THE HILLBENDERS

(August 1, 2015; OLD ROCK HOUSE, Saint Louis MO)

Enter Ye Here (photo credit DARREN TRACY)

What a weird and amazing weekend this was! Friday night saw me at Pop’s for the crushing metal frenzy of Coal Chamber, Fear Factory and others; Saturday was my introduction to a venue (Old Rock House) and a bluegrass band (the Hillbenders), both of which more than lived up to their hype. With former Mississippi Nights (a moment of silence, please) booker and manager Tim Weber at the helm of the House, I knew that the sound and the experience would be exceptional. Granted, there is a different feel, a different ambiance in the House compared to the grittier vibe of the Nights, but that could just be because of the wine-sipping crowd of aging hipsters (I may be aging but, I’ve never been accused of being a hipster). Once the music started, however, the place came alive… not as raucous as one of those nights on the Landing, but fun, nonetheless.

The Hillbenders (Gary Rea, Chad Graves) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The Hillbenders (Gary Rea, Chad Graves) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The five-piece Hillbenders, hailing from Springfield MO, are not bluegrass traditionalists, though they do doff their collective caps in acknowledgment to the heroes and legends of the past; the band also has their feet firmly planted in their own rock and roll roots. By using “traditional” bluegrass instrumentation, vocal harmonies and arrangements, the Hillbenders (mandolin player Nolan Lawrence, banjo player Mark Cassidy, guitarist Jim Rea, his cousin, bassist Gary Rea, and dobro player Chad “Gravyboat” Graves… the only thing missing is a fiddle) are creating a niche genre that bluegrass, rock, even country purists can all enjoy, finding common ground in an otherwise contentious musical climate.

The Hillbenders (Gary Rea, Jim Rea) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The Hillbenders (Gary Rea, Jim Rea) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The Old Rock House show, advertised as “an evening with the Hillbenders,” promoting their new album – a reworking of the Who’s classic rock opera, TOMMY, subtitled “A BLUEGRASS OPRY” here – began with a nearly hour-long set of originals spiced with several well-chosen traditional and unconventional covers, effectively meaning that the band acted as their own opening act. With Lawrence taking the majority of the lead vocals (though Jim also took his fair share of leads), the group tore through the catchy “Radio” and the Swiftian (as in Taylor… forgive me for evoking such a name, oh vengeful gods of music) “Done Wrong Love Song,” as well as such other originals as the Gothic murder tune “Red Stains” and the dreamy “Spinning In Circles,” as everyone joined in on harmony. While each musician took leads or solos, it was the histrionics and majestic facial foliage of Graves and the brilliant banjo playing (and good looks) of Cassidy that became focal points, particularly with their fiery interaction on a wicked cover of the Romantics’ “Talking In Your Sleep.” Other notable covers included a faithful “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” the Flatt and Scruggs classic from 1951, and a hauntingly beautiful take on the Beatles’ “Oh! Darling.” Though the dance floor remained – for the most part – incomprehensibly empty, there were a few couples tripping the light fantastic, one gentleman who was merely tripping (take that as you will) and one unafraid, totally adorable little girl (maybe four or five years old) who took to the floor, melting the hearts of everyone around her.

What a cutie! The Hillbenders' fans come in all shapes and sizes. (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

What a cutie! The Hillbenders’ fans come in all shapes and sizes. (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

A ten minute break turned into close to a half hour wait before the band, rested and sporting fresh duds, took the stage for TOMMY. I had yet to hear the new record, so I wasn’t exactly sure how this one was gonna shake out. However, from the first notes of the opening “Overture,” I was completely sold on this concept. Not because of any kind of kitsch or PICKIN’ ON… approach to what is, arguably, Pete Townshend’s first great work but, rather, because the Hillbenders are very serious about this project, which serves not only as tribute or homage, but as a superb re-imagining, as well. Again, Nolan, as “narrator,” handled the majority of lead vocals, though – with a number of songs that were specifically written in the voices of several of the story’s characters – there were opportunities for all five ‘Benders to take a lead or two. While the group played the original TOMMY album in its entirety, the holes in Townshend’s plot demanded a bit of clarification; Jim Rea filled in those dark areas with spoken expositions, moving the story along nicely. Likewise, Rea’s acoustic guitar gave a note of authenticity, as much of the Who’s original featured layers of acoustic rhythm and lead guitar, with either John Entwistle’s bass or the occasional electric guitar solo offering depth and power to the music. Nolan’s nimble mandolin work managed to weave its way into and through the arrangements, playing parts that were originally written for guitar or piano, even punctuating certain parts with a percussive flair. As with the earlier set, most of the heavy lifting was done by Mark and Chad, with Gary carrying Entwistle’s beefy bass lines throughout on his upright (an estimable feat, to be sure).

