(Live at Wings Event Center, Kalamazoo, Mich., 08-06-2016)
Life is short. This is no great revelation, of course, but lately it seems that living is an extraordinarily dangerous pastime – particularly in rock and metal. It’s been a rough year for losing our beloved musicians, beginning with the almighty Lemmy Kilmister back in December. As if the passing of the iconic Motorhead bassist/frontman wasn’t enough, David Bowie, Paul Kantner, Glenn Frey, and Prince followed suit in 2016, albeit not representing the hard rock/metal genre per se. No matter, their losses serve as yet another reminder of the reaper’s perpetual pursuit of us all, and, by extension, our favorite musicians.
I was reminded of this fact while sitting in my nosebleed seats at Wings Events Center in Kalamazoo, Michigan, last Saturday, waiting for Alice Cooper to take the stage. The friendly young man sitting next to me, who couldn’t have been older than 21, tops, was talking with me about how excited he was to be seeing his first AC concert. He explained how he had grown up on all the old albums from his parents, and how he was sick of the “new” rock (his girlfriend had recently dragged him to the Warped Tour) and was ready to hear some timeless classics. Then, he mentioned how so many great musicians had been dying lately, and he felt he had to take the opportunity to see Alice now while he still had the chance. This got me ruminating again on people like Dio, Dimebag, Jon Lord, Mark Reale, and Lemmy, all musical heroes who I had taken for granted to always be here – much like with Alice. Now, with this young man’s help, this special “Spend the Night with Alice Cooper” concert event was placed in the proper perspective.
An Alice Cooper concert is a unique experience. In my 20-plus years of attending concerts, there really isn’t a direct correlation I could make to any other theatrical metal band. Sure, other bands utilize theatrical elements such as props, costume changes, and pyrotechnics in various ways to tell a story or set a particular mood. But an Alice Cooper show IS rock theater. Let me explain. At an Alice concert, the word “show” takes on a new and operative connotation. It is like actually watching a movie or a play. Alice absolutely does not break through the fourth wall to destroy the illusion of the show being played out on stage. He does not pause between songs to joke, tell anecdotes, or introduce the next song. He doesn’t banter with the audience, interact with them, or otherwise acknowledge them in any manner (at least until the tail end of the set). Every costume, actor, and set change is performed flawlessly and with the utmost attention to maintaining the theatrical integrity. Seeing Alice Cooper live is like losing oneself within a most emotive and captivating horror-metal freak show.
This show was not diluted by an opening act. Instead, when the lights finally dimmed around 8:20 p.m., all attention was drawn to the large curtain behind the stage. The image depicted Alice’s face in a manner similar to the 1978 From the Inside album, only here his eyes were replaced by giant spiders. Then Vincent Price’s famous cryptic voice kicked in, warning us about the “humanary stew” and the coming of the “Black Widow.” A shower of golden sparks rained down upon the front of the stage as Alice and his five-piece band launched into the heavy and iconic opening riff of horror. This notorious arachnid didn’t stick around for long, however, with the band launching into “No More Mr. Nice Guy” only about a minute into “Black Widow’s” running time. While I would have much rather heard that previous song in its entirety, “Nice Guy” sounded rich and powerful via Alice’s three-guitar attack. The mighty axe tandem of Ryan Roxie, Nita Strauss, and Tommy Henriksen delivered the most delicious harmonies and ripping leads with ease, all while maintaining a nice metallic crunch in the rhythm guitar. Anyone who claims Alice Cooper circa 2016 is not a metal band, frankly, needs a hearing aid. Longtime AC bassist Chuck Garric provided the fluid and punchy bottom end, while drummer Glen Sobel’s playing was technical proficient without sacrificing one iota of thunderous power. As for Alice himself, his distinctive raspy croon hasn’t lost any of its tone or charisma with age. Sure, he’s never possessed the greatest range or technical ability, but his singing has a certain iconic charm that cannot be duplicated. Alice still puts 110 percent of his effort into his vocals and stage performance, and this night was certainly no exception.
