in performance: motley crue/alice cooper

alice cooper performing last night at rupp arena. herald-leader staff photos by rich copley.

alice cooper performing last night at rupp arena. herald-leader staff photos by rich copley.

You can tell a lot about the performance a band is about to engage in by the pre-show recordings played just before the stage event begins.

For Motley Crue and its much ballyhooed farewell tour stop last night at Rupp Arena, that music was Rodger & Hammerstein’s So Long, Farewell. It was a kitschy tip-off for what we already knew – that this was going to be the Los Angeles’ pop-metal troupe’s final Kentucky outing before disbanding at the end of the year.

Such a departure didn’t translate into huge news around Lexington. Motley Crue hasn’t played locally in well over two decades, so the show was as much a cause for reacquaintance as a bon voyage The audience turnout wasn’t so swift either – about 6,500 with all but the center section of the upper arena decks curtained off.

nikki six and mick mars of motley crue.

nikki six and mick mars of motley crue.

What followed, for all of the band’s bluster and volume, was fairly tame. It wasn’t the big carnival of sin we were led to believe it would dissolve into, but rather a proficient recitation of hits. There were lots of explosions (several were earsplitting), plenty of flames and lights and, in its primary nod to choreographed decadence, a pair of singer/dancers in biker gear that galloped about for a few tunes.

The rest was pretty by-the-numbers stuff for the Crue, with all its pluses and minuses from the past three decades intact. Singer Vince Neil, bassist Nikki Sixx and drummer Tommy Lee all waxed poetic about the occasion (poetic, of course, meant the requisite dropping of several dozen F bombs) and they enforced the celebratory mood with faithful reading of Girls Girls Girls (the show opener), Looks That Kill (with its clean, metal-esque chatter that sounded like it was lifted intact from the ‘80s) and Shout at the Devil (the tune with the sturdiest groove and most audience-friendly chorus).

What was rather remarkable was that the Crue’s massive stage, which sported long, snake like railings suspended from the Rupp roof to resemble an amusement park ride, was seemingly designed for no other purpose than as artillery for Lee’s solo spot. It was a visual spectacle, to be sure, with the drummer and his entire kit sailing up and over the crowd to and from the back of the arena, doing several 360 degree flips in the process. But musically, Lee was simply jamming to pre-recorded samples. In other words, the outward show of the hat trick amazed. The music underneath was pretty hollow.

As usual, the most inventive noisemaker was the one who largely zipped his lip. Guitarist Mick Mars, his face buried under a mound of hair and hat, lit a fuse with breaks during Primal Scream, the Crue’s hit cover of Brownsville Station’s Smokin’ in the Boys Room and Louder Than Hell (which his playing was). His extended solo was also fun, especially when he balanced the thud and thunder with a brief detour into Slim Harpo-style boogie.

In the end though, the Crue couldn’t hold a bloody axe to the co-billed Alice Cooper. Through the course of a near hour-long set, the veteran Detroit rocker laid on the theatrics with far more grandiosity than the headliners. That’s usually the kiss of death for a rock show, except that Cooper has been a sort of Goth version of a song-and-dance man for the past 40 years. So while the onstage antics were at a well-dispatched premium – his onstage beheading, the creation of a 10 foot tall Frankenstein monster, the skirmishes in a straight jacket – there was also a flow of serious Motor City-stewed rock ‘n’ roll fanning the flames.

You heard it in the parade of No More Mr. Nice Guy, Under My Wheels and Billion Dollar Babies, all Cooper chestnuts from the early ‘70s, that kicked the show into gear. After a brief run through comparatively recent decades for Poison, Dirty Diamonds and Feed My Frankenstein, the freak show really kicked in with a dancing nurse that looked like an extra from The Walking Dead and the guillotine execution (still a crafty parlor trick after all these years) at the end of the 1971 nugget Ballad of Dwight Fry.

Cooper has never been a Caruso, but his vocals were stronger and far more serviceable to the cause than Neil’s often buried, Sam Kinison-like wails with the Crue. And for all the pageantry, Cooper’s most effective stage prop was also his simplest – a crutch that the singer, at age 67, waved in the air during I’m Eighteen as though it were the Stanley Cup.

The pre-show recording was telling here, as well. It was Vincent Price’s recitation for Cooper’s 1975 album Welcome to My Nightmare. Face it, when your show purposely goes to the ghouls with just under four weeks to go before Halloween, you might as well call on the best.

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