Category Archives: 80s Rock Reviews

The Best and Only Tolerable Christmas Song

It’s not a mere prediction but scientific fact* that by 2033 the Christmas Season will creep into late summer. As it stands, “Christmas” commences the moment the last bits of Halloween candy have been distributed, rendering Black Friday (and, to a lesser extent, its bastard siblings Cyber Monday, Small Business Saturday, Chapter Eleven Tuesday, etc ) the fulcrum on which the season swings and December 25th simply the end of a months’ long interest in all things Christmasy.

Radio stations have embraced Christmas encroachment accordingly, stripping those of us too poor, cheap, or indifferent to spring for satellite service of even the briefest car ride’s respite from holiday inanity by infusing their playlists with Christmas staples weeks before Black Friday Eve**.

Among the rubble of credibility-killing Christmas cash-ins, only one song retains the faint glimmer of dignity. It’s by a band that had a brief shining moment at the dawn of the MTV era and never charted in the Billboard Top 40.

Before we crown our winner, let’s consider the generations-spanning list of losers.

Traditional Christmas songs? As oldies often do, they tend towards the maudlin (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Blue Christmas) or downright creepy (“Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” “Frosty the Snowman,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”).

Beginning with “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree (1958),” rock ‘n’ roll Christmas songs offered an alternative to the sad phonographic patter of Christmas standards. Yet, nearly without exception, rock Christmas songs offer little more than uninspired statements of the obvious, bored bellowing from egg nog-weary singers looking to make some extra coin.

Take Brenda Lee’s RAtCT***, a song that has been covered on record over 30 times by a list of artists that reads like a who’s who of the creatively devoid. Some notables: The Partridge Family, Amy Grant, Hanson, Jessica Simpson, Hannah Montana and the surviving cast of Glee.

Now, a song’s merit cannot be judged by the artists who choose to cover it but by its original content. In this regard, RAtCT set the standard for dodo-brained obviousness.

It begins with setting, a “Christmas party hop” where everyone is “rockin’ around” the tree. By the second verse, this party hops sounds like a regular ole family gathering: “We’ll have some pumpkin pie, and we’ll do some caroling.” Nothing wrong with either, but the verse adds nothing new to the holiday experience.

By the third verse, we’re already subjected to call backs to Christmas songs of yesteryear: “You will get a sentimental feeling when you hear, voices singing, ‘Let’s be jolly, deck the halls with bells of holly.’”

And so begins over a half a century’s worth of Christmas songs sporting the same painfully meek message: guess what? It’s Christmas.

It may have started the dopey Christmas fire, but RAtCT is far from the worst Christmas rock song. As rock got older, it felt obliged to join the Christmas party full-time and no artist, however talented, was able to present more than a hackneyed jab at that which we were increasingly aware–it’s Christmas time.

On “Wonderful Christmastime” (1979), Paul McCartney sounds downright desperate, first stating, “We’re here tonight, and that’s enough” before begging us “to lift a glass,ah, don’t look down.”

It doesn’t sound like Christmas is a wonderful time for the cute Beatle at all. In fact, it sounds like, in the disco era, at least, Christmas was quite a trying time for the future knight, who needs to gulp down a tall one just to avoid looking down from his emotional cliff. Perhaps Sir Paul should thus be forgiven for the song’s uber-silly scat impression of a children’s chorus, “ding dong, ding dong, ding dong, ding dong.” We’ll get through this together, Paul.

The perils of holiday cheer seem particularly trying for talented songwriters, McCartney being only one of them. In 1992, Tom Petty took a stab at the Christmas single with “Christmas All Over Again,” a ditty so wretched it was included on the Home Alone 2 soundtrack.

As the title suggests, the usually insightful songwriter’s insipid single sounds tired from the start. We begin with a defeated sigh (“Well, it’s Christmas time again”) and continue with an aversion to familial gathering (“Long distance relatives, I haven’t seen ‘em in a long time. Yeah, I kinda miss ‘em, but I don’t wanna kiss ‘em, no”). Oh but, Tom and his Heartbreakers do want to get touchy, co-opting the season for a pickup line: “And Christmas is a rockin’ time. Put your body next to mine.”

Cheap, lechy, and more than a little dark.

We can begin and end our conversation on Christmas rap songs with standard-bearer “Christmas in Hollis.” Like rap itself, “Christmas in Hollis” blasts onto the scene in its first verse with promises of something fierce before regressing into repetitive banality.