Refusing to let anyone up for air, the band continued with the classic, strutting rock-and-roll riff of “Under My Wheels,” followed by an unlikely and most welcomed School’s Out deep cut, “Public Animal #9.” The triple-axe attack was on sublime harmonic display during “Billion Dollar Babies,” a song that never loses steam or freshness no matter how many times I hear it. Then came another unexpected deep cut, the fun and upbeat “Long Way to Go” off Love It to Death.” Later, Nita Strauss’ unaccompanied guitar solo was as entertaining and melodic as it was technically dazzling; strictly musically speaking, the band’s captivating performance of “Halo of Flies” was the highlight of the evening. The complex, dark, and eerie tune came off as a headbanging pleasure, and it reminded one how the original AC band influenced all the great multi-guitar metal bands that came later. Sobel also played a brief but rhythmically interesting and memorable drum solo halfway through this song.
Of course, visually there was so much to see that words could never begin to do the show justice. During “Is It My Body,” Alice sang the entire song while draped by an enormous boa constrictor. “Cold Ethyl” manifested herself as a blond body doll dressed in white, who Alice carried around and spanked. In Alice’s heart-wrenching version of “Only Women Bleed,” this same doll felt the abusive narrator’s embraces as well as his threatening hands. It’s also hard to beat watching mad-scientist Alice enter a giant, electrified closet to emerge as the giant, lumbering monster in “Feed My Frankenstein.” At the end of the dynamic epic “The Ballad of Dwight Frye,” a straight-jacket clad Alice literally lost his head to the guillotine, only to triumphantly return in “I Love the Dead.”
The show then segued into a moving and classy tribute to some lost rock-and-roll heroes. The words Keith Moon” appeared on the backdrop, and then the band erupted into The Who’s “Pinball Wizard.” Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire,” David Bowie’s “Suffragette City,” and Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades” all followed in a similarly rousing manner; with bassist Chuck Garric dressing and singing as the iconic Lemmy. With this particular choice of cover tunes, all the instruments were symbolically represented in Alice’s own Rock Band of the Dead.
“I’m Eighteen” had nearly the entire audience singing along, “Cuz I’m eighteen, eighteen, eighteen and I LIKE IT!” Alice finally introduced the band and addressed the audience during the closer, “School’s Out,” gracefully thanking Kalamazoo for having supported him since the Welcome to My Nightmare tour back in ’75. All the giant balloons and confetti swirling around the hockey arena were merely icing to a perfect concert confection.
Appropriately enough, the band returned for a politically-charged encore choice of “Elected.” A hilarious mock confrontation ensued onstage between Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton, with the two candidates alternately embracing and strangling/assaulting each other throughout the song. At one point later in the song, Trump and Clinton started making out on the side of the stage; if there is a more poignant symbolization of Alice’s 2016 tour motto, “Make America Sick Again,” I don’t know what it could be. Alice closed the 25-song, hour-and-45-minute show by saying, “Please vote…for anyone but me.” No, Alice Cooper, I’d vote for you any day. Hello, hooray, indeed.
--Review by Jonathan Kollnot
--Approximate Setlist: (Vincent Price Intro) 1.) Black Widow (abbreviated) 2.) No More Mr. Nice Guy 3.) Under My Wheels 4.) Public Animal # 9 5.) Billion Dollar Babies 6.) Long Way to Go 7.) Is It My Body? 8.) Woman of Mass Distraction 9.) Guitar Solo (Nita Strauss) 10. Poison 11.) Halo of Flies (with drum solo) 12.) Feed My Frankenstein 13.) Cold Ethyl 14.) Only Women Bleed 15.) Guilty 16.)The Ballad of Dwight Frye 17.) Killer (partial) 18.) I Love the Dead (partial) 19.) Under the Bed (Raise the Dead intro) 20.) Pinball Wizard 21.) Fire 22.) Suffragette City 23.) Ace of Spades 24.) I’m Eighteen 25.) School’s Out (with Another Brick in the Wall). Encore: Elected