn’t tell.

Deen was just a monster on the drums and one of the best I’d ever seen live. Jon’s singing isn’t the best, but his keyboards sounded great. Of course, Steve is the front man and really held the crowd with his voice.

The band started playing at straight-up 7:30pm and finished their encore (Lovin’ Touchin’ Squeezin’) at about 9:40pm. Over two hours of music without much in the way of filler. Schon did a tasty solo of the Star Spangled Banner and Cain did a sweet piano solo that I think was similar to the one on the DVD.

I paid $42 for the front row seat, but it was worth way more than that. The only thing that would have made it better was if my girlfriend could have been by my side… I would have liked to have danced to Open Arms.

I came away from the show with more than just a guitar pick from Neal Schon… I came away with even more respect for a hard working rock band who’s battled adversity, climbed the mountain and came back down and ultimately have stood the test of time.

And not once did I hear “Run to the Hills.”