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The Who



The more you see your rock heroes pass away or visibly age, the more nervous you get that an advertised performance might be the last chance you’ll get to see them. Hence, when I was “on the fence” initially about catching the Who’s May 23rd performance at Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre, a friend’s willingness to facilitate everything made all the difference. And I’m glad, because this was one hell of a concert. Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey could have stopped years ago… it’s likely that their most towering musical achievements are behind them. But man, those two have still got it. And I love being reminded of past rock glories. Nothing wrong with nostalgia at all… that’s why we keep going back to enjoy the legends proving yet again why they deserve to be in that category.

THE WHO (Pete Townshend) (photo credit: LS)

I’ll say upfront that TOMMY was a significant album in my life. Musically it is brilliant; conceptually, it was at the very least bold and adventurous. The “Overture,” which the band opened with, is one of my favorite pieces of music ever. Truly. With the full orchestra in tow (The Who have planned this tour to include local orchestras joining them along the way) and a rather dazzling lighting backdrop, the audience was immediately treated to sheer spectacle. A suite of TOMMY tunes, including the expected “Pinball Wizard,” fab as always, and the timeless brilliance of “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” roused the crowd plenty, but affected yours truly on a very emotional level. I won’t pretend that this wasn’t nostalgia of the deepest kind for me. I could tell you all the personal associations this music holds for me and how it transcends what rock tends to be on every single level, but then this would cease to be a review and instead turn into my diary. I’ll be disciplined here and just say… I loved it. And the orchestra added grandeur and layers of sonic dressing to Pete’s extraordinary compositions.

THE WHO (Roger Daltrey) (photo credit: LS)

