The Welcome To My Nightmare Express steamrolled its way through the Beacon Theater Thursday bringing Alice Cooper and a three guitar metal band, as singlemindedly a tour de force as you’d ever want to hear from an 65 year old man in full makeup. Alice has a guillotine and he’s gonna use it!
For all the heavy metal’s icon distinct schtick and side show presentation, at the Beacon his onslaught of metal thrash and dash was pretty much relentless. For 90 minutes there was no time for conversation, no time for “thank you New Yorks” or platitudes: Alice and his band were an unstoppable force of nature playing 24 songs, including 5 covers, 3 songs off Billion Dollar Baby and 6 off Welcome To My Nightmare, only the title track off School’s Out but you can’t have everything. It was all very impressive.
The impression I’ve had of Cooper is of a mass entertainer using metal and horror movie images to prolong a career where he has had nothing to say since the mid-1970s and didn’t have much on his mind then. Self-created to scare the tots and amuse the teens, his songs are surging riff anthems, all guitar and splatter, and while innovative at the time, they are barely a nostalgia trip in 2013.
But that isn’t the performance I got at the Beacon. The first five songs went by in a headlong rush of adrenaline, the band, all younger performers, might not have been Metallica, but they got the job done and MC Alice was all grimaces and twisted spiderish entanglements. Cooper’s voice was the same as ever, a sort of nondescript nasal blur, and his sheer energy would be the envy of someone a third his age. He didn’t stop. And then he played “Billion Dollar Babies”, that’s the one where he puts dollar bills on a sword and shakes the monopoly money into the audience, and still didn’t flag.
About now, I realized that this was what we were getting. A hard sell of early metal roar plus set pieces. A giant cup for “Caffeine”, bracelets chucked at the audience for the relatively late period (2005!) “Dirty Diamonds, a strait jack followed by a head chopping on “Ballad Of Dwight Fry”. This is what the fans had come for, of course. No dead chickens, and no less relevance than it had in the mid-1970s.
It is all brutally effective metal rock opera. An unerring blast of rock and roll energy careening right through the heart of Cooper’s career. Despite Alyson Camus’s assertions earlier this week, Cooper hasn’t become irrelevant, he never has been relevant. Innovative, sure. No Iron Maiden (who I saw Cooper opening for last year) without Alice, indeed there is an entire cottage industry of hard rock that comes directly from Cooper’s 40 year old riffs and make up.
But it isn’t very good music. Cooper has never ever been a great songwriter, with an astonishing 26 albums to his credit, it is astounding how few great songs there are. I can count three top tier rock songs, and then another two, and then I’m searching. For all the pushed up power of “Billion Dollar Baby”, it isn’t very memorable. It isn’t catchy. And it is typical of three quarters of this set. It sounds good, it is thrilling, it is really a blast to see Cooper and his lead guitarist and daughter playing together. “She is evil”, Alice says of his daughter Calico Cooper.
But this problem with songs is really what stymies Cooper. “No More Mr. Nice Guy”, “I’m 18” and especially “School’s Out” are fine by me, but where to then? “Department Of Youth” is a great idea but a lousy song. And so it goes, song after song simply doesn’t work as more than a collection of brittle head biting riffs. Compare Cooper to Kiss. I am not much of a Kiss fan true, but the nearly exactly contemporary Destroyer is demonstrably superior to any thing Cooper has done with the often repeated exceptions. On Thursday night, Cooper followed “I Love The Dead” with very very good covers of four dead rock stars songs: Jim Morrison, Keith Moon, Hendrix and Lennon -Lennon brought to life with just a pair of granny glasses. It was a tasteless but really good segment and the band really nailed the songs. But it was precisely why the set was off target. His own material isn’t good enough.
Which explains why Cooper isn’t selling out Nassau Coliseum. What explains why Alice is selling out the Beacon 40 years past his prime, is his set is a million miles from a nostalgia. A brutal metal onslaught that had the audience roaring from the get go and didn’t relent for a moment. The encore was a mash up of “School’s Out” and “Another Brick In the Wall” in which Cooper placed the “School’s Out” riff directly under “Brick” and made it clear what was what. Cooper is a major rocker with a minor catalog,
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