In the first verse, the future Reverend Run is chilling on Hollis Ave. on Christmas Eve when he spots an ill reindeer and thinks, “Oh my god, an ill reindeer.” Santa and reindeer quickly exit the Queens park, presumably to deliver presents to the good boys and girls around the borough, but not before the jolly guy drops a wallet that Run decides to return because stealing from Santa ain’t right.

Ignoring the fact that the post office is closed on federal holidays, Run returns home to mail Santa’s wallet back that night, but when he arrives he “bugged because under the tree was a letter from Santa and the dough is for me!”

If it ended after one verse, “Christmas in Hollis” would succeed in telling a Christmas narrative that is new and free from the droning “Guess what? It’s Christmas” palp that plagues the rock genre. Run’s story is unique, both in setting and in plot. Only once did Santa make the odd choice of testing the superstar rapper’s morality by dropping a wallet for him in the park. That this is not an annual event sets the song apart from other modern Christmas tracks.

Unfortunately, in the last two verses D.M.C. muddles the tune with cliché. Unlike Run, Daryl’s gifts were left under the Christmas tree. There’s also “snow on the ground, snow white, so bright.” And just as he does every year, the lesser half of the duo “bust[s] Christmas carols.” Yawn****.

Punk Christmas songs are such an oxymoronic concept they are hardly worth mentioning. A group of allegedly anti-establishment musicians pushing unit by using as subject matter the exact point where organized religion and crass commercialism meet? That’s 85 seconds of your life you’re not getting back.

Interestingly, the best and only tolerable Christmas song mixes rock, punk, and rap while spinning a tale of Christmas redemption that would make Tiny Tim proud.

In 1982, new wave quartet The Waitresses found modest success with the year’s 62nd most popular song “I Know What Boys Like.” Only later did the band’s 1981 four and a half minute “Christmas Wrapping” find its way onto the airwaves.

Thankfully, it has remained a holiday staple despite an ever-growing field of lesser holiday tunes by better known artists.

The track gallops along at a brisk pace, with singer Patty Donahue doing a barely rhyming flat line white girl rap a la Blondie while the rest of the Waitresses pound out an up tempo beat heavy on 80s saxophone.

“Christmas Wrapping” is unique in that it conveys a year’s worth of experience and the narrator undergoes significant change by the story’s end.

We begin with a “bah humbug” to kick off the first verse as our frazzled storyteller reviews her “busy blur” of the past year, one in which she’s had quarterly just-miss encounters with a guy she met at a ski shop the previous winter. She got his number, but barely had the time to speak with him. Plans to join him on his boat fell through and his car wouldn’t start when she was set to accompany him to a Halloween party*****.

For Christmas, the independent-minded narrator decides not repeat the mistake of Halloween, instead walking to the A&P to purchase “the world’s smallest turkey” for a solitary holiday. There, she bumps into the mystery man, also alone. Fate brings them together in the cranberry aisle, and they decide to combine tiny turkeys and spend the evening together.

Though a scrooge at the story’s start, the narrator has a new view of 1981’s Christmas by the end of the tale, signified by the changed chorus, which shifts from the dismissive “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, but I think I’ll miss this one this year” to the cheery “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, couldn’t miss this one this year.” Boom. Christmas magic.

With “Christmas Wrapping” we have a story with skeptical overtones that ends cheerfully and lyrics that are easy to decipher but difficult to duplicate rap-sung over a tune that is at once novel and nostalgic.

Only an unsung band like The Waitresses could produce this, the only tolerable Christmas song. Radio is only too happy to play half-assed drivel if it’s churned out by superstar acts, who in turn have zero incentive to put out a tune half decent tune.

As the season lurches mercilessly ever forward, Christmas is scheduled to reach the length of a full calendar year by 2113, at which time humanity and the robot people will be subjected to a ceaseless onslaught of holiday songs. Hopefully by then someone will create at least one more tolerable Christmas tune.

Good luck, Avicii.

————————————————————————

*Trust me, I got a hard B in Quantitative Research Methods
**A holiday the ancients called “Thanksgiving”
***Originally more of a country song but with the time-honored rock
traditional of prominently employing the word “rock,” RAtCT was
released the same year as Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock”
****Perhaps it was their inability to follow the inspired first verse
with anything worthwhile that caused Run D.M.C to argue with
producer and Santa-doppleganger Rick Rubin in a failed effort to
block the track’s release.
*****Remember, this is before Facebook, so the narrator is forced to
take him on his word as there would be no tagged pics of said guy
partying in his sweet Indiana Jones costume

Devil Horns Aplenty: The M3 Rock Festival in Columbia, MD

May 6, 2013

 On their own, some of the bands playing the 5th annual M3 festival at Columbia’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, can’t fill a bar, let alone an amphitheater.  But the draw of the M3 festival is in the homogeneity of the lineup.  This isn’t a “something for everyone” festival with various themed tents meant to appeal to the broadest swath of concert goers with disposable income.  This is a concert for people who like bands that wore aquanet and topped Dial MTV in the late 80s. 