I would have likely been okay if the band wanted to do the entire album, but they didn’t. Instead, “Who Are You” was next, a catchy but overly familiar song from their catalog. It’s one of those insidious tunes that you can’t escape with this band. Nothing wrong with it, and Roger Daltrey sings the crap out of it (Rog was in good voice tonight, by the way). But to assess where it stands in the scheme of things, try making a song out of your own name, to be cute. Or, try NOT to think of the theme song for a really, really successful TV crime show. Can’t do it, can you? Well who the hell are YOU? “Eminence Front” is a reasonably catchy later-period Who tune, which the crowd enjoyed. Familiarity tends to breed affection, especially with one of the greatest classic rock bands of all time. “Imagine a Man,” from the 1975 album THE WHO BY NUMBERS was pleasant and melodic and Pete seemed to be having a great time performing it. In fact, it’s worth mentioning that Pete and Roger both seemed to be in great spirits. Both addressed the audience repeatedly, commenting on the “nice people” of Saint Louis, our great rivers, and of course, the exciting status of a certain hockey team. More on that shortly. But a nice surprise for me personally was the song “Join Together.” It’s a quirky mid-period Who tune that I liked so much as a youngster, I bought the single. I would never have imagined they would perform that one; it was NOT a huge hit. But by god, here it was, complete with Jew’s harp and pure weirdness. Happy music fan! Two classic older tunes, “Substitute” and “The Seeker” came next, with Daltrey complimenting Townshend’s writing and stating how a certain lyric was one of the best lines Pete ever wrote, that being “I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth.” The crowd listened attentively whenever Daltrey or Townshend addressed them, and this was truly a fun part of the show. Again, their upbeat moods were palpable. These guys know how much they need each other, and every time Daltrey sidled up to Pete and put his arms around him, you had to get a deep thrill. The “bloody Who” have been at it since the early ‘60s, my friends. You have to respect their longevity! A pair of classics from WHO’S NEXT were served up: “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” the latter performed in an intimate acoustic style that made for one of the evening’s most tasteful choices. It’s a legendary song with heaps of gravitas, I just would have preferred a bit more intensity on the utterly classic closing line ”Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss,” which has been quoted so much in the years since its inception. You could hardly hear Daltrey sing the lines in this arrangement. But no matter; it was still a delight. Pete addressed the audience after that by apologizing, sort of, for ENDLESS WIRE and allowing that they were only going to do one song from that record, which was actually a guitar-pickin’ pleasure (“Tea and Theatre”). Pete then introduced a suite of songs from QUADROPHENIA, which likely represented the grandest musical section of the show overall. The legendary guitarist is justifiably proud of his second double-album rock opera in a five-year span, and what struck me about this section is how under my skin these songs were, in some special little corner, even though I could name the titles on TOMMY much more easily. But musically, this batch of songs: “The Real Me,” “I Am the Sea,” “The Punk and the Godfather,” “5:15” and the genuinely transcendent instrumental “The Rock,” exemplify the art form of rock and roll ascending to heights it rarely goes to, with riffs and cool harmonies and quirky little passages that only an inspired musician can conjure. History has already recorded Pete Townshend as having a kind of ambition and understanding of rock melodrama and emotional release in a truly pioneering manner. This was simply incredible stuff. Rock as ART. Who conceived of such a thing? “Love Reign Over Me,” of course, is indispensable Who, with Daltrey demonstrating that he is taking care of himself… he doesn’t screech excessively… he delivers only the drama and peak moments he knows he NEEDS to these days. His partner has suffered hearing problems and a voice that has “gone away to some strange place,” or however it was he put it. But there is something profound about such an influential group still aiming for the sonic heights, and when they GET there, it is shiver inducing. Such was the case with the closing “Baba O’Riley.” I can’t say enough about this one. Criminy. It’s a rock classic, yes. But the indescribable highlight of the show was having Rog and Pete kick ass backed by an electrifying orchestra on one of their grandest musical offerings, during which leggy violinist Katie Jacoby strolled out in a Saint Louis Blues jersey, attacking her instrument flawlessly on the climax of the song. The crowd went justifiably wild. It seems improbable that the Blues’ first appearance in the Stanley Cup finals, an aging rock band’s bid for one last dramatic chapter (they announced that they have a new album ready for fall, though they didn’t play anything from it), and the expansive power of a full orchestra would combine to such powerful effect here at what most of us came to know as Riverport, with floodwaters wreaking havoc nearby. But man, this was a moment! When you see and hear this sort of spectacle happening and creating another memory so potently, you appreciate it. It was so powerful that I didn’t sense ANY grumbling about the lack of an actual encore. You hit the giddy, transcendent heights and then you say farewell. The Who did so, acknowledging each and every sterling band member like Pete’s brother Simon Townshend and that Zak Starkey fellow, who has been manning the drums for them for years. And heck, how can you NOT appreciate the epic nature of a local violinist having a huge moment onstage? Everyone felt it, trust me.

THE HILLBENDERS meet PETE TOWNSHEND, 2015 (Gary Rea, Mark Cassidy, Nolan Lawrence, Pete Townshend, Chad Graves, producer Louis Jay Meyers, Jim Rea) (uncredited photo)

Springfield’s Hillbenders opened the show with an 8 or 9-song run through a biting mix of rock-flavored bluegrass. This quintet achieved notoriety for recording a bluegrass version of TOMMY that was way more resplendent than anyone expected. Townshend was more than a little impressed; he posed for photos with the band in Nashville a while back, and praised them to the hilt onstage here. It may have seemed odd to those not familiar with these matters that an acoustic bunch from down yonder in southern Missouri would be opening for rock legends, but I thought it was rather profound. Music should be surprising, unpredictable, and adventurous. It should continually shoot up the “sparks” of life. Everyone onstage did that tonight, and it was truly a thrill.


(Compass Records; 2015)