The Hillbenders (Mark Cassidy, Chad Graves) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The Hillbenders (Mark Cassidy, Chad Graves) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

Like the original 1969 offering from the Who, the Hillbenders’ live version of TOMMY was ripe with highlights, including the trippy “Amazing Journey,” and forceful instrumental, Sparks,” one of the best one-two punches in rock and roll history. “Sparks,” in particular, allowed each of the musicians to flex their solo muscles. “Eyesight To the Blind,” by the second Blues legend to use the name Sonny By Williamson, fit in nicely and worked as a powerful introduction to the seductress/prostitute/dealer “Acid Queen” later in the narrative. John Entwistle’s two songwriting contributions introduced us to Tommy’s mischievous “Cousin Kevin” and, in “Fiddle About,” his wicked Uncle Ernie, both performed with a sort of sick glee. Of course, the one song that just about everybody knows – even those who don’t like rock music or the Who – is “Pinball Wizard,” with its refrain of “That deaf, dumb and blind boy/Sure plays a mean pinball.” The acoustic lead guitar and the two-note bass punctuations made it an adventurous commodity for a group like the ‘Benders but, like everything else, they made it their own and breathed new life into a classic.

The Hillbenders (Nolan Lawrence) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The Hillbenders (Nolan Lawrence) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

As the lead character moved into self-realization and became a messiah to the masses of disenfranchised youth, the music started to take on a brighter feel, beginning with the wistful, wishful “Tommy Can You Here Me,” with its haunting harmony vocals provided by all five Hillbenders. The narcissistically upbeat “Sensation” eventually led to the celebratory tune “I’m Free,” visiting the home of “Sally Simpson” as she sneaks out to get a glimpse of her idol. As Sally attempts to touch Tommy, she is brutally asked to leave the stage by a pushy police officer, hitting her cheek on a chair; naturally, as she received sixteen stitches to close the wound, her father made sure she understood that that’s what happens when you disobey your parents. Keith Moon’s “Tommy’s Holiday Camp” was as loopy and loony as the mad drummer himself, with Cassidy, Graves and Jim Rea, in particular, furiously bending strings to approximate the whirling, kaleidoscopic frenzy of the original. Tommy’s followers have wised up, shouting “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” with the sudden realization that his family and corporate handlers had used them for dupes, leading to their former messiah seeking their guidance.

The Hillbenders (Mark Cassidy) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

The Hillbenders (Mark Cassidy) (photo credit: DARREN TRACY)

There have been plenty of versions of TOMMY – most headed up, in some fashion, by the Who – but, this performance by the Hillbenders may be most honest, unaffected take I’ve heard since the original. The group doesn’t play it at every show on their current tour and if you are lucky enough to be in a town where they are playing it, you owe it to yourself to be there. Before the show, I joked that it would be cool if the Hillbenders would do an encore of Who tunes, like “Substitute,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “I’m a Boy.” We didn’t exactly get that but, we did get a suitably creepy version of “I Can See For Miles,” with Mark Cassidy taking the lead vocals. Mark’s monotone delivery and piercing stare struck just the right chord for the tune and was a great way to end one of the best nights of music that I’ve ever had the privilege to attend.


