Walk Hard is one of my favorite comedies. It does such an amazing job parodying music bio films that I can't watch the real thing anymore. Every single beat in those films reminds me of a Walk Hard gag. Sometimes even seeing live music makes me think of Walk Hard. Watching Deep Purple follow Alice Cooper at Ak-Chin Pavilion tonight made me think of Pa Cox bitterly telling his son Dewey that "the wrong kid died." If Pa Cox was watching this show, he'd be scornfully muttering "the wrong band headlined."
Don't get me wrong: Deep Purple weren't bad. They played a jammy, riff-tastic set that would probably have been just fine if it had happened earlier in the evening. But following up the Grand Guignol spectacle of the Alice Cooper Band with an hour of low-energy blacklight poster rock was a doomed proposition from the get-go.
I didn't have any expectations going into the show. I had a general appreciation for both headliners. At my old record store job, we used to play Alice Cooper all the time until I became sick of his music. But then, like a dumb joke that gets funny again after five minutes of repetition, constant exposure to Billion Dollar Babies and Welcome To My Nightmare made them grow on me. Maybe it was a musical case of Stockholm Syndrome.
As for Deep Purple, I knew the radio hits. And I had been around enough musician friends to have the "Smoke On The Water" riff seared into my memory. I can't remember what my grandmother's face looked like, but that lick is something I'll never forget.
I arrived at the venue with my friend Ernesto, just as Edgar Winter was starting to wrap up his set. Going ham on a keyboard slung round his neck, the rocker looked like a biker bar Gandalf or a sober Nick Nolte. His band accompanied him on a rendition of "Frankenstein" that seemed to go on for almost 10 minutes. It didn't feel long, though. The band was having a ball soloing all over the place. The drummer did Tommy Lee-style drumstick flips between hits while the guitarist and Winter shredded their instruments. The crowd was on their feet, whooping them on.
The stage was already partially set for Alice. Large set pieces loomed in the background, covered in black tarps. Clown masks hung on risers.
I had never seen Cooper live before, but Ernesto was a vet. He had already seen A.C. almost half a dozen times. Seeing the show with him was interesting, because he could point out all the ways Cooper's live shows had evolved over the years. It was also just a hoot to see how the older crowd reacted to him. He was wearing the same spider leg eye makeup that Alice had on. Some folks asked for selfies, and others asked if they could buy his Tarot card-decorated cowboy hat.
When Alice Cooper took the stage, the biggest surprise for me was how heavy his music is live. While he's often described as a hard rock artist, most of his "big" records don't sound particularly hard or heavy. Alice on record often sounds more like macabre power pop than hard rock — blood-and-guts covered Cheap Trick, not Black Sabbath.
Seeing Alice Cooper live is a different story. It was a damn near metal show. The band rocked so loud and heavy that at times it was hard to hear their ringmaster's vocals. But it was tough to blame them for upstaging his voice. Cooper's backing band was fucking dynamite. Utilizing a trio of guitarists alongside a locked-in rhythm section, Cooper's set had some serious muscle and force behind it. Songs like "Cold Ethyl" and "No More Mr. Nice Guy" were almost unrecognizable compared to their album versions.
While Alice's band brought the thunder musically, the master of ceremonies delivered the theatrical experience that we've all come to expect from him. And this is where another pleasant surprise kicked in. His elaborate stage show didn't feel rote or stale at all.
Sparks showered down from the ceiling. Smoke machines billowed. Alice would disappear behind a giant pink jack-in-the-box for a number of costume changes. Sometimes a sexy nurse would come out and menace him with a big syringe; on another occasion, he would pull out a fencing sword covered in money and fan the bills all over the place. For "Feed My Frankenstein," he appeared onstage in a bloody lab coat. Shoved into a mad science-looking cabinet that arced with electricity, Alice vanished and a gigantic Frankenstein strolled onstage. Looming over the band, the huge Frankenstein figure bounded across the stage as tall as a stilt walker, but with a freedom of quick and unencumbered movement that any stilter would envy.
When it came time for the big ballad, Cooper sat on a trashcan. Illuminated by a spotlight, he sang "Only Women Bleed" while a psycho ballerina (with a windup key in her back) emerged from the jack-in-the-box and started dancing and twirling onstage. Stabbing the ballerina to death during the climax of the song, Cooper got dragged to the guillotine as "I Love The Dead" started up. The decapitation and Alice's fake head looked really good; considering how long this bit has been a part of his stage show, it comes as no surprise that it looked so convincing.
The band closed with "I'm Eighteen" as Cooper triggered explosions of sparks onstage by pointing a crutch like a mad conductor. They came back to do "School's Out" as an encore, mixing a little bit of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick In The Wall" into their number. Cooper unleashed a bunch of huge balloons onto the crowd, and cut several in half with a samurai sword. Breaking character at the end, Cooper introduced his entire band and the psycho ballerina, giving a shout-out to his local roots by reminding folks that he used to go to Cortez High. It felt like the curtain call for a stage play.
Before seeing Cooper live, I couldn't understand why Ernesto had seen the guy live so many times. After watching that sublime spectacle play out in front of my eyes, I totally got it. I also felt pangs of sympathy for Deep Purple. My god, they have to follow that?
In an ideal world, Deep Purple would have played after Edgar Winter. It would have been a good set. Noodling on their guitars, jamming out on their keyboards, the band would have been a pleasant trip back in time to an era of lava lamps, heavy riffs, and proggy lyrics about flying over a thousand oceans. Alas, this was Deep Purple's farewell tour. It wouldn't have made sense for them to play before the hometown heroes.
The rows behind us were packed for Cooper's set, but started thinning out during Purple's performance. Their playing was fine, but they just weren't compelling live. Cooper and his band played their asses off, whereas Deep Purple seemed like they were conserving their energy.
The audience would rise to their feet and come alive when they busted out the hits, ripping through "Perfect Strangers," "Highway Star," "Hush," and "Smoke On The Water," the song that's the bane of Guitar Center employees everywhere. But the vibe in the arena had shifted. Deep Purple's set was an anticlimax, and we all knew it.
Still, it was goodbye. The least we could do was clap politely through the new stuff and wait for that immortal riff to duh-duh-dah-duh-duh-dah-dah its way into our hearts.
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Last Night: Alice Cooper and Deep Purple at Ak-Chin Pavilion in Phoenix.
The Crowd: A lot of snow on the field. Huge boomer crowd in the house. Also a lot of adorable grandkids wearing sound-canceling headphones.
Overheard: "He's like a Hobbit — like a Baggins jamming out!" — Ernesto, accurately describing Deep Purple's keyboard player.
Random Notebook Dump: Another Walk Hard bit that kept popping up in my head was Tim Meadows' speech about the "dangers" of smoking pot. Mostly this was triggered by the dank smells wafting around the pavilion during Deep Purple's set. And also because thinking about Tim Meadows is more interesting than watching Deep Purple.