Above: Thom Gimbel in action with Foreigner. Below: Foreigner is bringing their classic repertoire to Cranbrook Feb. 26.

On the road with rock’s greats

Thom Gimbel talks about life and music with Foreigner in Cranbrook and around the world

Touring the world with one of the greatest songbooks in rock music never gets old, even for the most seasoned musician. Ask Thom Gimbel, a member of the classic band Foreigner, who are touching down at Western Financial Place in Cranbrook with their ‘Cold as Ice’ tour on Feb. 26.

“You never get tired of it,” Gimbel said, on the phone with the Townsman from Los Angeles. “It’s just a thrill to play great music with great musicians —interact with the audience. If you put that on top of it it’s the icing on the cake.”

Gimbel, originally from Boston, is a multi-instrumental who has been playing with Foreigner since 1995, playing guitar, flute, saxophone keyboards, and singing backing vocals. Before this long-running gig, he was a touring member of Aerosmith.

Both these bands were the top of the pole through the ‘70s and ‘80s, creating rock standards that resonate today for audiences everywhere. Foreigner’s string of albums since their formation in 1976 contributed a string of classic hits to that lexicon.

“People realize it was a different era then,” Gimbel said of that music. “Only the best of the best got to record albums in those days. You had to have a record deal, you had to have an A&R guy come and check out your band, they passed on a lot more than they signed.

“That’s probably part of the reason that the quality [of the music was so high].”

Cranbrook is one stop on what seems to be and endless worldwide tour for the band. The audience interaction is what keeps each show fresh and unique, Gimbel says.

“Just the looks on people’s faces. We go to far and away places. When we went to Iceland, when we went to Russia, you see people that are so glad to have a good old-fashioned rock concert in their town. That’s a big conduit that’s consistent. It lifts you up, and it’s very inspiring.”

Foreigner brings a two-guitar attack to its hard rock sound, with bass, drums and keyboards in the mix. As multi-instrumentalist, Gimbel adds colour and melody, and steps forward to solo on his various instruments.

“I get a special kick out of ‘Urgent’ — the adrenaline rush of putting saxophone on that,” he said. “It’s one of the few saxophone solos that everybody knows … we do the first part kind of the way it is on the album, then we switch keys and I get to do my own thing. Not just recreating what’s on the album — I get to improvise and stretch out.”

Foreigner’s music is so recognizable that it would be easy to play it by rote, note for note, show for show. The band works to keep it fresh.

“We have little places where we extend the jam, stretch out and improvise. Even though we stay pretty close to the originals.”

Allowing the musicians space and creativity is a feature of a great band, Gimbel said — one that he found in Aerosmith as well as Foreigner.

“They’re really similar. I noticed it when I first started working with Mick [Jones] and [original lead vocalist Lou Gramm], and with Steven Tyler and Joe Perry in Aerosmith. What I expected is not what happened. I expected those guys to be breathing down my neck, saying ‘What are you playing there? What notes are you playing here? Keep it this way, keep it that way …’

“It was absolutely the opposite. It was ‘What can you bring?’ What can you stretch out on and make it more than it is?’ In Foreigner, when I came with the saxophone on ‘Urgent,’ it wasn’t enough to play the solo from the album. Mick and Lou said ‘we want you to just take it to the next level, and tear the roof off the place.’

“So instead of boxing you in or trying to contain you, in both bands they were encouraging me to elongate and make it into your own, and raise the bar.

That’s the sign of great band leaders, trying to get the most out of their musicians.

“As opposed to just playing the album, people could just stay home and play the CD. We want to give a lot more than that.”

Foreigner’s Cranbrook concert will contain a strong local element. The Mount Baker Concert Choir will be performing with the band on the band’s classic hit “I Want To Know What Love Is.” Foreigner will donate $500 to the choir for appearing with the band and the choir will sell Foreigner CDs at the concert to raise monies for Foreigner’s charity partner, The Grammy Foundation.

“We’ve been doing that for years, working with the Grammy Foundation, trying to raise awareness about music programs being taken away in the schools,” Gimbel said. “It’s a way of saying, ‘Hey, we love the fact that schools still have music, and we’re trying to contribute whatever we can to prolong that.”

In the meantime, the road work continues — good old-fashioned rock from a straight ahead rock band.

“It’s like a traditional rock band, almost from the years gone by,” Gimbel said. “There are fewer and fewer bands like that from the rock era, and we’re lucky we’re still doing it. We’re very fortunate, and grateful to the people, and that’s the reason we keep going — as long as folks want us to, we’ll keep going.

Foreigner features Mick Jones on lead and rhythm guitar, keyboards and backing vocals; Thom Gimbel on saxophone, flute, keyboards, rhythm and lead guitar, backing vocals; Jeff Pilson on bass, backing vocals; Kelly Hansen on lead vocals; Michael Bluestein on keyboards, backing vocals; Bruce Watson on rhythm and lead guitar; Chris Frazier on drums.

Foreigner plays Western Financial Place in Cranbrook on Tuesday, February 26. Tickets available by calling 250-426-7328, or online at tickets.cranbrook.ca.

Above: Thom Gimbel in action with Foreigner. Below: Foreigner is bringing their classic repertoire to Cranbrook Feb. 26.

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