Ambition is an awesome thing. In music, it often leads to groundbreaking work or concepts, and this here album from Springfield, Missouri bluegrass band the Hillbenders is a doozy in that regard. The notion of doing a bluegrass interpretation of the Who’s legendary TOMMY album seems preposterous at first… how could the sonic intricacies and intense storyline of Pete Townsend’s magnum opus be re-interpreted in such a different genre, one as down to earth as Ozarks-style bluegrass? The fact that it works so well says a great deal about the abilities (and pure ATTITUDE) of this band – guitarist Jim Rea, mandolinist Nolan Lawrence, dobro player Chad Graves, banjo player Mark Cassidy and bass player Gary Rea. Pete Townsend himself gave a thumbs-up to the record and invited the band to a show on the Who’s recent tour, doing photos with them. So yeah, this crazy project is a success. But how does it SOUND? Well, the amazing thing is that the band largely sticks to the structure of the original songs. It’s just that in place of electric guitars, Roger Daltrey’s peerless vocals and Keith Moon’s powerhouse drumming, you get, well, acoustic instruments like banjo and dobro. There are no long, jammy bluegrass workouts of the type often seen in the genre… the Hillbenders adhere to the original song structures. That is striking on tracks like the magnificent “Overture,” the carefully rendered “Amazing Journey” (which really IS amazing in this sassy, grassy rendition) and the classic “Pinball Wizard,” a rousing performance in which the band makes sure their energy matches the original, and renders the concern about whether a banjo and mandolin could possibly match what Pete did on the original absolutely moot. “Tommy, Can You Hear Me” is delivered simply and soulfully, with perfectly pleasant harmonies. “Sally Simpson” becomes a truly curious hybrid, a song that, thematically, would likely never see its ilk on another bluegrass album. I mean, this is rock and roll in its energy and pure panache. What a revelation to hear the Who’s richly layered classic rock presented in such a different manner. It says something about the universality of music and themes that the Hillbenders could pull this off so thrillingly.

The Hillbenders (Nolan Lawrence, Chad "Gravy Boat" Graves, Gary Rea, Jim Rea, Mark Cassidy) (publicity photo)
The Hillbenders (Nolan Lawrence, Chad “Gravy Boat” Graves, Gary Rea, Jim Rea, Mark Cassidy) (publicity photo)

Not everything brings the awe, though. Daltrey’s haunting “See Me, Feel Me” performance in its two appearances on the original is a work of vocal majesty that inevitably loses something in the simpler, more rustic approach taken here. Similarly, the drama and shifting elements of “Welcome” as a composition are diminished in this arrangement… maybe by this point, the sound is just getting too samey. And “We’re Not Gonna Take It” is missing an edge it badly needs. But gosh, songs like “Christmas” and especially, “Sensatiion,” are utterly inspired and perfectly performed by the Hillbenders, giving fresh life to compositions that most of us from the classic rock era know like the backs of our hands. There is something revolutionary about hearing a modest Ozark string band fearlessly take on a classic rock opera by legendary Brits, and do it with their own personalities and aesthetic intact, triumphantly. It’s a bold leap into rarified musical territory, and it proves once again that all things are possible if you’ve got courage, chops and, well, a pretty awesome source work. Here’s to the Hillbenders for TRULY “kicking out the jams” in every way.



Though I am an avid connoisseur of all things Alice Cooper, as well as a fan of the Joe Perry Project (and the guy’s other, lesser known band, Aerosmith), I have had a falling out with Johnny Depp over the past 13 years or so (I suppose I can forgive him for DARK SHADOWS, but… THE LONE RANGER? No my friend… that is a step too far… a step too far, I say!) As you can imagine, I was trapped betwixt the proverbial rock and an unyielding hard spot. My hard-headedness nearly cost me the chance to hear what turned out to be a really cool record but, thanks to a dear friend and her Christmas spirit, I was soon the proud owner of HOLLYWOOD VAMPIRES… on magnificent black vinyl, no less. At first blush, this would appear to be the covers album that the Coop has been touting for the last few years… with a couple of tasty originals bookending the nostalgic trip down Alice’s drunken memory lane; apparently, though, that one’s still in the works. Oh… the record also features a butt-ton of special guests and old friends. Did I forget to mention that?