And a lot of people still do.  From fans who remember when MTV played music and people made phone calls with their phones to a surprising number of teenagers wearing throwback gear, the M3 festival did brisk business on Saturday, despite a weaker lineup than in years past.  There was no Warrant, Winger, LA Guns, Whitesnake, Ratt, Cinderella, etc. and the main stage was headlined by a guy known more for reality tv than music in recent years.  Still, by 3 o’clock the pavilion and lawn were filling up and fans were mulling about the concession area, some sporting mullets not often seen in a union state.   This is a destination concert, and license plates from surrounding states dotted the parking lot, highlighting the rarity of an 80s glam festival in the Mid-Atlantic, even if there’s a long list of conspicuously absent Reagan era chart toppers.

Fans traveled between two stages, the main ampitheater stage and a makeshift riser at the back end of the gated area dubbed the “festival stage.”  Though the main stage could house more spectators, the “festival stage” offered fans closer access to the show in a standing room only fenced in plot of pavement. 

Below are some thoughts on the bands that performed in the mid-afternoon and into the night for day two of the M3 festival. 

JSRG

This is 4/5 of the all-female band Vixen, who lost a lawsuit to the other 1/5 for the rights to the band name.  But even if they had performed as Vixen, this group was never popular enough to draw a huge crowd.  The performance was fine and included a guitar-heavy version of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and their signature hit “Edge of a Broken Heart,” but during their set many fans helped themselves to concessions or vied for sightlines at the second stage, where Great White were readying.

Great White

This is lead singer Jack Russell’s version of the band.  A recovering alcoholic and drug addict, Russell looked sober and sounded crisp during the short set.  Jack Russell is the only original member of Great White in this version of Great White, officially dubbed “Jack Russell’s Great White,” but he’s recruited a highly capable cadre of replacement players.  The band closed with their biggest hit, “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” itself a cover of a 1975 song by British artist Ian Hunter.  Fans sang, swayed, and in some cases even played tambourines that apparently made it through security.  They were watching Russell’s band, a tribute band to his own band, performing a cover song.  It didn’t matter.  The song had a great video back in the day and everyone knew the words.

Loudness

Japanese metal band Loudness played the main stage, performing what was arguably the heaviest set for Saturday’s festivities.  Though they never experienced the success in the U.S. that many American 80s acts achieved in their home country, Loudness was a favorite at the 2012 M3 festival, and they came back to the states just to play this gig.  With 25 albums to pull from, Loudness had plenty of material to choose from and their ballad-free, guitar solo-heavy tracks were full of energy, but like JSRG, they’re another band that would have benefited from the up close and personal second stage.  Last year, Loudness snuck up on a crowd that didn’t know much about them and made a number of new fans.  This year, an upgrade to the main stage didn’t do them any favors, with the amphitheater creating a distance between the band and the people watching the show.  Though they were once again well received, the frenetic energy of their music wasn’t absorbed with quite the same fervor via the main stage, where their unfamiliar sound was more of a novelty.

Steel Panther

The only band that didn’t actually originate in the 80s (regardless of what their bio says), Steel Panther probably won a few converts on Saturday as well.   Lead singer Ralph Saenz and guitarist Russ Parish are 80s hair band veterans, but their homage to 80s excess is often misconstrued as demeaning parody.  Thankfully, songs like “Death to All But Metal” and “17 Girls in a Row” played to the crowd’s interest and fans saluted with devil horns aplenty.  Steel Panther is a comedy act, but with only 40 minutes to work with, they could have stuck to songs from their two albums of originals rather than bantering for 10 minutes during band introductions.  The shtick takes away from their show, and though they are selling an “act,” not just a band, they could abbreviate their talking points to a few quick quips s during shorter shows.

Firehouse

This band has remained largely unchanged since their early 90s heyday.  Perhaps their lasting popularity in Asia and South America (where they still headline large venues) has kept them together.  In the states, they’re mostly remembered for their ballads like, “When I Look Into Your Eyes” and wedding classic “Love of a Lifetime.”  For the ballads, singer C.J. Snare played piano, quickly jumping into heavier fare after each ivory-laden single.  Snare’s voice sounded solid and on key.  He sported a fully follickled head that didn’t match his facial hair, suggesting that he may not be the president of the hair club for men, but he is a member.  Most of Firehouse’s set was heavier than expected, with drummer Michael Foster filling up the rhythm section with copious amounts of double bass.

