This is part of CP's Music issue — check out our other profiles of Philadelphia musicians like queer hip-hop duo Sgt. Sass, harpist Gillian Grassie, London-born bassist Anthony Tidd and OCD: Moosh & Twist, who keep getting shows shut down due to drunk teenagers.
“I don’t want to be corny,” Tom Keifer told a packed and stifling Dobbs last week as snow fell outside. “But this one’s for you, Philly.” With that, he launched into “Coming Home,” the wistful blues-rock power ballad from Cinderella’s second album, Long Cold Winter.
Keifer could be forgiven for feeling a bit sentimental. While he’s called Nashville home since 1997, he’ll always be associated with Philadelphia, where he led Cinderella on the bar circuit until breaking big during the late-’80s hair-band heyday with their debut album, Night Songs. Last week’s gig was his first appearance as a solo artist in his old stomping grounds, an intimate club date to debut some of the new material from his upcoming CD, The Way Life Goes, due out in late April.
The Way Life Goes marks the first release of any kind by Keifer since Cinderella’s last record, 1994’s Still Climbing. In many ways, it picks up right where the band left off. The first single, “The Flower Song,” echoes “Maggie May,” the familiar grit in Keifer’s voice approximating Faces-era Rod Stewart; but for the most part the album replicates the blend of pounding hard rock, soaring ballads and blues and country tinges that characterized Cinderella’s sound beginning with Long Cold Winter.
“I think I’ve stayed true to what I’ve always done on this record,” Keifer says of the new material. “It’s blues- or American-roots-oriented hard rock. I grew up on records that had a lot of different flavors and dynamics, anything from acoustic music to driving rock. I think about Zeppelin and the Stones and how their records were all over the place, and that’s what I’ve always loved and tried to do. My goal as a songwriter and as a singer and musician is to always try to write a better song than I wrote before and perform it more convincingly.”
At Dobbs, Keifer struck the familiar rock-star pose, craning into the crowd with one hand on his hip, a silk scarf around his neck and ornate rings on his fingers. His ragged voice has always resembled Steven Tyler’s yowl after being dragged through a bed of gravel and broken glass, but over the past two decades it’s taken the punishment commensurate with that sound.
In 1991, nearing the end of Cinderella’s Heartbreak Station tour, Keifer’s voice suddenly began to crack. “I sounded like Alfalfa from the Little Rascals,” he recalls. After two years of doctors peering down his throat and finding nothing wrong, he was diagnosed with a neurological condition that resulted in the paralysis of his left vocal cord.
“When I was diagnosed, they told me I was never going to sing again,” Keifer recalls. “The doctor told me that the only prayer that I had would be to retrain the vocal cords, to learn how to thread the needle and sing around it. Over the years it’s been an up-and-down battle, but I’m grateful that I was able to beat the odds and go out on the road and do what I love to do.”
That includes continuing to tour with Cinderella, which reunited two years after breaking up in 1995 because of Keifer’s vocal troubles and the mid-’90s shift in tastes that spelled the end for many a Headbanger’s Ball favorite. After a deal with Sony Records fell apart in 1999, leading to years of litigation, the members of Cinderella reconciled themselves to life as a touring band.
“It feels great to go out there and play the old stuff for the fans,” Keifer says. “A new record would be great, we never say never, but we don’t want to get burned again. There’s nothing between us and the fans now like lawyers and record companies, and they always turn out whenever we play. It feels like nothing’s changed since 1987.”