HOLLYWOOD VAMPIRES (Joe Perry, Alice Cooper, Johnny Depp) (publicity photo)

While HOLLYWOOD VAMPIRES is essentially a covers record dedicated to Alice’s “dead, drunk friends,” those delectable morsels are indeed bookended by a pair of originals… well, three, actually, with “The Last Vampire” acting as an introduction to the album, as well as to “Raise the Dead.” The short piece features Sir Christopher Lee reciting a vampiric lament from Bram Stoker’s DRACULA over a soundscape created by producer Bob Ezrin and Depp (with a little help from Justin Cortelyou). This may actually be Sir Christopher’s – forever Count Dracula to me – last performance before his death. “Raise the Dead” itself is the kind of song that Alice Cooper (the band) could have come up with. In fact, it’s so good that I’m a bit miffed that Depp had a hand in writing it and plays some pretty good guitar, to boot. One of Alice’s regular guitarists, Tommy Henriksen, also makes an appearance, evoking the memory of Glen Buxton and his psychedelic freak-outs. Current Alice Cooper drummer, Glen Sobel (who I thought was just mailing it in of late, particularly on the RAISE THE DEAD – LIVE FROM WACKEN release), also makes his first (recorded) Vampires appearance and, though he lacks Neal Smith’s percussive finesse, powers the tune along quite nicely. Along with bassist Bruce Witkin (who also gets a co-writing credit), he delivers a magnificently sludgy Zombie-like rhythm bed for the others to play over. Don’t you just love redemption stories? This early into the game, I’m already wondering what a full album of Vampires originals would sound like. So, now, it’s on to the covers. First up is “My Generation,” a song that the Coop has done off-and-on as an encore for a couple of decades with his tongue firmly set in his cheek. This salute to fellow Vampire (the drinking variety) Keith Moon is kind of a stripped down version for this group, with only bass, two guitars (again, Depp and Henriksen) and drums from the Who’s longtime skin basher, Zak Starkey (who I think is related to Paul McCartney or one of those other Beatle-type guys), who adds an extra bit of thunder to the proceedings. Zak sticks around to represent another of Alice’s departed drummer friends, John “Bonzo” Bonham, on Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” The intro to the song is absolutely mesmerizing, with Alice’s harmonica and slow burn vocals bolstered by some awesome Kip Winger bass playing and Joe Walsh’s slide guitar before the song kicks in full force. AC/DC’s Brian Johnson joins in on vocals, singing some serious ear-damaging high parts (I initially thought that it may have been Ann Wilson singing) and hot-shot guitarist Orianthi (again from Alice’s band) adds a wicked solo. Holy crap, boys and girls… this one may actually be better than the original!

Walsh sticks around for a rousing version of the Spirit classic, “I Got a Line On You,” as does Winger on bass. Perry Farrell (of Jane’s Addiction fame, for you kids who don’t listen to the “new” music) joins Alice on vocals and longtime session drummer, Abe Laboriel Junior, shows us exactly why Paul McCartney keeps him on his payroll. This is a far better version than the hair metal version that the Coop did for the TOP GUN II soundtrack. Cooper, Depp, Henriksen, Witkin and Laboriel deliver fairly faithful versions of two songs from the Doors, “Five To One” and “Break On Through (To the Other Side),” with Alice channeling Jim Morrison’s Lizard King persona. Charlie Judge makes an appearance as Ray Manzarek while the legendary Robby Krieger (yeah… THAT Robby Krieger) absolutely tears it up on lead guitar. A nearly forgotten member of the original Hollywood Vampires, songwriter par excellence Harry Nilsson, is represented by a pair of his most well-known pieces: “One,” which Three Dog Night rode to the top of the charts (well… number 5, actually) in 1969 and “Jump Into the Fire,” from Harry’s 1971 masterpiece, NILSSON SCHMILSSON. Perry Farrell is back and Krieger continues to shred on the solos. Foo Fighters front-man Dave Grohl joins the festivities on drums… I guess old habits die hard.