Twisted Sister

This was the surprise of the day.  Twisted Sister haven’t had a new album in over 25 years and they performed without their classic stage makeup, but the band, with all of its original members in tow, played more like a bunch of guys in their 20s than a crew on the verge of 60.  Lead singer Dee Snider sprinted up and down the amphitheater stage, singing rapid-fire lyrics without missing a note a la Vince Neil or audibly gasping for breath a la Axl Rose.  Twisted Sister had fun with their show too, mocking themselves for going on a “10 dates a year tour,” and later teasing an unplugged set with an acoustic guitar before smashing it to bits, cursing off unplugged music and the bands who “sell out” via the unplugged format, and charging back into hard-pounding songs from their classic catalog that also played heavier live than on record. 

The crowd ate it up.  Like Twisted Sister, they wanted to rock.  And rock they did.  With their original members, engaging stage presence, and a popularity that endures in part from the rarity of their performances, Twisted Sister could have easily headlined this year’s festival.

Brett Michaels

Brett Michaels was selling-shirts for his Pets Rock line of products at Pet Smart.  We left before his set.

Sassy Sandy adds some tambourine to "Once Bitten, Twice Shy"

Sassy Sandy adds some tambourine to “Once Bitten, Twice Shy”

The "M" in M3 stands for mullet.

The “M” in M3 stands for mullet.

 

Heart in Baltimore, MD

August 2, 2010

Originally published on The Baltimore Sun’s Midnight Sun

’70s hard rockers-turned-’80s balladeers-turned classic rock mainstays Ann and Nancy Wilson brought their 2010 tour to Pier Six Pavilion Sunday night, with a well-rounded set list and pleasing performance.

Heart’s multi-generational fan base was on hand, including a sizable number of sidewalk freeloaders and boat-dwellers.

Just as sunset hit the Inner Harbor, Heart made their way to the stage for a 100-minute set that featured every song the casual fan wanted to hear as well as a number of lesser-known tracks …

From the start, it was obvious that Ann Wilson’s voice is still  in fine form, and Nancy Wilson is still full of rock ‘n’ roll front  woman spunk after 35 years in the business. The group tore through two  songs, “Hey You” and “WTF” from their 13th studio album, the forthcoming  “Red Velvet Car.”

Mid-set, they mixed in a faithful rendition of  “These Dreams” and a stripped-down take of ’80s megahit “Alone,” which  Ann noted came in at an octave lower than it was 25 years ago. It was a  sultry and full as ever. Change is good.

The group back loaded their set with ’70s classics “Magic Man,” “Crazy on You,” and  “Barracuda.”  Near the end of the show, it seemed like Heart had finished, and a few fans left. They  missed out on an encore that featured covers of Led Zeppelin and The  Who. Heart has a powerful rendition of “Love, Reign O’er Me.”

As  with most classic rock shows, last night’s Heart concert was not without its  cliches, including an unnecessary video montage of machine-generated  visuals. Fire! Black light! Flaming donuts (I think)! But the cliches  did nothing to take away from the power and professionalism of Heart’s  current incarnation and the ageless vocals of Ann Wilson. The Wilson  sisters have still got it

Steel Panther in Baltimore, MD

May 18, 2012

Originally published on The Baltimore Sun’s The Midnight Sun

Comedy clubs are littered with guys who can strum the guitar and tell jokes concurrently, but the key to a great musical comedy act is the strength of their musicianship. As with Weird Al and Spinal Tap, Steel Panther demonstrate talent comparable and at times superior to the acts they parody.

The ’80s glam-metal foursome formed in 2000 according to its bio (or in 1988 according to the “bio”) and since then have been regulars on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, where they perform a mix of covers and originals. The group’s national tours, however, predominantly feature original material from 2009’s “Feel the Steel” and 2011’s “Balls Out.” Thursday night’s 100-minute set at Rams Head Live highlighted the band’s professionalism and penchant for crotch jokes.

First, “American Idol” Season 10 fourth place finalist James Durbin opened the show with a surprisingly hard-rocking 40 minute set. Think a glam-rock Adam Lambert with more emphasis on the rock part.

