JR Fernandez traveled five hours from Nueva Ecija to catch the “Full Blast Pinoy Super Bands” concert that was organized by Rockford Productions at the Cuneta Astrodome last Friday. As a youngster, his older brother played the records and tapes of the legendary Juan Dela Cruz Band and JR listened and memorized every word and riff. 

When the Juan Dela Cruz Band opened the main show – as the first act on stage – the 35-year old Fernandez jumped up and down. He sang, waved his hand, danced, and bowed to pay homage to his musical heroes. After the band’s eight-song set (the final number of the evening was a jam on “Ang Himig Natin” involving all the other performers), I helped JR get a selfie with Joey ‘Pepe’ Smith. Fernandez collapsed into his seat after the selfie. “Galing!” was all he could muster. 

While most of the people in attendance – yes, male and female – were of the older set having grown up listening to the seminal Pinoy rock band, there were a good number of the younger set. And all danced and sang along to the Juan Dela Cruz Band.

All the evening’s performers dropped by the band’s holding room to greet the individual members. Some like Razorback’s Tirso Ripoll asked the band to sign his record of “Maskara.” The Wuds’ Bobby Balingit had them sign his guitar.

“That’s royalty right there,” pointed Razorback’s lead singer Kevin Roy who lent a vocal assist during the Juan Dela Cruz Band’s set as Smith faltered. “And performing on stage with them – that’s an experience I will not forget.”

Incredibly, the legendary group didn’t practice at all heading into the day of the concert. “We’ve been together for over 40 years,” pointed out lead guitarist and band founder Wally Gonzalez. “We know each other so well, every note, every move, that we can play with our eyes closed.”

While there were a few botched notes here and there – and Smith cannot sing the way he used to after a stroke took away much of his vocal range – it was still a mesmerizing performance and a master stroke for the concert organizers to open with a haymaker in the Juan Dela Cruz Band. 

The band performed some of their most popular songs – “Beep Beep,” “No Touch,” “Titser’s Enemi No. 1,” “Balong Malalim,” “Kahit Anong Mangyari,” and “Rock ‘N’ Roll sa Mundo,” they also performed bassist Mike Hanopol’s solo hit, “Laki Sa Layaw” and Gonzalez’ “Wally’s Blues.” 

“Nung na-record namin ‘yung ‘Himig Natin’ (the album), we didn’t realize that we were creating something special at that time,” recalled Gonzalez who has lost quite some weight after a bout with pneumonia while in the United States. “Basta nag-record lang kami. Kahit nung naririnig namin ‘yung mga kanta na pinapatugtog sa radio noon, wala pa rin. Siguro not until about 10 years after namin na-realize ‘yung impact ng mga kanta at ng ng mga plaka.” 

Then the guitar god paused. “We had great chemistry and had a lot of fun along the way.”

Forty-plus years later, on a night where traffic was horrible, the band, well, were like young boys, carousing and joking inside their holding room.

“Sino nag-ubos nito? Mike, ikaw?” jokingly asked Smith while holding up an empty box that previously held some 24 Red Horse beer in cans. “Bakit hindi mo ako tinirahan?”

“Pe,” riposted Hanopol. “Kahit hindi ka naman naka-inom, para pa rin ka naka-inom.”

Laughter broke out and Smith cackled with boyish glee.

During the band’s 45-minute set, Smith struggled to sing but Hanopol – and Kevin Roy – picked up the slack. While his voice wasn’t there, Pepe had his rock star posturing down pat. 

On “Kahit Anong Mangyari” he gestured to the crowd as if to say, “I’m here” during the chorus of “Kahit anong mangyari narito pa rin kami. Kahit na anong mang uso, Pinoy rock pa rin tayo.”

While the band’s collective performance was far from their best, it was nevertheless memorable. For the audience, just to see the band perform the classics after all these years is proving Thomas Wolfe wrong. Wally’s opening riff to “Beep Beep” – a good set opener for the band if there ever was one – is enough to cause an epileptic seizure. As for Smith, what he does or doesn’t do is enough to keep everyone in stitches. 

Yet when Pepe’s voice couldn’t be heard on “Titser’s Enemi No. 1”, a hush descended on the crowd. “Hindi na kaya kumanta ni Pepe,” lamented one fan who stood close to the stage. 

However, Smith refused to let the fans down. He summoned enough of the old fire and a somewhat clear voice for their set closer, “Rock ‘N’ Roll Sa Mundo”. As he made his way down the stage – with Fernandez waiting by the lower seats for his selfie – Smith managed to exclaim, “Not bad for an old man.”

“Kung sinabi mo sa akin nung na-record namin yung ‘Himig Natin’ na ito ay magiging classic, hindi ako maniniwala,” summed up Gonzalez. “Kung sasabihin mo sa akin ngayon na ‘yung kanta at ‘yung iba na ginawa namin ay classic, ang sagot ko lang ay, ‘salamat.’”

As for JR Fernandez? He exited into the humid black night with a smile in on his lips and stars in his eyes. He took a bus back to Nueva with his own “Juan Dela Cruz Band moment” that he couldn’t wait to share with his brother.