ALICE COOPER: RAISE THE DEAD – LIVE FROM WACKEN

(DVD, BLU-RAY, CD; UDR MUSIC;2014)

alice_cooper_bluray_cover

Most everybody who knows me and everybody that’s read my stuff for the past 20 years knows that I am a huge Alice Cooper fan – the band, solo stuff, Billion Dollar Babies… chances are good that if Alice, Dennis, Michael or Neal are involved, I have it. Even through the rough times (as far as I’m concerned, those rough times are called LACE AND WHISKEY, ZIPPER CATCHES SKIN and TRASH… though they are not without their own redeeming qualities). For the last fifteen years or so, Alice the man has mounted a substantial comeback, cranking out some fine albums and touring continually with a show that changes and evolves almost on a nightly basis. Alice always manages to surround himself with musicians of the finest kind and, the band he had playing behind him on August 3, 2013 before a mass of humanity at the Wacken Open Air Festival in Germany was no exception. Now, with RAISE THE DEAD… , we can experience the sights and sounds that have thrilled and shocked audiences for more than 45 years; both the Blu-Ray and DVD releases come packaged with a two CD set which, between video and audio, manages to capture Alice’s entire Wacken show.

Alice Cooper, flanked by Ryan Roxie and Orianthi (publicity photo)

Alice Cooper, flanked by Ryan Roxie and Orianthi (publicity photo)

As it was the music that always drew me in, let’s start by an examination of the CDs first. One of the cool things about an Alice Cooper show is the set list; with 26 studio albums worth of material (seven with the band and 19 solo), the Coop always manages to throw in a surprise or two. Even though he took time to open for Motley Crue’s farewell tour, among others, he’s spent a couple of years on the RAISE THE DEAD tour and, even though the set has remained fairly constant during that time, he’s only recently (in Alice time) brought back “Hello Hooray” as the opening number. The tune hasn’t sounded this good since the original band did it back in 1973, even though Alice’s vocals do get lost in the guitar mayhem a couple of times. “House of Fire” is pop star Alice from the TRASH album. It is one of the stronger tracks from that record, so I can live with it. Without stopping to catch their breath, the band (long-time guitarists Ryan Roxie and Tommy Henriksen, long-standing bassist Chuck Garric, drummer Glen Sobel and hot-shot guitarist Orianthi) rip into “No More Mister Nice Guy.” There’s a little bit of playful risk-taking with that familiar guitar riff that adds a new dimension to the song. One of the original band’s snottiest songs, “Under My Wheels,” sounds even more garagey with the three prong guitar attack. Unfortunately, Sobel is no Neal Smith… but, then, who is? His playing is fine but, he just misses some of those subtle nuances that Neal added. Speaking of Mister Smith, his co-writing credit from Alice’s latest, WELCOME 2 MY NIGHTMARE, is up next. “I’ll Bite Your Face Off” was one of three songs on the record to feature the four surviving Alice Cooper members (with former solo mainstay, guitarist Steve Hunter, ably substituting for Glen Buxton); there’s not as much venom in this live version, but it’s still very much in the classic Cooper vein. “Billion Dollar Babies” is the song that finally has all players hitting on all cylinders at the same time, with Glen Sobel being particularly on-point with the complicated drum patterns.

Alice Cooper (photo credit: PEP BONET)

Alice Cooper (photo credit: PEP BONET)

Caffeine” is an odd little ditty that somehow works better than it should. The vocals are a bit muddy (must be all that coffee!), but it sure sounds like everyone is having fun. “Department of Youth” is one of – if not THE – favorite song from an album of great songs (WELCOME TO MY NIGHTMARE). This version is really good, though I did miss any mention of Donny Osmond or Justin Beiber or One Direction or whatever flavor of the month was hot in August 2013 when, at the end of the tune, Alice asks, “Who’s got the power?” and, then, “And who gave it to you?” A minor complaint, I know, but it’s the simple things in life that get me through. Alice kind of reasserted himself after TRASH with the more rocking sound of HEY STOOPID. The title track, an anti-drug message wrapped up in a snide Cooper lyric, is sorta in the same sarcastic vein as “Caffeine.” This live version sounds even better than the original studio version, which featured both Slash and Joe Satriani on guitar. “Dirty Diamonds” is the latest in a long line of spy and crime oriented songs (“Halo of Flies,” “Crazy Little Child” and “Man With the Golden Gun” immediately spring to mind) from Alice. It’s a solid rocker but, still, it just can’t compare to those earlier tracks. It features a duet with Garric and Sobel showing off their rhythm section muscles to great effect; near the end of the duet, Orianthi, joins in for a nifty little solo over the top. There’s a subtle shift in sound on the track that launched Alice’s solo career, “Welcome To My Nightmare.” Touring without a keyboard player and eschewing a backing track for the majority of the show gives much of the solo material a slightly different, beefier sound. I like it! The song rolls right into “Go To Hell” from Alice’s second solo outing. This version is relatively close to the original, with a killer guitar sound.