Taking the stage at 10:45 p.m. in full costume, Steel Panther opened with the first two tracks from “Balls Out,” the space-age concept album that spoofs “In the Future” and “Supersonic Sex Machine.” The first of several breaks followed as the band bantered with one another between songs. Singer Ralph Saenz and guitarist Russ Parrish handled most of the emceeing duties. Though veterans of ’80s bands including LA Guns and Fight, the duo go by the stage names “Michael Star” and “Satchel.” Together with gender-bending bassist Travis Haley (“Lexxi Foxxx”) and drummer Daren Leader (“Stix Zadinia”), their act includes as much wink-and-nod hedonism and misogyny as their album cuts and the crowd responded to their jokes with enthusiasm nearly equal that of their songs.

Additional highlights included a rousing rendition of the power ballad “Community Property” and the band’s slowest song, “Weenie Ride,” for which Stix took center stage for keyboard duties.  For heavier fare, including “Just Like Tiger Woods” and “Turn Out the Lights,” the band shared choreographed head-banging that matched their Flying V guitars and later invited a dozen women on stage with them for a discussion of domestic policy and the forthcoming election.

Just kidding, they danced and took their tops off.

For the encore, Durbin joined the band for the lone cover of the evening, a spot-on rendition of “Sweet Child of Mine” during which the 23 year-old reality contestant’s vocals noticeably outshined those of Michael Star. Panther and Durbin’s impassioned take on the Guns ‘n’ Roses standard easily bested the half-hearted rendition Mile Kennedy performed with Slash two weeks earlier earlier.

The band’s parodies are also in many ways a tribute to ’80s rock. On the day that Van Halen announced the cancelation of most of their tour due to in-fighting, Steel Panther stands as a better tribute to the ’80s than many of the current bands from the big-hair era. Though they laughed at appropriate intervals, the crowd’s animated approval of each soaring guitar solo shows that they, too, came to rock out to the ’80s, albeit with a millennial-appropriate level of self-awareness.

Setlist:

In the Future Supersonic Sex Machine Tomorrow Night Fat Girl (Thar She Blows) Asian Hooker Just Like Tiger Woods Gold-Digging Whore Turn Out the Lights Community Property Eyes of a Panther Weenie Ride Party All Day It Won’t Suck Itself Death to All But Metal

Encore: Sweet Child of Mine 17 Girls in a Row

Slash in Baltimore, MD

May 4, 2012

Originally published on The Baltimore Sun’s Midnight Sun

The banner atop the stage during Thursday night’s tour-opening performance said it all. In size-72 font was the billboard for monosyllabic lead guitarist Slash, followed by a colorful size-48 font promo for his current lead singer-collaborator, Myles Kennedy. Below Kennedy’s name, in 12-point font was the name of their touring rhythm section, the Conspirators.

For their part, the Conspirators were a capable and enthusiastic group, tearing through a 19-song set that showcased Slash’s solo material and his work withGuns N’ Rosesand Velvet Revolver equally. Bassist Todd Kerns brought a particularly high-octane stage presence to Rams Head Live, working every part of the stage and providing standout backing vocals for the golden-piped Kennedy. Kennedy, too, was game. The 42-year-old rock veteran’s octave-scaling range was on full display throughout the evening.

That said, the setlist, the songs and the crowd reinforced what the sign suggested: this was a Slash concert. The crowd consisted mostly of fans who were around during Slash’s heyday and beer sales were no doubt brisk for this distinctly “of age” demographic. When the band took the stage at 9:45 (more than two hours earlier than Axl’s Guns N’ Roses showed up for their recent set at the Fillmore) 1,800 beery fans popped for Slash, who appeared in full regalia, wearing all black with his trademark long curls and tophat. Slash’s post-Guns song catalogue are all distinctly Slash, highlighted by recognizable bluesy guitar solos played atop fast-paced, straightforward rock riffs.

While the crowd cheered enthusiastically for each portion of the 19-song, 100-minute set, “Night Train,” the first of five Guns songs, got the most bodies moving. Kennedy, who at this point probably possesses greater vocal ability than Axl, hit every note of the Guns songs. However, his clean-throated high-range is in stark contrast to Rose’s raspy yowls. Songs such as “Night Train” and “My Michelle,” which tell tales about a seedy underworld of booze, drugs, and prostitution, don’t have the same dirty feel with Kennedy’s crisp vocal delivery.

Also interesting is the fact that the set pays nearly equal homage to Velvet Revolver as it does to GnR.  Surely, it is an easier task to replace the deep-throated Scott Weiland than it is to approximate Axl, and the crowd was happy to have four Revolver songs on Thursday night. Chart-topping ballad “Fall to Pieces” was a mid-set crowd pleaser.

