Damon Johnson

#707: Alice Cooper…Live!

GETTING MORE TALE #707: Alice Cooper…Live!

I’ve seen Alice Cooper twice.  Unfortunately, I didn’t write a review either time.  I certainly should have.  Both shows were special and perhaps unique in unexpected ways.  I have a couple stories to tell you.

The first time I witnessed the Alice Cooper show was on his Rock N’ Roll Carnival tour (no opening act), August 28 1998.  We were lucky enough to get the lineup with Reb Beach (Winger) and Eric Singer (Kiss), who had recently rejoined the band.  It was the now legendary Lulu’s Roadhouse featuring the world’s longest bar.  Thanks to the internet, we know the entire setlist.

  • Hello Hooray
  • Sideshow
  • Billion Dollar Babies
  • No More Mr. Nice Guy
  • Public Animal #9
  • Be My Lover
  • Lost in America
  • I’m Eighteen
  • From the Inside
  • Only Women Bleed
  • Steven
  • Halo of Flies
  • Nothing’s Free
  • Cleansed by Fire
  • Poison
  • Cold Ethyl
  • Unfinished Sweet
  • School’s Out

Encore:

  • Jailhouse Rock
  • Under My Wheels

I went with Lyne (one of our store managers) and her husband. A little while later Lyne was bullied right out of the organisation and went to work for HMV instead.  (I used to call her “Lynie Lynie Boing Boing” for some reason.)  We had an amazing time and I remember being impressed that Alice was still playing material from 1994’s The Last Temptation.  “Sideshow”, “Nothing’s Free” and “Cleansed By Fire” were unexpected treats.  It was also a pleasure to hear so many Nightmare-era songs.

At the end, as per usual, Alice introduced his band, and then himself.  He tore open the front of his jacket to reveal a T-shirt that said “Alice Spice”.  Yes, 1998 was the time of Girl Power and Spice Girls were the biggest thing in the world.  It got the required laughs.

One weird memory stands out.  A few tables ahead of us was a girl who was missing an arm below the elbow.  But that didn’t stop her from getting into the show, air guitar and all.  The missing arm was her strumming arm and she was just pumping it and going for it.  It was an unusual thing to see but she had a great time and that’s all that matters.  An unforgettable night.

The thing about the late 90s period of Alice Cooper:  It was a remarkably unproductive time as far as new material.  From 1994’s The Last Temptation to 1999’s A Fistful of Alice (a live album), there was nothing new.  In 2000, Alice cranked the machine again for a rapid-fire series of new albums starting with Brutal Planet.  The live setlist had changed dramatically too.  When I saw Cooper in 2006 with my new girlfriend (now known as Mrs. LeBrain), we got a very different show.

My mom had early access to tickets at the Center in the Square and surprised us with second row seats. On May 9, Alice rolled into town with his new band and new show. On drums once more: Eric Singer of Kiss. Opening act: Helix! Another favourite of mine in a hometown setting! Alice’s latest album was the excellent Dirty Diamonds and we got to hear the title track plus “Woman of Mass Distraction”.  In addition Alice rolled out a few forgotten oldies like “You Drive Me Nervous”, and “Wish I Were Born in Beverly Hills” which was dedicated to Paris Hilton.

  • Department of Youth
  • No More Mr. Nice Guy
  • Dirty Diamonds
  • Billion Dollar Babies
  • Be My Lover
  • Lost in America
  • I Never Cry
  • Woman of Mass Distraction
  • I’m Eighteen
  • You Drive Me Nervous
  • Is It My Body
  • Go to Hell
  • Black Widow Jam
  • Feed My Frankenstein
  • Welcome to My Nightmare

Medley:

  • The Awakening
  • Steven
  • Only Women Bleed (with Steven reprise)
  • Ballad of Dwight Fry
  • Killer
  • I Love the Dead
  • School’s Out

Encore:

  • Poison
  • Wish I Were Born in Beverly Hills
  • Under My Wheels

There’s no record of Helix’s setlist, but they were able to play a number of songs including a brand new one: “Get Up“.  I was sad to see that a few people in the front row didn’t bother coming early enough to see Helix, but that made it easier for Brian Vollmer to see me in the second.  I pumped my first and sang along to every song — including the new one, once I got the hang of the chorus.  Vollmer obviously noticed the one guy singing every song, and came down to shake my hand.  Vollmer is one of the most fan-friendly artists in rock, bar none.   This was only the first of several times he’d shake my hand.

(Back) Brent “Ned” Niemi, Alice Cooper, Brian Vollmer, Rainer Wiechmann
(Front) Jim Lawson, Jeff “Stan” Fountain, Cindy Wiechmann – May 9 2006

From Planet Helix

 

As good as Helix were that night, nobody puts on a show like Alice Cooper.  Kitchener was no exception.  Mrs. LeBrain found herself swooning over guitarist Damon Johnson.  (I thought bassist Chuck Garric would be more her style, based on a previous Tommy Lee crush.)  Guitarist Eric Dover and the aforementioned Eric Singer rounded out the band, with Alice’s daughter Calico playing numerous roles as stage dancer!  (“Put some clothes on!” said her dad after introducing her.)

