Spent all day thinking up puns around this band’s name, and around vampires and horror movies. Bringing the likes of Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price and Sir Christopher Lee into this review in some way.
Decided to scrap that predictable and probably done to death (sorry!) idea and focus on the music on offer tonight. Is it any good? If these were not superstar rock legends and the odd movie star up on this arena stage, would people be forking out at least £55 to see and hear them pay tribute to “dead drunks” with mainly covers?
The band was formed three years ago to honour the rock stars who died from drugs and booze, some of whom Alice Cooper was drinking buddies with. Because these guys only came out at night and cruised the bars in L.A. and made the infamous Rainbow Bar & Grill on the Sunset Strip their HQ, they were named The Hollywood Vampires. Membership depended on if you could out drink and out excess the others. Cooper was President and Keith Moon was V.P.
First tonight’s roll call: Hollywood movie star Johnny Depp on guitar and backing vocals. Alice Cooper on lead vocals and harmonica. Aerosmith’s Joe Perry on lead guitar and backing vocals. That’s the core of this A list outfit.
Then there are touring musicians to make up the seven-piece band, and the odd guest appearance. They have released just one album, in 2015. Mostly covers, as is their set tonight. Around 10,000 in tonight, a capacity of 16,000. Some coughing up a grand a pop for a meet and greet with Mr Depp and the chaps.
The guys up there with the three main focal points tonight are, on keyboards: Buck Johnson, on bass Chris Wyse, on guitar Tommy Henriksen on keyboards and acoustic guitar and Glen Sobel on drums. The first night of the four date UK leg of their tour, after which they call in to Manchester (17th), Glasgow (19th) and Wembley Arena (20th) in London.
Before the main course tonight, not one but two opening acts. Punk heroes The Damned have still got it and went down really well, with Captain Sensible and Dave Vanian the sole original members. The Darkness are great fun and totally suit a big arena stage with their pomp, posing and powerful set.
But the headliners are why everyone has left World Cup Football and cake baking TV shows behind on this June Saturday night, to trek to Birmingham. There is a distinct electricity and buzz in the air as the stage goes dark, the PA stops playing the taped music and then there are flashes of white lightning.
Creepy church organ and a taped voice, tells us to “listen to the children”; horror movie legend Bela Lugosi’s voice. The crowd scream as Joe Perry and drummer come on on stage and the set begins with lone guitar and drums, before another guitarist steps up to stand next to Joe, then the screams get louder as the one and the only Johnny Depp is there, in the flesh, followed by the bassist.
Johnny with cap on his head, lots of bling around his neck, bows to the front row and waves to the upper deck of seats. Gold top Les Paul guitar slung low near to his knees. Muted screams above the loud guitars and drums. Stage bathed in blue light and the giant backdrop with the band’s name lit in green.
The intensity builds and out from beside the drums at the back comes the only man I know, called Alice. He suddenly brings his black cane over his head and down, to cue the band kicking into the groove, a few twirls and swirls with said stick and they are off. A crescendo of rock guitars and drums, and it is bloody loud. As it should be. Maybe they are trying to wake the dead?
“I Want My Now”, rocks along at a pace and Alice and Johnny swap sides of the stage for a bit in the middle of the song. Johnny looking to the upper tiered seating and giving appreciative nods and smiles to the excited audience. Many women beside themselves that their heart throb hero is looking directly at them, and only at them, in their minds
Here we go; when was the last time you read the word “swooning” in a gig review? Well, here it comes; the female sex outnumber the males by 3 to 1 maybe, and many swooning (told ya!) when JD glances their way.
Johnny appplauded the audience at the end of the first song. Bass man and JD come together for a quick rock and roll pose early in the second song, “Raise The Dead”. No let up on the BPM, another rocker. “Raise the dead, raise the dead, you got to get a little creepier”, they sing. Told you they were trying to wake the departed, didn’t I?
At the end of song two, Alice tells the crowd “We are the Vampires. We play songs for all of our dead drunk friends”, the first banter of the night. But no time for idle chatter as the band belt into “I Got A Line”, another wall of power. Mr Depp stepping up to his mike to sing backing vocals for the first time tonight.
Three guitarists on stage, plus the bassist, and so far Johnny has played rhythm guitar and no lead, Joe Perry taking care of business on that score. JP flouting the no smoking ban in the UK, with a small cheroot lit in his mouth. Tut, tut.
JD wanders over to the far side of the stage and does a wee bit of rock and roll posturing with the other guitar man, while Joe Perry prowls the stage, before JD resumes his spot to fire off a sizzling solo.