For their part, the sold-out crowd responded enthusiastically all night. They were there to see a Hall of Fame guitarist, and even when his guitar died during “Back to Cali,” forcing the band to hit rewind and restart, he did not disappoint. A few times during the cover-heavy set, Kennedy looked like he didn’t want to be playing the replacement rock star the way he did in the movie “Rock Star.” During “Sweet Child of Mine,” he incited the crowd to do the wave with more than a hint of detached irony. Still, as the confetti rained down during closer “Paradise City,” Slash had put on another great rock show and Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators proved worthy touring partners, if not peers.

Set list

Mean Bone (Snakepit) Dirty Lil Thing (Velvet Revolver) Ghost Night Train (Guns ‘n’ Roses) Rocket Queen (Guns ‘n’ Roses) Back From Cali Sucker Train Blues (Velvet Revolver) Standing in the Sun Fall to Pieces (Velvet Revolver) Dr. Alibi Speed Parade (Snakepit) Watch This Starlight You’re a Lie My Michelle (Guns ‘n’ Roses) Just Like Anything (Snakepit) Sweet Child of Mine (Guns ‘n’ Roses) Slither (Velvet Revolver)

Encore: By the Sword Paradise City (Guns ‘n’ Roses)

Def Leppard, Poison, and Lita Ford in Columbia, MD

July 11, 2012

Originally published on the Baltimore Sun’s Midnight Sun

At around 10 Tuesday night at Columbia’s Merriweather Post Pavillion, a pair of fans were relieving themselves of $12 margaritas and $10 beers when the following disagreement took place:

Fan No. 1: “Poison should be headlining this show, man. They’re better than Def Leppard.”

Fan No. 2: “No way. Def Leppard’s still got it! Poison is just collecting a paycheck.”

The importance of this conversation is not which fan is right (though for the record, I stand with and directly next to fan No. 2), but that this conversation is still taking place in 2012.

Twenty-five years after Def Leppard’s Hysteria album and 13 years, even, since Poison kicked off the ’80s amphitheater revival with its 1999 comeback tour, the veteran acts still refuse to either burn out or fade away.

Though neither Def Leppard, Poison, nor opener Lita Ford is likely to put out a new record that’ll go platinum (is that a word anymore?), their fans are willing to shell out $50 to spend a perfect summer evening dancing and fist-pumping to back catalogues and reliving decades past, when they did exactly the same, only with bigger hair and fewer bills to pay.

For the most part, the bands delivered as if Hammerjacks were still packing the house on a Tuesday night.

Ford took the stage for a short set at 7 p.m. Though the crowd had not yet filtered in and her four-piece band only had a tiny portion of the stage to work with, she proved she has shaken off any rust that may have accumulated during her lengthy break from performing in the late ’90s and ’00s. At 53 and incredibly fit, Ford donned a black leather jacket and leather pants that may have been the same pair she wore in her MTV heyday. She strapped on a gigantic white double-neck guitar for the sing-along “Kiss Me Deadly” and closed the set by singing both parts of her duet with Ozzy Osborne, “Close My Eyes Forever.”

Poison followed, opening with the traditional first song, “Look What the Cat Dragged In.” They ran through all of their hits, including “Unskinny Bop” and “Talk Dirty to Me” as well as two-and-a-half covers, Grand Funk Railroad’s “We’re An American Band,” Loggins and Messina’s “Your Mama Don’t Dance” and bits of Rick Derringer’s “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo.” These guys prefer to rock out to songs about rock.

Of course, Brett Michaels, 49, has also embarked on a second career as a reality TV star, and he was sure to plug an upcoming appearance on Donald Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice,” all but asking the female-dominated crowd to set their DVRs. Solo career choices notwithstanding, however, Poison is a band better suited to open a show like this than headline. The band simply doesn’t have the hits for a full headlining set, as a 50-minute performance sprinkled with covers, guitar solos and drum solos proved.

Def Leppard, on the other hand, has amassed a collection of singles that can rival any group of its era.  That’s why opening with a new song, “Undefeated,” was an odd choice. Typically, the new single marks an opportunity for fans to fork out a few bucks for another drink and find a bathroom mid-set.

But Def Leppard’s presence and command of the audience built from a relatively weak start to full steam by about the fifth and sixth songs, Hysteria’s “Animal” and “Love Bites.” Singer Joe Elliot, 52, a man who once admitted to shooting needles full of Jack Daniels, now looks like a distinguished British gentleman. Lead guitarist and apparent ab-roller enthusiast Phil Collen, 54, on the other hand, may have the same intense personal trainer as Lita Ford.

