This band can still rock: Night Ranger relives heyday with new tour

As it is for many rock bands, years of making records, non-stop touring and sometimes personal and musical conflicts can often take their toll. But over time, friendships and the love of playing music together still remain. On Aug. 20, the State College area will hear the sounds of such a band, one that first hit the airwaves and music television with 1980s smash hits such as “Sister Christian,” “When You Close Your Eyes” and the anthem “(You Can Still) Rock in America.”

After 30 plus years of making music together, Night Ranger will perform at the State Theatre in State College as part of the band’s world tour.

The origins of the San Francisco-based band can be traced back to the pop/funk group Rubicon, which was led by Jerry Martini, former sax player for Sly and the Family Stone. Soon after the group disbanded in 1979, bassist Jack Blades formed a hard rock trio with fellow Rubicon members, drummer Kelly Keagy and guitarist Brad Gillis.

The group later added keyboardist Alan Fitzgerald, a former member of Montrose, in 1980. He then recommended guitarist, Jeff Watson, who had led his own band in Northern California.

Born and raised in Palm Desert, Calif., Blades started playing guitar when he was 8 years old. Influenced by popular rock bands of the day such as the Doors, Cream, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin, Blades eventually formed a band of his own. At the time, he was taking a different career path, but soon realized it wasn’t for him.

“I went to college actually,” he said. “I was going to be a doctor. But instead I moved to San Francisco to join a rock band.”

Initially the band was named simply Ranger, but after a country band called The Rangers claimed copyright infringement, the name was changed to Night Ranger. In 1982, the band recorded its first album, “Dawn Patrol,” promoting it with opening stints for ZZ Top and Ozzy Osbourne. The group soon became a regular on MTV with videos to help promote the album. The album did not spawn any hit singles but gave the band exposure.

Shortly after the debut of MTV in 1981, Night Ranger became a popular fixture on the new music channel.

“The first video we did, we did it for like $10,000,” Blades said. “We gave our video ‘Don’t Tell Me You Love Me’ to MTV, and I think at that time they had three videos. So they started playing our videos about 14 times a day, and suddenly we were on tour with Kiss.”

Their breakthrough occurred with their next album, “Midnight Madness,” released in late 1983. The album included what would be the band’s highest charting single. “Sister Christian” peaked at No. 5 in June 1984. A second single followed, “When You Close Your Eyes,” which peaked at No. 14.

Perhaps the band’s most successful album, “Seven Wishes,” released in 1985, included three hit singles, including “Sentimental Street,” “Four in the Morning (I Can’t Take Anymore)” and the acoustic-flavored “Goodbye,” which saw the band changing musical direction with a softer rock-folk-country style.

In 1989, Night Ranger disbanded, leaving the members to work on their own projects. Blades then went on to form the supergroup Damn Yankees with former Styx guitarist/vocalist Tommy Shaw and rocker Ted Nugent.

After taking a hiatus from Damn Yankees, Blades and Shaw formed the duo Shaw/Blades, releasing two albums in 1995 and 2007.

In 1996, Blades reformed Night Ranger when a Japanese promoter called and asked if they could do some shows in Japan.

“Tommy Shaw and I had just finished a Shaw/Blades record and the guys weren’t doing anything, so Night Ranger was just sitting around,” he said. “So we went over there and that started up the whole Night Ranger thing again.”

Currently the group includes three of the five original members: Blades, Gillis and Keagy. A second guitarist, Joel Hoekstra, was added in 2008. In 2011, Eric Levy joined the band on keyboards.

In 2011, Night Ranger released a new album, “Somewhere in California.” The album was well received and included the single “Growin’ Up in California,” for which the band recorded a video, which can be seen on YouTube. The group is currently working on a new album, set to be released in the spring.

Blades said he feels fortunate to be where he is today and hopes the band will continue to thrive.

“This is my chosen profession,” he said. “Right now the band is better than it’s ever been. When people come to our shows, it’s straight-ahead, pure, good old-fashioned, American rock and roll.”