By: Dennis Cook
Crüe Fest 2 :: 07.30.09 :: Shoreline Amphitheatre :: Mountain View, CA
While scoring supplies at 7-11 on my walk up to Shoreline I was 'serenaded' by Extreme's "More Than Words" on the store's radio. It was a painful reminder of the '80s heyday of power ballads and hairspray rock. Even the good acts coughed up such syrup because few are strong enough to resist a wheelbarrow of cash and the chance to stoke feminine good will. Anyone who's forgotten will be swiftly reminded by the high rotation cable ad for the 50-track strong Monster Ballads – The Ultimate Set. One notable absence is Mötley Crüe's "Home Sweet Home," which arguably helped birth the power ballad (actively aided by Jersey doulas Bon Jovi). Perhaps this is because "Home Sweet" is an aberration within a largely hedonistic, rough livin' catalog. Meaner and a touch more introspective than most of the hair-nests in spandex that arrived in their wake, the Crüe, against all expectations, is still alive and thriving, bringing a 10 band lineup to summer sheds and celebrating the 20th anniversary of Dr. Feelgood by playing the entirety of that 1989 post-first-shot-at-rehab album as the centerpiece of a dazzling, vastly entertaining show.
One thing's for sure, I've never walked into this Amphitheatre and been greeted by short-short wearing strippers before. Just past the gate, before I'd even put my ticket away, a peroxide pixie with a money draining, will sapping smile curled herself around my frame, whispered a few naughty things in my ear and pressed a discount card for her S.F. pole lair into my hand along with a postcard promoting their Wednesday night Foxy Boxing matches – sanctioned, of course, by the WFBA (World Foxy Boxing Association). It's as perfect a "handshake" as one could wish as they embark on hours of hard rock, a sub-genre that just throbs with erectile overtones. Looking around at the decent if not sold out crowd, it was a treat to be surrounded by others who, like myself, dig this music without irony. Sure, sophisticated it ain't but it scratches an itch so caveman basic it makes one want to devour red meat and manhandle things with a grin one's mom would not approve of. More crudely, Mötley and their bastard children are the difference between 'making love' and beast fucking - what it lacks in complexity and subtlety it makes up in visceral whap and dumbstick wiggle.
In its second year, Crüe Fest added a second stage filled with the next generation of amp crankers topped by Rev Theory. On the main stage preceding the Crüe were Godsmack, Theory of a Deadman, Drowning Pool and aspiring Sunset Strip golden age wannabes Charm City Devils, getting the special "Introducing" nod from the fest headliners. The bit of the Devils' set I heard making my way inside made it clear they've spent time diggin' through Toys In The Attic, Appetite For Destruction and the titty bar staples in the Crüe's catalog. Silly but fun, as much of this one-night fest would prove.
Drowning Pool, as their grim name implies, proved almost total snarl - sandblasting guitars, all-black clothes, bowel rattling bass and Cookie Monster with strep throat vocals. "Sorry about the seats," lamented lead vocalist Ryan McCombs. "Seats are for baseball parks and churches." Like most metal/hard rock groups, they wanted to bridge the distance between fans and the band, get something tactile going, but Shoreline is too orderly to allow more than a passing semblance of the churning, slam pit action the Pool and others are used to. While I wouldn't likely put on their albums (or most of the studio work of any of the bill outside Mötley Crüe), in context, Drowning Pool was enjoyable, loud and gruff and spoiling for a fight, even if it is odd to experience such music in broad daylight. Closer "Bodies" hit you square in the chest and forced the air from your lungs to yowl, "I don't care about anyone else!" Again, in context, momentary nihilism and selfishness, especially when contained in such a baldly badass shell as "Bodies," can be a ball. As Jones' last gurgle faded a pimply teen in an Uncle Sam hat bellowed, "America!" Yeah, it's tough to imagine this kinda rock being born anywhere else.
|Drowning Pool by Boltkit Photography|
Over on the second stage, St. Louis' Cavo gave a stronger showing than their albums implied they had in them. Live, there's strong flavors of Living Colour, particularly in the Funkadelic-y touches their excellent bassist, Brian Smith, brings into the fold. And 'in the fold,' more euphemistically, is where Cavo likes to spend their time, pushing their hips into party-centric panty moisteners of the modern variety. I preferred the heavy stuff, particularly the quasi-political "We All Fall Down," but live these guys have some decent swerve.