I remember two things about the show very clearly.  At one point, right in the middle of a song, a woman walked up to the front of the stage and held up a CD for Alice to sign.  I didn’t get it…you expect him to sign your CD while he’s performing?  While he’s in character as Alice Cooper?  Who did she think she was?

Alice ignored her until he was obviously fed up.  Swinging his cane in the air, he smashed the CD out of her hands.  The sour looking woman returned to her seat dejected.  You don’t interrupt Alice when he’s doing his show.  “What a self-centered idiot,” was all I could think.

Alice’s action with the autograph seeker was made all the more noteworthy later in the show.  Contrasting his attitude towards the previous woman, Alice paid special attention to a young girl in the front row.  Wearing proper ear protection, the young girl was with her dad, possibly seeing her first ever rock concert.  Recognising this, Alice personally handed her some of the fake Alice money lying on stage after “Billion Dollar Babies”, and some of the plastic pearls from “Dirty Diamonds”.  The little girl was the only person in the audience who got special attention from the performer.  Cooper, the consummate showman, plays for everyone not just the front row.  That girl will never forget Alice Cooper as long as she lives, and he made sure of it.  I couldn’t help but think Alice was also making a statement.  “Treat my show with respect and this kind of stuff happens.  Don’t interrupt me mid-song for an autograph.”

Whether I’m right or not, that’s one outsider’s impression of the events of the night.

Whatever I happen to think, there would be no argument that Alice Cooper puts on some of the best concerts in rock, and you should try to see him.  Make it a bucket list goal.  The lineups change, and the setlists evolve.  You’ll always get “School’s Out” but chances are you will also hear a smattering of special classics that don’t get rolled out very often.

Go see Cooper and come back with your own stories to tell.

 

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REVIEW: Queensryche – American Soldier (2009)

Scan_20160511QUEENSRYCHE – American Soldier (2009 Rhino)

There is no doubt that a decade and a half of war has dramatically changed the United States.  In 2009, Queensryche decided to deal with their feelings by writing a concept album on the subject.  It’s something that they do very well, and American Soldier, the finished product, was another ambitious piece of work.  Although the album was mostly written by Geoff Tate and his friends Jason Slater and Kelly Gray, in reality it’s the last good album the band made with Tate.

The band interviewed soldiers for this album, and their words are a huge part of the record.  The track “Unafraid” opens like this, creating a hauntingly serious atmosphere.  At times, the music is toned down, allowing the dialogue to speak.  It’s an interesting effect and certainly it works in creating the mood that the band were going for.  I think it is also a token of appreciation to the soldiers who defended the country.  They had a chance to speak their minds, and be immortalized in music.  That’s pretty cool.

The end result is a good album that is not necessarily easy to listen to.   There is no “fun” in this music, it is dead serious the whole way through.  The intensity burns and you can hear that Tate was focused like a laser on this project.   The songs are fine; not Mindcrime quality but I don’t think that anthemic progressive rock would have fit American Soldier.  The single misstep is the vocal by Tate’s daughter Emily on “Home Again”.  What was meant to be a dramatic, emotional focal point is instead distracting.

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Among the best tracks are “Sliver”, a cool opener featuring an actual soldier (A.J. Fratto, a 14 year vet) barking orders with the music.  Fratto ended up touring with the band in support of this album.  Well done, sir!  “Hundred Mile Stare” is slow and intense.  The hundred mile stare in the song is a variation of the thousand yard stare — a distant look in the eyes a soldier gets after they’ve been in the field too long.  “A Dead Man’s Words” is another complex highlight, middle-eastern in style and clearly about conflict in that region.  This one is perhaps the most “Queensryche” of the songs, in the sense that you can hear their classic sound at play.  This includes a Tate sax solo, something I wished he did more of with the band.  Then, for choruses, I have to go with “The Killer”.  For sheer intensity, it’s the soldier’s story on “If I Were King”.  If you want heavy ‘Ryche, then “Man Down!” is the track for you.

One disappointing factor in American Soldier only hits you when you open the booklet.  Great artwork aside, it’s really too bad that Tate relied so heavily on his buddies to make this album rather than his band.  Drummer Scott Rockenfield has two co-writes, and that’s it.  Damon Johnson from Brother Cane has just as many co-writes.  The rest of the credits are variations of Tate, and producers Jason Slater and Kelly Gray.  Queensryche were down to four members at this point, so Johnson and Gray subbed on guitars.

Although Promised Land was probably the most deeply personal Queensryche album, American Soldier is likely the runner up.  At least for Tate and his collaborators, there is obviously a lot of their hearts and souls invested in this.  Unsurprisingly, it is not an immediate album.  It requires time, but it also requires space between listens.  There’s no glory here, just stark reality, so take your time.

3.5/5 stars

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REVIEW: Black Star Riders – All Hell Breaks Loose (2013)

BLACK STAR RIDERS – All Hell Breaks Loose (2013 Nuclear Blast CD/DVD set)

Epic Review Time again!  This time it’s a CD/DVD combo set, the debut album by Black Star Riders.  You might know the guys from Black Star Riders by another name they sometimes use: Thin Lizzy.  Scott Gorham put a Lizzy lineup back together in 1996, over the years utilizing Lizzy alumni such as himself, John Sykes, Darren Wharton, and Brian Downey.  But when it came to creating new music, why did they change their name?

