Jeremy Hunsicker turned down his chance to be in Journey. But he won’t stop believing that he leads the world’s best Journey tribute band.
Hunsicker and Frontiers, the Roanoke, Va.-based group he started in 2002 as a side project from another local covers band the musicians were in, play about 10 shows a month, helping fans hold on to the feeling of “Don’t Stop Believing,” “Wheel in the Sky,” “Lights,” “Faithfully” and the rest of Journey’s array of hits to audiences around the country. The group’s also popular enough to headline its own sea cruise in 2010.
And no less an authority than Journey guitarist Neal Schon sang the group’s — and particularly the Ohio-born Hunsicker’s — praises in a 2008 interview. “He was a bit scary because he was almost too much like (Steve) Perry,” Journey’s best-known singer, Schon said. “(Hunsicker) was almost like a duplicate, probably the closest of anyone out there.”
Given that, it was no surprise that — like Tim “Ripper” Owens with Judas Priest more than a decade before — Journey tapped Hunsicker as a candidate to join the band in 2007, when it was reeling from the loss of Steve Augeri, who had to leave due to a throat condition. Journey keyboardist Jonathan Cain had become aware of Frontiers through YouTube and blew in a call to the surprised Hunsicker, eventually bringing Schon along to see Frontiers perform in Charlotte, N.C.
“There were high fives and hugs all around,” recalls Hunsicker, who at 36 is “a little young” to have been a fan in Journey’s heyday and picked up on the group later on.
“They were like, ‘Hey man, come out to San Francisco. We want you to play for our management people. We want to start writing a new record with you. This is gonna be great!’ ”
With his bandmates’ blessing, Hunsicker — whose wife was six months pregnant with the couple’s son — made the trip west. He practiced with the band and wrote songs with them, including “Never Walk Away,” which Journey included on its 2008 album “Revelations.” A salary offer was even put on the table, telling him, “Dude, this is gonna happen.”
But after Hunsicker returned to Virginia, one of Schon’s manager called to tell him, “Neal would kinda like to back off this” and advised him not to quit his job as a sales representative for a trucking company.
“It was such a shock to have all this opportunity laid at your feet and then have it pulled away for no reason,” says Hunsicker, who effectively closed the door.
“I just had to tell them, ‘Look, I do have a job. My baby’s gonna be born in six weeks. Why don’t you guys go do your own thing. I’ve got to focus on my life here and now ...’
“It’s one of those emotional things you come to, like, ‘Screw this whole thing.’ I said to myself, ‘If this is going to happen, it’s gonna happen on my terms.’ I knew full well that you only get the opportunity to tell Neal Schon ‘no’ one time.”
Hunsicker — who did receive a platinum record for the “Revelations” album — has no hard feelings towards the band or its management. Nor does he feel that he was in any way undermined by Schon finding Filipino singer Arnel Pineda, also via YouTube, and eventually bringing him in to front Journey.
“I don’t think they had any kind of game plan,” Hunsicker says now. “I don’t think the entire band was on the same page during the process, whether it should be me or Arnel. The bottom line is Neal Schon owns Journey, and he could do what he wanted. It worked out well for them.
“And me, I have a career in music. I have a song on their record. I have a platinum record hanging on my wall. Everything worked out.”
Hunsicker has been doing Frontiers as his full-time job for a year now, with audiences growing larger each time it comes through a town.
“We have the opportunity to play 18 or 20 songs a night that most anyone is gonna recognize — most if not all of them,” he says. “That’s a testament to the songwriters; they did a bit of magic there for a few years, and it’s carried on over the years.”
The most popular song, of course, is the 1981 hit “Don’t Stop Believing” — “It’s the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ in Journey’s catalog,” Hunsicker notes — but as Frontiers prepares to play the Motor City, one of Journey’s most stalwart markets, this weekend, the singer assures us he’s well aware that there’s no such place as the song’s “south Detroit.”
“I’ve prepared myself for this show in Detroit,” says Hunsicker, whose wife is expecting another child this summer. “I know there’s some tremendous Journey fans there. I want to see if there’s any way I can get around that line — just find some way to do it so I pay homage to Detroit and not look like a complete tourist.
“I’m sure I’ll figure something out. We’re looking forward to a great show.
Frontiers — A Tribute to Journey performs at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (June 20) at the Fillmore Detroit, 2115 Woodward Ave. Tickets are $9.47. Call (313) 961-5451 or visit www.livenation.com.
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