Back at the main stage, Theory of a Deadman announced, "We're gonna play some rock music in here." Duh. Riding a steel horse, obviously wanted dead or alive, Theory's entire set had the specter of Nickelback hovering over it. Since 2001's Silver Side Up, when the Canadian chart toppers established their formula (a steady assortment of semi-misogynistic rockers, incongruously heart-on-the-sleeve ballads, simplistic odes to rock and self-help manual style philosophy lessons. Wash, rinse, repeat), Nickelback has been the yardstick for mainstream oriented hard rock bands, much the same way Dave Matthews and Jack Johnson form the baseline for mainstream pop-rock. Theory of a Deadman is VERY much in the Nickel-y vein. To wit, their latest single, "Bad Girlfriend," which proudly describes their amour as a "dick magnet" and proclaims, "I don't know if she's drunk or she's stoned but she's coming home with me." Well, how nice for you. However, with a bare bones stage presence – oversized band logo on a banner above a drum riser and eight double tall amp stacks, Theory were amusing, especially by this point when most of the audience had made serious headway with pouring a slurry of booze, nicotine, weed and whatnot into their bloodstream. Spiky guitar solos, a pop sensibility that occasionally sounded like Cheap Trick with sharper incisors, a certain aptitude with slow burners, a good singer and an engaging stage presence managed to override their compositional deficiencies for a playful, kinda enjoyable set. Again, context is everything.
Out on the causeway, barely legal trim and serious looking buzz cuts acted the fool at karaoke and Guitar Hero booths, belting out "Girls, Girls, Girls" and Scorpions hits while snapping cell phones pics they immediately posted to Facebook pages. The whole notion of corporate sponsored buffoonery sits poorly with me, knocking the legs out from the hooligan spirit behind the Crüe and offering visible signs of how times have changed, with Verizon and Best Buy replacing Jack Daniels and Harley Davidson as the obvious benefactors of this coordinated debauchery. That said, like most hard rock/metal crowds I've ever been in, most people kept their partying in bounds and didn't let their good time infringe on everyone else's fun. It's a significant difference from the often sloppy, in-your-face antics one encounters at more jam-friendly shows/fests, where a fair number of folks are usually limp and torn up on the pathways long before music has even gotten going. In general, I found the people at Crüe Fest this year focused on the music, regardless of who was on stage, and content to accent their revels without letting the spices overwhelm the main dish.
I was honestly shocked at how fast Rev Theory got my fist in the air. Their new album, Light It Up, is a slickly produced, well-constructed piece of contemporary, radio friendly rock; not really my cup o' tea but I can easily understand their appeal. However, put 'em on stage and they're a forceful, high wattage head-banging generator. Frontman Rich Luzzi is a giant sized presence and has tremendous flow, further charged by some of the tightest backing vocals in the genre. With axe-raised-high soloing, thunder drums and compositions that really bloom live, Rev Theory – who've apparently been around since the mid-90s despite only a handful of releases – were a gonad gripping reminder of why one saunters out to such gatherings. Where some of the other acts here leaned closer to the "Sweet Child of Mine" end of G N' R, they were thoroughly inspired more by the "Welcome To The Jungle"/"Mr. Brownstone" side of things, full of animalistic sex appeal and testosterone addled energy, occasionally complicated by distant echoes of Queen, particularly in their intros. As some of the medium sized crowd started to disperse to catch the opening of Godsmack's set, Luzzi barked, "Where are you guys going? We're not done yet! I don't want to see anyone leaving this fucking parking lot!" This stopped most in their tracks, who were rewarded with a punky, howling, deeply satisfying final stretch that really did make one want to stand up and shout.
Walking back to the main stage it looked like a Rock of Love bomb (with a few Daisy of Love beef cake grenades thrown in) had gone off. While temporarily worried that people weren't getting their glam on like they used to, by sunset the mascara, hair gel, tight polyester shirts and wet looking leather pants were out in full force, and so, so many stupid tattoos that I briefly contemplated bankrolling a removal booth for next year's fest. Cha-ching! However, the crowd was far more absorbing than Godsmack, who were obviously beloved by most in attendance (and I'll even vouch for their playing) but came across as one thick haze, the sonic equivalent of room temp Jägermeister forced down your gullet shot after shot after shot. It's heavy as hell and distracting in intensity but telling songs apart, especially for someone unfamiliar with their catalog like me, was pretty challenging.
To the strains of The Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated," Mötley Crüe mounted one of the coolest, strangest stage extravaganzas I've ever seen. Normally I'm out seeing serious musicians in small venues with a few house lights, if that. Well, the Crüe offer something closer to Broadway theatre, down to the "WTF was that?" gargantuan lighting and stage effects. As Joey and the boys died down, a cute nurse wheeled out a man in a straightjacket and cartoonishly huge wheelchair. Soon it became apparent that it was drummer/porn celeb/reality star Tommy Lee trussed up in asylum white, but he writhed and drooled his way out of it while a small curtain center stage dropped to reveal a padded cell with flashing lights embedded in the walls and a large kit with a big Red Cross symbol on the kick drum. Soon, Vince Neil (vocals), Nikki Sixx (bass) and Mick Mars (guitar) joined the now shirtless Lee to roar into the title cut off Dr. Feelgood, sounding like no time at all had passed since they were Whiskey A Go Go regulars.
