The last time new rock super group Hollywood Vampires played Sands Bethlehem Event Center nearly two years ago on one of the first dates on its first tour, it was clear that for all the talent the ensemble had, it was still finding its way.
When the Vampires rose again at the venue Monday, you might say it had found new life.
Hollywood Vampires – led by classic shock-rocker Alice Cooper, Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry and actor Johnny Depp – have, in the spirit of the band’s founding as a celebrity drinking club, honed in its raison d’etre to being a band that pays tribute to dead rock stars. And its show chose some good tributes.
The 18-song, 85-minute set opened to a background of spooky horror-movie music before the band kick in with a new original song, “I Want My Now,” a thundering, ballsy rocker on which Cooper forcefully growled the words.
“Raise the Dead” from the group’s self-title 2015 debut disc, wasn’t as good, but was similar enough to set the tone: Backed by an extra drummer, keyboardist, rhythm guitarist and bassist (no longer Robert DeLeo of Stone Temple Pilots, who again is touring with his own band) Hollywood Vampires’ pocket is forceful rock.
So the more melodic “I Got a Line on You,” the Spirit song the band covered on that first disc, was a nice change of pace before the band again went hard on the original “My Dead Drunk Friends.”
That song, a thumping dirge, actually captured the debauchery, in a sweet way, of the late rockers to which it pays tribute. And Perry made it better with an extended solo – his first of the night, and a display of just how much he adds to the group.
The group then entered the meat of the set: a musical tribute to lost friends. The Doors’ “Five to One” sounded a lot like Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen,” then mashed into “Break On Through (to the Other Side).” It worked really well, with Cooper capturing the late Jim Morrison’s wild growl.
“Yeah, that guy could drink,” Cooper said.
Cooper introduced AC/DC’s “The Jack” by noting, “we just lost Malcolm,” referring to guitarist Malcom Young, who died in November. But he noted, “we got the Joe” before Perry played a great, distorted-guitar solo.
And that went right into a great, punk-rock version of Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades,” with Cooper perfectly growling the vocals.
Cooper introduced The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” by remembering drummer Keith Moon: “certifiably insane, greatest drummer ever” and bassist John Entwistle. The performance was great, starting with just voice and acoustic guitar, then building into the full band. It was an honest, touching tribute.
That segment of the show closed with a Depp-penned original, “As Bad As I Am,” a bonus track on the debut CD, that Cooper gingerly introduced as about Depp’s “stepfather, who was a …”
“He was a criminal,” Depp said. The actor contributed a spoken interlude to the song, which was one of the better originals.
Beyond that, Depp’s biggest contribution to the show was mostly his presence. That’s not a criticism. His being there really did add a certain excitement to the band, even if his rhythm guitar rarely was distinguishable.
The two exceptions were the songs on which Depp handled lead vocals. The first was Jim Carroll Band’s “People Who Died.” The song – appropriately very punk – worked great, as Depp sang flatly sardonic in the true punk style as a montage of dead rock stars (Lemmy from Motorhead, Joe Strummer, Johnny Ramone, David Bowie, Tom Petty, Marc Bolan from T. Rex and more).
The other was Bowie’s “Heroes,” which Depp sang, by turns, nicely plaintive, then dramatic in a way you might expect an actor – or Bowie himself — to present it.
After another new original, “The Boogieman Surprise,” with Cooper in a top hat and with a cane, the Hollywood Vampires gave the near-sellout audience a sampling of music from its members’ bands.
Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen” found him very strong and emphatic – it’s clear to see Hollywood Vampires energizes the 70-year-old musician – and the band behind him was just as strong.
Perry did vocals on Aerosmith’s “Combination” – his brief introduction also was the only time he spoke to the crowd. And then the band did probably the night’s best, a great version of Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion.”
Perry’s playing on the latter song was killer – the voice box guitar was great. And the rest of the band measured up, as well. The bass was almost as good as Aerosmith’s Tom Hamilton, and while Cooper is no Steven Tyler vocally, he was strong, and Perry ended it with a great solo.
The main set ended with “Bushwackers,” an original song Cooper said was written for an upcoming new Hollywood Vampires album, and it was among the best of the six originals offered on the night – a roaring, wide-open faux-country rocker – “something not expected,” Cooper said.
The main set closed with “Train Kept A-Rollin’” – the Tiny Bradshaw tune Aerosmith covered on its debut album –with Perry again playing a ripping solo, and Cooper on harmonica.
And the encore was Cooper’s “School’s Out,” which with a minute-long interlude of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2” and band intros stretched to eight minutes.
Like the rest of the night, it was material Hollywood Vampires could truly sink their teeth into.