By Brian Ives
Twenty five years ago this week, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released their album, Into the Great Wide Open. The video for the album’s title track starred Johnny Depp as “Eddie,” a hopeful musician who moved to L.A. to become a rock star.
The story bears just a few similarities to Depp’s: he, too, moved to L.A. to pursue his musical dreams. A role in a little show called 21 Jump Street and then in the first Nightmare on Elm Street film took him on a somewhat different career path than “Eddie’s.”
It’s a quarter of a century later, and he’s just kicked off a tour as a member of the Hollywood Vampires, alongside Alice Cooper and Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, two guys he most likely grew up worshiping; last night (July 3), their tour came to Atlantic City, New Jersey’s Borgata.
Ya done good kid!
So, there’s a lot of star power in the Vampires – the touring band also includes drummer Matt Sorum (formerly of Guns N Roses, Velvet Revolver and the Cult), and Stone Temple Pilots bassist Robert DeLeo (replacing Duff McKagan, now out on tour with GNR). The group is rounded out by guitarist Tommy Henriksen (from Alice Cooper’s band) and keyboardist/guitarist Bruce Witkin, who was Depp’s bandmate, pre-movie stardom, in a band called the Kids. On paper, it sounds amazing. But how good are they as a live band? And is Depp really a necessary addition to a band that’s already packed with stars (and guitar players)?
Well, first off, Depp’s guitar playing isn’t just a movie star hobby. Joe Perry has told me in interviews how great Depp is, and Perry isn’t really prone to hyperbole. But it’s one thing to hear about it, it’s another to actually see the guy play, and he is a great player, deserving of his spot in the band. Had he never gone to that Jump Street audition, he surely would have been able to be a musician for life (although he may not have been able to buy an island with his earnings). Also – to his credit – he never calls attention to himself, he lets his playing melt faces. To put it another way, he’s the Brad Whitford of this guitar team.
No band can be great without a great drummer. Only Axl Rose knows why he didn’t summon Matt Sorum back to GNR with Slash and Duff McKagan, but Rose’s loss is the Vampires’ gain. Sorum plays with the power of Bonham and Moon, and with the swing of John Densmore of the Doors and Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience; that combination is precisely what is needed for this band. He’s able to propel the Vampires through any song, whether it’s Love or Motorhead, Spirit or old-school Fleetwood Mac.
Alice Cooper is one of the great frontmen of all time, if not one of the best vocalists, but it was a blast watching him revert back to a garage rock singer (and sometimes, harmonica player). And Joe Perry? The guy remains one of the most exciting guitarists, decades after starting out with Aerosmith. And of course, he’s one of the coolest guys on the planet. Johnny Depp’s likeness seemed to be tattooed on half the crowd, and even he probably wants to be Joe Perry.
Put all of these elements together, and you’ve got one one of the best cover bands you’re going to see, ever, and it’s clear that they’re having as much fun as the audience when they hit the stage.
In the wrong hands, the band’s central theme – paying tribute to people who’ve died, mostly through substance abuse – could come off as dour, or even as a “Just Say No” commercial. Instead, Cooper (who knew nearly all of these deceased artists) celebrates Lennon, Hendrix, Morrison, Moon, et al, by asking, “What would they have liked?”
The show began right after 8 pm with a film showing some of the artists that the Vampires pay tribute to, and then the band hit the stage with one of their few originals, “Raise the Dead.”
“A sudden quick demise,” Cooper sang. “And so the body dies, but the music stays alive.” The show was proof of that. From there they went into Spirit’s “I Got a Line.” Then, two songs by David Bowie, whose catalog wasn’t eligible for a Vampires cover when they released their self-titled debut last year, since he was still alive. That gave the performances of “Rebel Rebel” and “Suffragette City” more poignancy… or as much poignancy as a song that invites the audience to yell “Wham! Bam! Thank you, ma’am!” can have. From there, they covered Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” and a medley of the Doors’ “Five to One” and “Break on Through.” Few singers could pull off covering Bowie, Hendrix and Morrison songs, but Cooper never tried to imitate, he’s always very much Alice Cooper when he sings someone else’s song. That gave a much creepier feel to Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion,” which takes on a different tone when Cooper sings Steven Tyler’s lyrics: when Tyler sings “the backstage boogie sets your pants on fire,” it sounds like a Tyler-ism. In Cooper’s gloved hands, it sounds more like a threat.
The Beatles’ “Come Together” replaced John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey” in the setlist, and was probably a better choice; it proved to be on the show’s highlights, and was one of the few nods to Perry’s songbook (along with “Sweet Emotion”; Cooper’s was represented with “I’m Eighteen” and “School’s Out”).
Cooper, wisely, recognized when other voices might work better than his: during a roof-raising “Whole Lotta Love,” Witkin took over some of the lead vocals. Perry took the mic, as he does once a night during Aerosmith shows, for “Stop Messin’ Around” by the Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac (I admit I Googled “Peter Green” to make sure he’s still alive; thankfully, yes he is). On Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades” Matt Sorum, who did time in Lemmy’s band, took the lead vocals.
As an aside, the fact that both Bowie’s and Lemmy’s songs are newly eligible for Vampire covers is a stark reminder of how many legends we’ve lost this year. It must have occurred to Robert DeLeo that, perhaps, a Stone Temple Pilots song could have been considered as well.
Of the band’s three originals, “As Bad As I Am” (from the deluxe version of their self-titled album) was the highlight, and makes a good argument for more originals from this combo.
Towards the end of the show, Cooper said, with a wink, “We’re sorry if we didn’t do one of your favorite covers… but they’re probably not dead yet.” Adding, “If they do die… we’ll be there.”
I think we would all like to go a few months, or years, without losing any more legends. But here’s hoping that the schedules of Cooper’s solo career, Perry/Aerosmith, and Depp’s film schedule line up to allow for more tours. Excuse the pun, but these Vampires definitely have a lot more life in them.
“Raise the Dead”
“I Got a Line”
“Rebel Rebel”/”Suffragette City”
“Five to One”/”Break on Through”
“As Bad As I Am”
“20th Century Boy”/”Bang a Gong”
“Seven and Seven Is”
“Whole Lotta Love”
“Dead Drunk Friends”
“Stop Messin’ Around”
“Ace of Spades”
“Pinball Wizard”/”My Generation”
“Train Kept A’ Rollin'”
“School’s Out”/”Another Brick in the Wall”