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Foreigner: Changing Players, but Same Stash of Hits

Is there a divide between a band and its brand? Is it right to lay claim to a name and the legacy that goes with it even when there's only one original member and the group's roster is rebuilt from the ground up? We asked similar questions recently of the Beach Boys' current incarnation. 

The answer is, well, perhaps. Especially when nostalgia becomes the marketing tool. Just ask Foreigner. Given the arsenal of hits that made its name a chart staple from the late '70s well into the '80s, ("Cold as Ice," "Juke Box Hero," "Dirty White Boy," "Hot Blooded," "Double Vision," and "Urgent," among them), it's not surprising that the band still attracts hordes of diehard devotees. If it doesn't quite feel like the first time, Foreigner's newest incarnation nevertheless brandishes its banner with pride. 

In fact, nearly three dozen musicians have served in Foreigner's ranks from the time the band was formed 35 years ago. 

"This is the ongoing evolution of this group, and this is where we are now," Kelly Hansen explains. Hansen, who made his bow in 2005, replaced original lead singer Lou Gramm, joining the group after successfully auditioning with guitarist and sole remaining founding member Mick Jones. "No one ever requested that I sing the songs like Lou, and I don't. But what I do is sing these very well-known melodies. Mick and I had a lot of discussions about this, because I was really adamant about the fact that when we go out, we ought to do these songs the way people learned to love them. I want to stay faithful to the sound of Foreigner. We simply serve the music. The songs are the real stars, not the people playing them."

That's clear when listening to the band's recent CD/DVD, Feels Like the First Time, which shows Hansen, Jones, and the newest generation of Foreigner's rerecording of the hits, not only with spot-on reproductions of the original arrangements but with acoustic and live renditions as well. Clearly, then, the music is as fresh as ever. 

Three Foreigner songs are featured in the forthcoming film Rock of Ages, while the group itself is slated to tour through the fall. It's also giving one local school choir an opportunity to appear onstage to sing the swelling chorus that accompanies "I Want to Know What Love Is" along with a cash contribution to the school's music program. And for those who can't catch the band in concert, the Foreigner website offers fans the chance to compete for prizes through an interactive experience. 

Indeed, if Hansen were reluctant to step into another singer's shoes, he seems reticent about admitting it. "I bring my own shoes, and I never try to sound like anyone else," he insists. "I can't say it wasn't somewhat daunting to think of the history and the stature and the reputation of the band and want to maintain that, but if you're going to be a guy who fronts the band and -- pardon the expression -- hang your dick off the end of the stage every night... which is mostly what you're doing by standing out there, kind of naked for the world to see and judge -- you better have a backbone, and you better be confident in your abilities." 

Still, there's bound to be those who charge the current band members are simply mimicking the music. "For me, it's abundantly clear that I'm doing these songs my way," Hansen counters. "But it's not unusual to think that people with lesser training would or aren't professional listeners would think, 'Oh, it sounds just like that.' I don't see that at all. I'm just being who I am, and this band is being who we are now."

Foreigner performs at 7 p.m. Sunday, May 6, at SunFest in West Palm Beach. Ticket prices vary. Call 800-SUNFEST (786-3378).

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Lee Zimmerman

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