Alice Cooper begins his transformation into the Cooperstein creature (photo credit: OLAF MALZAHN)

Alice Cooper begins his transformation into the Cooperstein creature (photo credit: OLAF MALZAHN)

The second disc kicks off with the rarely performed “He’s Back (The Man Behind the Mask),” a track from Alice’s MCA days, which barely gets any love from the Coop (a situation that I really don’t understand, as there were some good tunes on both CONSTRICTOR and RAISE YOUR FIST AND YELL… especially side two of the latter). Anyway, gone are the cheesy ’80s synthesizer dance grooves, replaced by a heavier guitar sound, making it even creepier than the original version. Orianthi drops in a nice extended solo toward the end. “Feed My Frankenstein” may not be my favorite HEY STOOPID track, but it’s good theater. For a few tours, Alice would build a hulking monster out of body parts onstage. That worked really well but, now, he undergoes a “transformation,” turning himself into a Cooperstein; I like the idea… I’m just not too sure about that lumbering twelve foot tall Alice thing… looks kinda goofy to me. But, then, maybe that’s the whole point. The ultimate Alice Cooper song, “Ballad of Dwight Fry,” follows, as Doctor Alice is sent away for his crimes against nature. The traditional piano intro (a playback from the original recording) gives way to a haunting, reverb-drenched guitar from Roxie. Alice sounds even more schizophrenic and demented than usual, as “Nurse Sheryl” (named after Alice’s wife, who held the role until daughter Calico took over) torments the straightjacketed patient until he breaks free and chokes her. Now, that action is gonna get you punished, Alice… looks like you losing your head is gonna cause you to lose your head. The band plays the final, execution section of “Killer” (which doesn’t make it to the audio version of the show) as the guillotine does its thing, bisecting the villain at the neck. While Alice is dead, the band offers a truncated version of “I Love the Dead,” no verses just the chorus and the middle bridge section. It’s always been my favorite Alice tune and, after doing it this way for quite a few years, I’m kinda used to it.

Alice Cooper (Calico Cooper as Nurse Sheryl) (photo credit: PEP BONET)

Alice Cooper (Calico Cooper as Nurse Sheryl) (photo credit: PEP BONET)

As Nurse Sheryl inspects the body, a voice from beyond calls: “Alice Cooper. Alice, you’ve cheated death once again. How fitting that you should end up in the graveyard of the Hollywood Vampires… here with all of your dead, drunk friends.” Cue Alice’s return from the dead and the unmistakeable riff of the Doors’ classic “Break On Through.” Alice has often recounted the legendary binges that he and his drinking buddy, Jim Morrison, would go on; Morrison was a Hollywood Vampire before the club existed and exited before the first “meeting.” There’s some really nice guitar and drum work on the heavier, funkier version that Alice and his band offer up. John Lennon was a member of the debauched drinking club (and the only one who didn’t die of some sort of substance abuse) and Alice’s rendition of “Revolution” is spot on, particularly the backing vocals. Even though Jimi Hendrix wasn’t a Vampire, I’m sure that he and Alice ran into each other quite often in LA, probably at the Whisky on Sunset Strip. Since we’re talking about Hendrix here, this may not make too much sense but, consider the original before reading on. The beauty of “Foxy Lady” lies in its simplicity. Three guitarists, all trying to be Jimi, is just too much; everything else, including the vocals kinda get lost in the six-string melee. The next song brings things back to earth. The Who’s Keith Moon was a Vampire; Alice salutes him with a great, punky take of “My Generation,” a tune that he’s been doing off-and-on for the past fifteen years or so. Of all the covers, it sounds like Alice had the most fun with this one. As the song ends, he surveys the headstones of his friends, these four legends, proclaiming, “My dead, drunk friends.” It’s a great lead-in to…