Their DNA is a swirl of New York Dolls proto-punk, Dio excess and Aerosmith sleaze blues, yet there's much that's distinctly Mötley in their make-up. In focusing on a single album – a really enjoyable example of hard rock at its finest to boot – what emerged as their record recreation followed the groove was a band that against the odds has forged a unique identity amidst a menagerie of parrots and dumb chimps. Amongst the elements that set them apart is the sharp bite of Neil's still-sizzlin' voice, Mars' just-enough-but-not-too-much technique, Lee's impolite thwap and Sixx's pawing, better-than-you-remember bass work. It all serves a pleasure driven, freedom loving philosophy that's not without moments of reflection, particularly on Dr. Feelgood, though that's hardly why the mamma-licious trio of ladies in the row in front of us – a party-hearty middle aged mom that blew out the word 'buxom' and her two equally chesty 19-year old daughters – were shaking like short circuiting paint mixers. Nor was it why the refrigerator sized dad/husband let us ogle as the women flirted with us, only occasionally giving us a stare that said, "Go ahead and look - you're only human. But you stay on that side of the plastic seat, okay?" The reason they, us and the rest of the now fully engaged throng were getting loose is the dirty, dirty sex and fevered intoxication that puts such tasty sap in the Crüe's veins, nicely exemplified by the next two thigh spreaders, "Slice Of Your Pie" and "Rattlesnake Shake," which had everyone as far as my eye could see chanting the choruses and reacquainting themselves with pelvic reality.
It's such a treat to be immersed in rock 'n' roll you can really dance to, and the corset and stiletto clad back-up singers were a constant reminder that few bands have powered nudie club stages better than Mötley Crüe. And without the easier pleasure button movement of hit after hit that marked the first Crüe Fest one got to hear how these guys made pretty solid albums even at the point the industry began its crawl towards the model of a few singles surrounded by utter filler that's the rule of thumb today. Yes, if you just don't like scream-along hard rock then this display would likely leave you cold, but if you're the sort (and I surely am) that can embrace music with all the bruised hip bluntness of sloppy balling in a Honda Civic then this was a grand time. Really, I'm not exaggerating, and on top of the music's brutish appeal there was the crazed stage production, where the padded cell quickly exploded into a macabre hospital set with raised platforms and all manner of twisted LED graphics, pyro and looming, jaw-dropping lighting effects. The cumulative result was the feeling of being part of an event, shoulder to shoulder with shot drinkers and mini-cassette deck bootleggers, shaking wildly to "Same Ol' Situation (S.O.S.)," fellatio salute "She Goes Down," the pleasantly unsubtle "Sticky Sweet" and "Don't Go Away Mad (Just Go Away)," while swaying clumsily and oddly choked up during "Time For A Change," Feelgood's closer that was accompanied by a curious mixture of provocative agit-prop images and Flower Power symbolism.
After they completed Dr. Feelgood, there was a creaking, dramatic shift in the set and the fire pots and flame jets emerged for a too-small assortment of beloved catalog tracks that began with Mick Mars doing a Jimmy Page style solo display before returning to his supremely nasty, really satisfying riffing with the band. During Mars' session the spotlights projected fan's hands on the backdrop, mostly flying the horns, until some enterprising wiseass made a circle with one hand and plowed it hard with his other index finger. We are all of us junior high dorks at times, so most of us laughed, including Mars.
The last sequence included "Wild Side," new gem "Saints of Los Angeles," rarity "Primal Scream" (introduced by Sixx, "This song is about therapy and you fuckers need it!") and perhaps hard rock's most misunderstood song, "Shout At The Devil," which is really about being strong in the "seasons of wither" and laughing and shouting in the horned one's face. The encore was a predictable but VERY well received double shot of "Home Sweet Home" and "Girls, Girls, Girls," two tunes with peculiar personal meaning for me given that I danced at my prom to the former and then years later saw my prom date stuffing singles into her g-string to the latter at a Vegas club. Sometimes our road to ruin is soundtracked by Mötley Crüe, but it's a ride we steer ourselves so they're hardly to blame for giving us the ideal noise we need to pound the wheel and sing ourselves hoarse.
Crüe Fest rolls on into September, dates available here.
JamBase | Crüed 'n' Lewd
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