The band’s audio included plenty of reverb and layered vocals, but their acoustic miniset proved that they didn’t need flashy studio wizardry to keep the crowd happy. In fact, drummer Rick Allen, 48, who lost his left arm in a car accident in 1984, got one of the biggest pops of the night when he joined the band on the catwalk during the acoustic set to play a maraca.

The band churned out crowd-pleasers as the night drew toward its conclusion, closing with a string of chart-toppers that included “Hysteria,” “Armageddon It,” “Photograph” and “Pour Some Sugar On Me.”

For the encore, the band launched into “Rock of Ages,” without any mention of the play or the film that borrowed its name. Before leaving the stage at the conclusion of the 100-minute set, Elliott made a pact with the crowd, “Until next time — and there will be a next time — do us a favor: don’t forget about us and we won’t forget about you.”

Still rolling indeed.

Guns N’ Roses in Silver Springs, MD

February 23, 2012

Originally published on The Baltimore Sun’s Midnight Sun

Say what you want about Axl Rose’s erratic touring schedule and late-night performances, but when the man shows up for a gig, he sticks around for a while.  That was certainly the case at the Fillmore on Thursday night, where Guns N’ Roses took the stage just after midnight, playing a three-hour set of more than 30 songsfor what looked like an at-capacity crowd.

Openers Electric Sun handled the unenviable job of playing to a packed house of fans more engaged in prognostications about GnR’s enigmatic singer than in watching them.

For those wondering,

Axl’s hair: covered with a large hat, but at least not cornrowed

Axl’s weight: covered with layers.  Paunchy but not his paunchiest.

Axl’s face:  covered with sunglasses.  Lifted.

As the Chinese Democracy Tour begins its second decade (the band has been performing in the U.S. in support of the long-in-the-works album since 2001), Axl’s latest band includes an impressive stable of musicians.

Standouts include a guy named Bumblefoot, who looks like he may have wandered directly off a six-month hiking trek and into GnR, and former Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson, who has now been a replacement member of GnR longer than he was a Replacement.  Drummer Frank Ferrer was turned way down in the club mix, but his precision and force is more Matt Sorum than Stephen Adler.  DJ Ashba seems to have been brought in for his ability to wear a top hat and smoke cigarettes ala Slash.

The technical proficiency and sheer size of the band, now an eight-piece with two keyboardists and three guitarists, lends itself more naturally to big, busy songs like “Estranged,” which they brought out surprisingly early in the set.

After opening with “Chinese Democracy,” Axl got the crowd going with three consecutive Appetite-era songs – “Welcome to the Jungle,” “It’s So Easy” and “Mr. Brownstone” followed shortly thereafter by a funked-up version of “You’re Crazy.”

But oldies like “Rocket Queen” felt a bit hollow without Slash and Izzy’s loose blues rock or the swing original drummer Stephen Adler brought to the group.

The current group could have played to their strengths by venturing further into the back catalog of “Use Your Illusions” songs and digging out big, broad opuses like “Coma” and “Locomotive.” But instead, it built the set around “Appetite for Destruction” and “Chinese Democracy” songs, with a few instrumentals thrown in for good measure.

Newer songs – and by newer I mean songs that Axl tinkered with for 17 years before releasing “Chinese Democracy” in 2008 – sounded great, but even in an intimate setting there was an inevitable lull each time a “Democracy”-era song came on.

One exception was “Better” an  up-tempo encore inclusion with a full light show and harmonies that got the crowd buzzing.  But Axl knows where his bread is buttered, and so “Appetite” classics “Patience” and “Paradise City” closed the show as the house lights went on not long before sunlight started peeking into the morning at 3 a.m.

If Axl Rose doesn’t want to cash in on a reunion tour with Slash, he’d do well to stick to venues like The Fillmore, where he can pack in a full house of die-hards. Still, it’s clear that while he may not need his old bandmates to play a Guns N’ Roses show, he certainly needs their old songs.

Set List

Chinese Democracy

Welcome to the Jungle

It’s So Easy

Mr. Brownstone

Sorry

You’re Crazy

Estranged

Rocket Queen

Richard Fortus Guitar Solo

Live and Let Die

This I Love

Motivation – Stinson solo

Dizzy Reed piano solo – Baba O’Reilly

Street of Dreams

You Could Be Mine

DJ Ashba Guitar Solo

Sweet Child of Mine

Used to Love Her

Instrumental Jam

Axl Rose piano solo/November Rain

Bumblefoot

Don’t Cry

Civil War

Knockin on Heaven’s Door

Night Train

Madagascar

Better

Instrumental

Patience

Instrumental/Paradise City

Kiss and Motley Crue in Bristow, VA

July 23, 2012

Originally published on The Baltimore Sun’s The Midnight Sun

Thirty years after they first toured together, Kiss and Motley Crue are back out on the road, opening their 2012 summer tour on an intermittently stormy night in Bristow. But if Crue is officially the opening act on this tour, their bigger stage show, equal-lengthed setlist and more frenzied audience suggests otherwise.

