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Rick Nielsen still living his dream with Cheap Trick

Times Staff Writer

With more than 35 years on the road, Cheap Trick is one of the hardest working bands in rock 'n' roll. For singer and frontman Rick Nielsen, that workload is just a way of life.

“I've always wanted to play since I was a little kid,” he said by phone last week before a concert in Las Vegas. “I guess it's a dream, or a nightmare, come true.”

Cheap Trick stops in Watertown on Thursday for a concert at the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds Arena. In the band's heyday, it would play up to 300 shows a year, Mr. Nielsen, 63, said. Nowadays, that yearly tally has declined by about 100.

“Before anybody had ever heard of us, we'd been touring for 10 years or more,” he said. “This is my lot in life.”

The band, formed in 1973 in Rockford, Ill., became a household name in 1979 with its live third album, “At Budokan” featuring the hits “Surrender,” “I Want You to Want Me,” and “Hello There.” The album was recorded in Japan, where the band is still wildly popular. Later hits would include “Dream Police,” “Tonight It's You” and “The Flame,” which hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts.

Throughout the band's career, Mr. Nielsen's onstage presence has become a trademark for the band. In early years especially, he often dressed in unconventional rock attire such as bow tie, suit jacket and baseball cap. He modeled the style after the fictional “Bowery Boys” film character Hurtz Hall.

“I'm a rock guy, but I never wanted that perception of a rock guy,” he said.

The fan base for the band, Mr. Nielsen said, has become multi-generational.

“It's pretty interesting,” he said. “It's great to have fans who have known you for a long time and it's great to have fans who have kind of never heard of you, or fans who have heard of you but don't know too much about you.”

New fans have a way of keeping the band on its toes.

“It's like going to school,” Mr. Nielsen said. “You got a lot to learn. But at the same time, it's up to you to do the homework.”

The band's latest album is 2009's “The Latest.” In the New Yorker magazine, reviewer Ben Greenman wrote, “The group continues to do what it has always done, balancing delicate balladry with skewed popcraft.”

The band's lineup has essentially stayed the same over the years, a rarity for a classic rock act. Joining Mr. Nielsen are lead singer and guitarist Robin Zander and bass player Tom Petersson. The band's studio drummer, Bun E. Carlos, does not tour with them. Mr. Nielsen's son, Daxx, is the touring drummer.

Mr. Nielsen said he is energized by audiences.

“I've always loved to play,” he said. “I'm more intimidated in a crowd of one or two than I am in a crowd of 10,000, of 100, or whatever the number might be.”

On June 16, the band began a tour with Aerosmith. Its Watertown stop is between concerts with them in Toronto on June 27 and Albany on June 29.

Mr. Nielsen said it's not the first time the two bands have toured together.

“We've known each other for a long time,” he said. “They like us and we like them. It's a good match. We come from the same era.”

Mr. Nielsen is known for his guitar collection and said he has owned about 2,000 of them throughout the years. He said that at concerts, he plays up to 20 of the instruments. He is known to perform on a five-neck guitar (especially on “Surrender”) and also performs a three-guitar solo with all three strapped to him.

His favorite guitar?

“It's the one you think is the coolest,” he said.

Some of that cool stuff, guitars and other items, will have its own exhibit beginning Aug. 11 when the Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford opens “Rick's Picks: A Lifelong Affair With Guitars & Music.”

The museum notes one of the focuses of the exhibit is on Mr. Nielsen's guitars as art and as tools. It also consists of display cases of his wardrobes over the years, a history of the performer told through video, photos and memorabilia and guest performances. Mr. Nielsen said he has saved over the years everything from concert ticket stubs to airplane tickets.

One room in the exhibit, Mr. Neilsen said, contains about 100 of his guitars.

“It's like a guitar shop,” he said. “But there's no cash register.”

WHAT: Cheap Trick presented by AMP Entertainment and Trip on the Wild SideWHEN/WHERE: Thursday at the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds Arena. Doors open at 7 p.m.COST: Tickets range from $35 to $50. Reserved tickets can be purchased at Trip on the Wildside, 671 Mill St.; Bolton’s Pharmacy, 128 W. Main St., and AAMCO Transmissions, 595 Coffeen St.
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