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Zak Starkey

THE WHO/THE HILLBENDERS

(May 23, 2019; HOLLYWOOD CASINO AMPHITHEATRE, Saint Louis MO)

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.

HOLLYWOOD VAMPIRES: HOLLYWOOD VAMPIRES

(JOHN VARVATOS RECORDS/REPUBLIC RECORDS/UNIVERSAL MUSIC ENTERPRISES; 2015)

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.