Next song “Dead Drunk Friends”, Cooper says this is a song about the Rainbow Bar in LA, and on the screen behind him are pictures of various dead rock stars including Hendrix and Keith Moon. Depp playing a mini-solo on this one.
Johnny swaps his Les Paul for a different axe, whole Alice tells us he moved to LA in 1968 and met some “blood suckers there named The Doors”. The band kick in and he sings the infamous line, “no one gets out of here alive”.
Black and white shots of Jim Morrison on the video screen as Alice sings with a growling defiance to this whole death thing. Their tribute to Jim; The Doors’ “Break On Through”. The best track so far for an ensemble sound and a tight unit. Cooper’s vocal strong and fierce, not needing backup from the other members.
Before the next song, Alice tells us “we just lost Malcolm, our Australian blood sucker”, in reference to Malcolm Young of AC/DC, before a great rendition of AC/DC’s “The Jack”, Johnny getting up close to Alice at one point. Cracking solo from Perry on this track.
The band dive straight into the iconic “Ace Of Spades” with Lemmy’s mug on the screen, as the crowd cheer when his face appears. He’d have dug this version of the Motorhead classic, the guitars sounded fierce. Lemmy’s old boozing buddie Alice’s vocals sounding superb.
The Who’s “Teenage Wasteland” kicks off with green search lights darting all over the venue, the band and Alice do the classic track real justice. Johnny back on his Les Paul gold top by now. We get the obligatory drum solo in the middle of this song, while the band leave the stage. Glen Sobel ain’t no Keith Moon, but the crowd liked it. The band comes back on and finish off the song.
Johnny throws some guitar picks aka plectrums into the crowd, while Alice says this next song was written by this guy, and points to JD as the crowd scream. AC says this is about Johnny’s father who was “an interesting man, he was a, a, a, er, criminal”. The song: “Bad As I Am”.
Johnny gives it some aggression on guitar, posing as the band start the song and Alice resumes lead vocals. An OK song. Depp does a bit of a talking-lyrics stylee in the middle, which didn’t really gel. He lobs a few more picks out, towards the end of the song. The girls will treasure them forever. Guys; eBay here we come!
Alice dons a black top hat and tells us to get ready as the Boogieman is coming. With cane aloft, he starts the vocal on “Boogieman Surprise”. Another loud rocker and there hasn’t been a drop in volume or pace as yet. The lights go up and Alice steps to stage front and tries to get the crowd to sing to the chorus, with little response.
The song ends and JD swaps guitars again, and Alice says this one is from “a vampire that did not die”, and they kick into one of his own songs “Eighteen”. This does slow down the pace to mid-tempo. JD goes far right (my right, his left) of the stage and delivers a short solo, lit with a follow spot; and as he wanders past Mr Perry, Joe gives his response with a short burst on guitar.
Alice calls Joe to the main mike and buggers off from the stage, and Joe Perry asks the crowd “how we all doin’ tonight?” He takes up position centre stage. “How about a little blues”, and he belts into a nice 12 bar and the band come in behind him.
Joe takes lead vocal duties. The set list says “Combination”, a Joe Perry-penned song from Aerosmith’s 1993 album “Rocks”, but this is a blues jam, not that song. Alice coming on to play a harmonica solo part way through. Followed by some grunged-up organ, and then Johnny gets his moment in the spotlight with a brief solo. Joe sticks the guitar behind his head as he stands at the edge of the stage and delivers a scorching solo. One nil to Joe, I think!
Johnny starts off “People Who Died” – a Jim Carroll band cover – at the mike stand, talking the lyric as he does all through the song. Lots of dead rock and movie star photos coming up on the screen behind the band. Lemmy and Lennon’s faces get cheers, as does Bowie’s. Joe Perry crouched down facing his wall of amps, to churn out a short solo. Depp’s vocal more like narration than singing, but it works.
Cooper grabs a pair of maracas in each hand for the next song, ohh, err, missus! Joe Perry using a vocoder pipe thing, a la Peter Frampton on the vocal, to create an eerie and ethereal vibe. Alice back on lead vocal with a radio mike in his hand. The Aerosmith song “Sweet Emotion” is one of the strongest tracks tonight, the band sound mighty and locked together as one. Lots of light and shade and less volume on parts of the song, which helps separate all the six instruments, the lead vocal and the backing vocals in the mix.
A bit of Jimi’s “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)”, instrumental at the end of the song. Perry lets rip on a solo. Then all three guitars in unison and it sounded fabulous. Should do more of that in the set.
Alice introduced the next song, teasing us with the news that Johnny and film director John Waters, “got into trouble in Alabama one night, at a club called Bushwackers, the name of this next song”.