Motley Crue’s stage show is a spectacle. Working with the carnival theme they’ve been experimenting with for years, this tour includes a huge stage production incorporating all of the classic elements of arock ‘n’ rollcircus and a healthy dose of vaudeville.

The band entered via the aisles in a druid-style ceremony, accompanied by roadies bearing Motley Crue flags. The show began with the eponymous single off the group’s latest album, “Saints of Los Angeles.”  Frontman Vince Neil’s stage presence may not be impressive enough to carry a show, but he’s barely noticeable mixed in with the lights, smoke, fire, dancing backup singers, and roller-coaster drum set that serve as a backdrop for Neil’s jazzercising routine and often strained vocals.

Motley Crue is one of those rare bands in which the rhythm section’s personalities are larger than the lead’s. This was evident during Friday’s show when Tommy Lee took the spotlight for a two-part drum solo, during which he played the drums while spinning 360 degrees and later picking up an audience member to accompany him.

Lee then played piano on “Home Sweet Home,” probably one of the most touching songs ever performed by a man dressed as a court jester. Bassist/songwriter/biographer Nikki Sixx, who looks like a touring member of Nine Inch Nails these days, took center stage with a flaming bass guitar during “Primal Scream.”

Despite debuting a new song (“Sex”) midset, Crue otherwise stuck to their classics during the 75-minute production, wrapping things up fittingly with one of their biggest hits and self-laudatory tributes to their own decadent legacy, “Kickstart My Heart.”

But if Motley Crue is representative of ’80s raunch and excess, Kiss is a genre in and of itself.

Though only half of the original band is represented in the current lineup, the group arrived in full makeup, platform shoes and cartoon regalia, as did many of their fans. Kiss’ LED-light stage show didn’t live up to the high expectations set by Motley Crue, and it’s a bit surprising that they didn’t add more to it in order to outshine their showy supporting act.

Taking the stage at 9:45 with their traditional opening song, “Detroit Rock City,” the band front-loaded hits into the first part of the set, following with “Shout it Out Loud,” “I Love it Loud,” and “Love Gun.”  Paul Stanley rode a zip-line to the middle of the pavilion for “Love Gun,” utilizing a temporary structure that brought him closer to the audience. Later, long-tongued bassist/reality tv star Gene Simmons spit blood during their new single, “Hell or Hallelujah,” released earlier this month.

Stanley and Simmons left the stage for a midset guitar and drum solo showcasing Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer, current representatives of the Space and Cat Men. Highlighting their ’70s roots, the band interspersed bits of The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly” into “Lick it Up.”

If you’ve seen Kiss before, you know what to expect from them, including the mega-hit encore “Rock and Roll All Nite.” Their show remains formulaic, but it’s a formula that has helped them maintain a legion of loyal fans and keeps them drawing as a major touring act 16 years after the band’s MTV reunion and resurgent comeback tour. Objectively, however, the metal lunch box heroes haven’t stepped up their touring act to match that of their Sin City-meets-Ringling-Brothers rock-‘n’-roll roadshow counterparts in the Crue.

Jay Trucker is a frequent contributor to Midnight Sun. He teaches at the Community College of Baltimore County in Dundalk and blogs occassionally at WNST.net. He last reviewed Def Leppard and Poison at Merriweather Post Pavilion. Wesley Case edited this post.

Motley Crue

“Saints of Los Angeles ” “Wildside” “Shout at the Devil” “Same Old Situation” “Looks that Kill” “Girl, Don’t Go Away Mad” “Sex” Drum solo (club mix and “Roller Coaster”) “Home Sweet Home (Tommy Lee on piano)” “Primal Scream” “Dr. Feelgood” “Girls, Girls, Girls” “Kickstart My Heart”

Kiss

“Detroit Rock City” “Shout it Out Loud” “I Love it Loud” “Love Gun” “Firehouse” “War Machine” “Shock Me” “Hell or Hallelujah” Bass solo “God of Thunder” “Lick it Up (‘Baba O’Reilly’ splices)” “Black Diamond”

Encore”Rock and Roll All Nite”