Alice Cooper isn’t short on charisma – or experience. He could probably transfix an arena audience with acapella renditions of songs from long-forgotten album Zipper Catches Skin. All he’d need is an empty stage, some black greasepaint for his eyes, and perhaps a cane. His serpentine strut, regal poses, and arched eyebrow would do the rest.
But, after 50 years, he also knows what the people want. And that’s old school theatrics. So, at regular intervals during a whirlwind 90-minute set, out come Alice’s familiar crutch (for playing air guitar and pointing), sword (for swishing, conducting, and pointing), meat cleaver and knife (for vaudevillian homicide), and red cape (for fighting imaginary bulls).
The expected top hat and cane are never far off. And, since both Feed My Frankenstein and Teenage Frankenstein are in the set, neither is the towering Frankenstein’s creature, lumbering about in his shackles, and only upstaged by an equally oversized dancing zombie baby.
All of this (and more) plays out against the backdrop of the Nightmare Castle, a looming funfair-style structure of steps, raised platforms, flickering torches, and giant doors tailor-made for rockstar posturing and pantomime performances.
There’s the tragic romance that plays out between our hero and his ghostly lover during Roses On White Lace. There’s the arrival of Friday The 13th’s Jason Voorhees (with hockey mask in place) to slay a selfie-taking teen during He’s Back (The Man Behind The Mask). And there’s the dizzying sequence involving his signature straitjacket, a witchy woman with a pram and baby (doll), that cleaver, and the infamous guillotine.
Even the stage crew get in on the action, issued with their own knight helmets for moving around props like the cannon that, during Billion Dollar Babies, showers the crowd in bank notes.
Confetti and big balloons replace the raining paper bills during the grand blowout that is School’s Out, to end an already extravagant night with a literal bang.
Such excess extends to the musicians onstage. Renowned for hiring supremely talented artists, with former recruits including Vai, Satriani, and Orianthi, Cooper clearly hasn’t lost his eye for talent. Drummer Glen Sobel is as big on flair as power, twirling his sticks as he smashes his cymbals during a drum solo that could rattle the depths of hell.
Bass player Chris Wyse, joined by Cooper’s original bassist Dennis Dunaway on the night’s final song, is faultless as both Sobel’s foil and a backing vocalist alongside the (count ‘em) three guitarists.
Following the Iron Maiden approach of more is more, Tommy Henriksen, Ryan Roxie, and Nita Strauss take turns playing rhythm and lead, frequently lining up in formation at the lip of the stage to trade solos.
All three play with the flair and flamboyance of a hair metal band circa 1987, but it’s Strauss who shines brightest – and not just during an epic solo that begins on the castle’s highest turret.
And yet, despite all this spectacle, the songs and their performances never take a hit. Even after almost five decades, signature songs like No More Mr. Nice Guy (which Songkick reckons has been performed over 2400 times), Billion Dollar Babies (3111 at last count), Under My Wheels (2561), and Poison (just 2196) sound as menacingly entertaining (and downright irresistible) as ever.
Even more thrilling for the diehard fans is the Ol’ Black Eyes Is Back tour’s resurrection of long-lost tracks like the punchy Teenage Frankenstein (played for the first time since 2001), sledgehammer-swinging late ‘80s comeback special Bed Of Nails (making a regular return after almost three decades), the rock operatic Roses On White Lace (last played in 1988), and, dusted off for the first time in 45 years, the majestic My Stars.
To borrow a term from Kiss, it all adds up to a psycho circus with Alice as the enigmatic ringmaster. Despite the scale of the production and the quality of musicianship on display, he’s never once upstaged, using his seemingly boundless energy and that well of charisma to full effect.
Almost as magnetic and even more energetic is Wayne Kramer of the MC50. An all-star resurrection of his seminal ‘60s garage rockers the MC5 featuring the likes of Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayall, the night’s opening act have a lo-fi production that matches their rough and ready sound.
Kramer, who still plays his stars and stripes guitar like Pete Townsend circa 1966 and pogos like a man half his age, is no less subdued between songs, his anti-establishment rhetoric undiminished by the years. Like the night’s headliner, he simply cannot be ignored.
Review of Alice Cooper at The O2 Arena on 10th October 2019 by Nils van der Linden. Photography by Kalpesh Patel.