Let’s begin by reviewing the DVD, which answers this question and any others you may have about who Black Star Riders are.

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Scott explains that he and Brian Downey really decided not to do a “Thin Lizzy” album because of their own discomfort with the idea. Without Phil, it didn’t seem right. The rest of the band were disappointed because they had written 17 new songs they were excited about. But they would not add a Lizzy album to the canon without Phil.  Singer Ricky Warwick (The Almighty) says that once that decision was made to record with a new name, he found inspiration from a western movie featuring a gang called the “Black Star” gang. He liked the gang mentality. But Brian Downey dropped out early in the proceedings (although he did participate in writing some of the material.)   New drummer Jimmy Degrasso (Megadeth) explains that Thin Lizzy’s special sound comes from a Blues/R&B swing, and of course the “dual guitar armies”. They aimed to keep these qualities with Black Star Riders. Guitarist Damon Johnson believes that Ricky Warwick’s lyrical prowess is exemplary, and carries the Lizzy spirit. I would have to agree.

Recruiting producer extraordinaire Kevin Shirley (Iron Maiden),  the album was done in 12 days. They did one song start to finish each day. It was recorded as live as possible, simply because they only had 12 days!

Unfortunately for me, there just isn’t enough behind the scenes footage on the DVD. There’s a little: brief glimpses of writing and recording sessions. The disc is made up mostly of interviews. Gorham, Warwick, Degrasso, Johnson, bassist Marco Mendoza and producer Shirley take turns in front of the camera. It is quite extensive; this is not a short DVD. (I don’t see a time listed anywhere but I’d guess it was an hour long.)  Subjects covered include Phil Lynott, songwriting, pressure, inspiration, guitar solos, Ireland and more. Each individual song is discussed in detail.


Now that you’re familiar with Black Star Riders, we can discuss the album All Hell Breaks Loose.  Which is a killer.

You could easily mistake the title track for an outtake from the Jailbreak album, or Johnny the Fox perhaps.  Though there is only one Phil, Ricky Warwick’s voice occupies the same range.  His lyrics are storytelling much like Phil’s were, and they both share similar interests in history and gang mentalities.  This is as close as anyone has ever gotten to Thin Lizzy (and no wonder).  I love when, just before the solo, Warwick cries, “Alright Scotty!”  But Johnson joins Scott for the second part of the solo, recreating the classic Lizzy guitar sound.  Then, the single “Bound For Glory” completely captures the goodtime vibe of “Boys Are Back In Town”.  It’s a great choice for a single, and once again you could easily mistake it for an outtake from Jailbreak.   Just like Phil would do, there’s even an Elvis reference in the lyrics.  You truly get the feeling that All Hell Breaks Loose is as much a new album by these guys as it is a tribute to Lynott.

“Kingdom of the Lost” captures the Irish spirit of Lizzy.  Traditional Irish instruments join the band, and it’s in the same vein as a Lizzy track like “Black Rose”.  I should mention now that while each song feels like an homage to Phil, none sound like a re-write.  They capture the spirit without being note-for-note ripoffs, and I think that is an extraordinarily difficult thing to accomplish.

“Bloodshot” gave me a different feeling, which is while the riff has Lizzy elements, it sounds more “southern rock” to me.  Nothing wrong with that either.  “Kissin’ the Ground” then has a more “hard rock” sound, almost like something Damon Johnson might have written with Alice Cooper (who he used to play with) in mind.  But then the excellent chorus is one of the most Lizzy-like.  Then “Hey Judas” (a play on the title “Hey Jude”) is pure Lizzy, 110%. There is no question that Scott Gorham has carried so much of the Thin Lizzy sound into the present.  “Hey Judas” often finds itself as my favourite song (alternating with “Bound for Glory” and “Valley of the Stones”).   Then onto “Hoodoo Voodoo”, where I think the album sags.  I don’t think this is a standout.  Since the aforementioned “Valley of the Stones” is next, the decline is only brief.  This metallic stomp is like a highspeed Mad Max race through the desert, searching for the mystical valley of the stones itself.  Fear not through, the guitar duels keep it within Lizzy Nation.

If things have been a bit heavy, then the gleeful “Someday Salvation” captures that “Dancing in the Moonlight” swing of early Lizzy.  Then “Before the War” has an appropriate military beat.  I’m sure this is an excellent song in concert; you can shout along.  The last song on the regular edition of the CD is “Blues Ain’t So Bad”, a dusky slow rock song.  But I think the better closer is the “bonus track” “Right to be Wrong”.  That “better believe it!” shout-along hook is just great, and this upbeat song just smokes.

As you can no doubt see, I would have found it an impossible challenge to write this review without comparing to Thin Lizzy.  But I don’t think that’s important; the band clearly intended to follow in those footsteps.  If anybody has a right to, it’s Black Star Riders.

4.5/5 stars