Alice adopts a twangy OTT Deep South accent for this song. Bassist takes up an upright bass and keyboard man comes down to the stage playing acoustic guitar. The song’s a wee bit messy to be honest, and guitar solo slightly out of tune maybe.
“OK, I have been known as a villain now for centuries, and this song is about a hero”, says Alice as Johnny Depp steps up to the mike and sings a faultless version of Bowie’s “Heroes”, as the late great legend looks down approvingly from the giant screen behind him.
It really was a spine tingling moment. Cooper on backing vocals with the rest of the band. Such a gorgeous homage to a true hero. Depp’s vocals were something very special. Guitars sounded awesome, almost Fripp-ish, a la the 1977 original.
It was not just yet another cover of this iconic track; all from the heart and all about Mr Bowie. For me; the ticket price was worth it, just for this one magic moment in the set.
“We have a hero here tonight who is gonna come out and play. Ian Hunter,” Alice announces after “Heroes”. Muted cheers, and probably many wondering who Ian Hunter is. Only Mott the bleeding Hoople’s lead singer, that’s who.
Johnny greets him with applause and arms outstretched, to welcome him to the stage. Ian has an acoustic guitar strapped to his chest and is wearing a trilby hat. They get into the timeless “All The Young Dudes”, penned of course by David Bowie, and made famous by Mott The Hoople.
Ian sounding as good as he did on the record back in 1972, tonight on lead vocal. The standing punters all with hands in the air beating to time. As the song comes to a close, Ian says “All The Young Dudes, thank you very much, God bless” and brings the neck of his guitar down to signal he’d done. Johnny and the entire band applauding Ian.
Mr H leaves the stage and Alice asks the crowd if they want one more. Silly question. They get into some frantic rock and roll which eventually turns into the Tiny Bradshaw cover, “Train Kept A Rolling”. Alice plays harmonica again.
The song ends, Alice grins and says, “Thank you Birmingham”, and the guys unstrap their guitars and leave the stage. JD has taken some guitar picks from the Gaffa tape on his mike stand and distributes them to the fans in the crowd once again before he leaves.
Of course, there is gonna be an encore, and it doesn’t get much better in choice of song to leave us with than “School’s Out”, signalled by a school bell ringing, and that unforgettable raunchy guitar riff.
Cooper in top hat, and his cane in action like a crazed ringmaster. The crowd singing as one, the hook of the chorus. Ian Hunter back on stage around the same mike as Depp, both singing their heart out on backing vocals.
Crew come on stage and throw out giant helium filled balloons to the audience. Red and white. Depp bashing a few off the stage with his guitar neck, Hunter booting one into the fans. Cooper holding what looks like a large knife and popping balloons with it as he prowls the stage. You’ll get two years for possession of that over here, mate.
“School’s Out” goes into a snippet of Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall” and the lights go up, the crowd sing “All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall”, and we are done. But not before the band drop the volume right down, and Alice introduces his fellow Vampires.
On keyboards: Buck Johnson, on bass; Chris Wyse, on guitar from New York Tommy Henrikson, Glen Sobel on drums and their guest, Ian Hunter. Then, “one of the great rock and roll guitar players of all time, Mr Joe Perry”.
Johnny laughs when Alice calls him, “The mega sexual, highly flatulent Johnny Depp, and playing the part of Alice Cooper tonight; me”. Just a tad above 90 minutes and they form a line and take their bows, Alice top hat in hand and then….they are gone into the dark night. Howwwwwlllll…………..
These all-star affairs and so-called Supergroups can often be a bit of a noisy mess, lots of egos trampling over each other for the spotlight, under-rehearsed and not worth the hype. Not tonight. All played their part and all did a great job.
If anyone came to see if JD can actually play guitar, he was not the main man tonight and hard to pick out his guitar licks from the others, especially with the sheer volume of the ensemble. He only had two or maybe three tiny ‘blink and you miss it’ solos tonight, but he certainly looks like every inch a rock and roll star and seemed to be in his element.
The rumours of 54-year-old Depp being secretly ill and looking gaunt and pale were dispelled tonight. He moved about with energy and he was smiling, and looked like he was in his happy place.
His face looked fine, and it is highly likely that recent photos showing him looking shockingly gaunt, were an aftermath of him playing a character in a new movie who has a terrible illness in the script. One really hopes so, of course.
But on tonight’s performance, methinks fears and concerns over the Jack Sparrow superstar’s health and future are groundless. The verdict of The Hollywood Vampires: Bloody good………………….see what I did there?
Photos: Jason Sheldon
Words: Simon Redley