HOLLYWOOD VAMPIRES (Abe Laboriel Junior, Johnny Depp, Paul McCartney, Brian Johnson, Alice Cooper, Joe Perry) (photo credit: KYLER CLARK/UNIVERSAL MUSIC GROUP)

If you’ve ever wondered what a duet featuring Sir Paul McCartney and Alice Cooper would sound like, wonder no more. Abe Laboriel Junior’s boss lends a few of his many talents to the song that launched Badfinger’s career, “Come and Get It,” playing piano and bass, as well as singing. Joe Perry finally makes an appearance, joining the guitar frenzy alongside Johnny Depp. Alice, Tommy, Glen and Bruce get a bit funky with Marc Bolan on “Jeepster,” from the T Rex album ELECTRIC WARRIOR. Joe and Johnny add some glamorous guitar, as is only fitting. The same group also delivers a very heavy version of John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey,” with Perry soloing nicely. The heaviness adds – if you’ll pardon an unintended pun – weight to Lennon’s lyrics. While there may be better Lennon songs for the boys to cover, this is a really cool version of this one. “Manic Depression” sees the return of Joe Walsh and Zak Starkey to the studio. Though Jimi Hendrix was well-known for his guitar histrionics, this tune was more in line with the Rhythm and Blues he loved, with the fiery soloing replaced with a more riff-based sound that allowed Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell a lot of free space to kinda go wild. Here, the Vampires do the same thing, keeping things simple over the top while Witkin’s bass rumbles and Starkey’s drums steamroll through the understated guitar work of Depp, Walsh and Henriksen. While it’s hard to beat the original ARE YOU EXPERIENCED version, this is one of the better cover versions out there.

HOLLYWOOD VAMPIRES (Joe Perry, Johnny Depp, Alice Cooper) (photo credit: ROSS HAFLIN)

Alice goes mod with the psychedelic pop of the Small Faces’ “Itchycoo Park,” a weird sort of song for this band to try to tackle. But, you know what? They pull it off, with a wink and a nod to the whole “Peace and Love Through Altered States” late ‘60s mentality (and Alice’s – as well as Johnny’s – own well-documented bouts of altered states), especially near the end, when the music is brought to an abrupt, record-scratching end and Alice asks, “Uh… because I’m HIGH?” before the background singers bring us back around to the tune. Musically, Tommy does most of the heavy-lifting on guitar, though Depp proves himself a stand-out guitarist, as well. For quite awhile now, Alice’s solo shows have featured the no-brainer coupling of “School’s Out” with Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In the Wall, Part Two.” The track bristles with electricity, as Brian Johnson returns to hit some high notes to counter balance the Coop’s growl and Slash and Joe Perry join Depp and Henriksen (oh… and Bruce Witkin, too) for some wicked soloing and a little slash-and-burn riffing along the way. And, of course, what better rhythm section to have behind this magnificent mayhem than two-fifths of the original band, Dennis Dunaway and Neal Smith? In an album of highlights, this may very well be my favorite, as the basic “School’s Out” groove weaves it way in and out of both songs. “My Dead Drunk Friends” is a tune that Alice has played for a couple of years now. It certainly puts a fitting exclamation point to the first Hollywood Vampires album, with the group pared down to the five songwriters (Cooper, Depp, Henriksen, Witkin and producer Bob Ezrin) and drummer Glen Sobel. The tune is a swinging waltz with a bluesy kinda sway and a Depp (I’m guessing) solo to match. It features a particularly snotty vocal from Alice as he toasts the carnage that drink and drug wrought on the original Vampires. The zombie-fied (or, should that be “zombie-fried?”) chorus and the wind-down fade, with Ezrin’s just slightly off-kilter tack piano, definitely add to the faux drunken feel of the song, highlighting the spirit – if not the reality – of those bygone days of stupefied revelry.

HOLLYWOOD VAMPIRES (Alice Cooper, Johnny Depp, Joe Perry onstage) (uncredited photo)

There is a “deluxe version” of HOLLYWOOD VAMPIRES out there, with three extra tracks: The Who’s “I’m a Boy” (seems a natural for Alice to sing), “Seven and Seven Is” by Love’s Arthur Lee (a song that Alice recorded back in 1981 for his SPECIAL FORCES album) and an original called “As Bad As I Am.” If, like most of us, you are digitally tuned-in, you can buy this digital album and pick up these tunes as a bonus. While much of the music I receive nowadays is of the digital variety, there is still something very special to me about holding an actual record in my hand and watching as the needle drops on that first track, especially with this release.


(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.




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.