Alice Cooper (publicity photo)

Alice Cooper (publicity photo)

I’m Eighteen,” the band’s first hit single and the one that will always remind us why Alice, Glen, Dennis, Neal and Michael are considered one of the greatest rock anthem bands of all time. The next tune came very close to breaking my camel’s back as far as Alice Cooper is concerned. Oh, how I hate this song! It’s worse than “I Never Wrote Those Songs” and “(No More) Love At Your Convenience.” Combined. And, the most confounding thing about “Poison” is, he was dead sober when he wrote the thing; at least, when he did LACE AND WHISKEY, he had the excuse of living his life in a drunken stupor. For what it’s worth, the band sounded okay and the Wacken crowd (and everybody but me, apparently) really seem to dig this atrocity. As mentioned in a couple of other spots, the three guitar approach didn’t always mesh too well. “School’s Out” is an exception to that statement; the various styles of Orianthi, Ryan and Tommy (in order of their spotlight solos) work really well within the free-for-all confines of the traditional show closer. As he’s done for quite a few tours (probably as long as he’s done “My Generation”), Alice weaves Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In the Wall” into the fabric of “School’s Out,” offering a unique, utterly enjoyable mash-up of the two. It’s become somewhat expected of “Classic Rock” acts like Alice Cooper to release a live document of their shows, seemingly one or two a year. These affairs can, unfortunately, be hit or miss. I’ve never been disappointed with live Alice (“Poison” aside). RAISE THE DEAD… is no exception.

Alice Cooper's final bow (Glen Sobel, Ryan Roxie, Chuck Garric, Alice, Orianthi, Tommy Henriksen) (photo credit: PEP BONET)

Alice Cooper’s final bow (Glen Sobel, Ryan Roxie, Chuck Garric, Alice, Orianthi, Tommy Henriksen) (photo credit: PEP BONET)

The accompanying video (available in DVD or Blu-Ray versions) sounds and looks great, though it is not without its problems. While we do have the entire “Killer” snippet leading up to the execution, both the Beatles and Hendrix numbers are cut. From “Break On Through,” the video jumps right to “My Generation.” Calico’s performance as Nurse Sheryl is magnificently over-the-top and the executioner’s post-beheading antics get a grin out of Chuck Garric. As Chuck exhorts the crowd to sing louder, the executioner holds the microphone up to the lips of the decapitated head, shrugs his shoulders and smirks, as if to say, “You ain’t got nothin’ to say now, do ya?” A great moment of sick humor. So, anyway, I mentioned problems. They are all directorial or editorial things that should not have happened since this was obviously a multi-camera shoot… meaning that they were all decisions made in post-production. It seems that the director had a very difficult time in finding, focusing on and following the solo or meaningful musical moment or cool theatrical moment. Examples include, but are definitely not limited to: A shot of Orianthi (granted, she is very photogenic), from behind, no less, when Ryan Roxie is playing a nice solo; a close-up of Garric behind his mic, before the chorus comes around and it’s his turn to actually sing… by the time he opens his mouth, the camera’s already off to the next incongruous shot; when we should have extended shots of Chuck, during his duet with Sobel, we see Glen and we see the crowd and we see long shots of the stage; during the climax of “Go To Hell,” Alice menaces Roxie and Tommy Henriksen with a whip… all we see is Alice flailing the weapon from one side of the stage to the other, either in close-up or from over Glen Sobel’s shoulder. Speaking of which, there are far too many such shots (over Sobel’s shoulder, I mean) and too many crowd reaction shots at integral points in the show (solos and such). These may seem like trifles to some but, to those of us who like to know what’s going on and who is playing which guitar part and what Nurse Sheryl is doing behind Alice, that’s what we wanna see, not a sea of indistinguishable faces in the dark. Having said that, problems aside, RAISE THE DEAD – LIVE AT WACKEN is a nice addition to your Alice Cooper collection.