Sunday, March 30, 2008

Rock2Wgtn festival: Ozzy Osbourne, KISS, Alice Cooper, Poison, Whitesnake, Lordi: Cake Tin, Wellington, NZ: Easter weekend

Metal, eh? We've all loved it at some point in our lives: some passionately in teenage bedrooms feeling that no-one understands me better than these gloomy chaps in black; some fist-pumpingly in the car with the windows down and the stereo on full; some slurringly in drunken singalongs in skody bars with their new best mates; some ironically for the rich vein of so-bad-it's-good fashion and imagery. For many it's a vaguely embarassingly reminder of past musical taste, or a guilty pleasure to be revisited only on Singstar or Guitar Hero. For others though it's still what they live and breathe, and an awful lot of the Newzuld chapter were in Wellington over Easter for what was billed as the biggest ever concert in the shaky isles: two nights of metal mayhem in the Cake Tin (Westpac Stadium to its mum), with added special effects from Weta Workshops of Lord of the Rings fame.

Metal got it's claws into me at late primary school: Open Up and Say Aah!, Appetite for Destruction and New Jersey were the tapes to be swapping in the playground in late 80s Howick. It didn't last, however: though some of my friends made it past the Sunset Stripper sound and into Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer, I veered off into grunge, then Britpop and then classic rock radio. This introduced me to Led Zep, Sabbath and KISS: I was already starting to develop a sense of snobbery towards anyone with a Master of Puppets t-shirt, but tapping into the source material seemed ok, and legitimised rocking out once in a while when no-one was looking. When I told workmates I was heading down to Wellington for the shows, I got a few quizzical comments: "I didn't know you were a bogan". The classic rock defence was an easy counter: these guys are part of rock history and they won't be round much longer. That wasn't the full story though: I was more than a little excited to get my horns out for "Detroit Rock City" and started making a list of Sabbath tunes I hoped Ozzy might throw in (my kingdom for “A National Acrobat”...)

Pretty quickly though, I felt like a bit of a tourist. On the plane down and wandering up Cuba Street, it was readily apparent who was in town for the show and who wasn't. I thought a pair of black jeans and an admittedly non-band black tee might get me in costume, but I was looking markedly Poindexter next to the sea of faded and ripped Blizzard of Ozz shirts, Symphony of Destruction patches sewn onto jackets, Zeppelin hoodies, Doc Martens and KISS face paint. Lock up your daughters, metal was in town.

The Cake Tin itself is probably the country's best sports ground: newer and with less history and character than other stadia, but a shining example of how to design, locate and build a bloody good rugby park. Even the most ardent supporter of Eden Park, the Basin or the 'Brook warms to the Cake Tin once they realise they can get a beer or go for a pee without queuing for an hour, and the concoursed walk to the ground builds up a cracking atmosphere. It was pretty cold in windy Welly but most of the crowd had only a black tee and a skinful of bourbon and coke to keep them warm. The t-shirt parade was great: about seven different KISS farewell tours; a surprising number of death and black metal shirts (surprising given that, stage shows and posturing aside, the songs of KISS, Alice Cooper and Lordi are about as heavy as the token rock track on a Pink album; the fact that three of the six bands are involved in grandma-friendly reality TV and another won the not very high cred Eurovision song contest doesn’t seem to faze the Entombed fans either); and a few fantastically obscure numbers (Yngwie Malmsteen, solo Sebastian Bach and the Jeff frickin' Healey Band). I'm pretty sure every second person went straight to the merch stand once they got in too: ticket sales were below expectations, but if the promoter was getting a cut of t-shirt sales he would have been doing just fine. Before the show proper was a radio contest public guitar solo-off: we didn't learn much other than that guitar soloing outside of a song is really, really dull. The chap who tried to do a Hendrix on the Newzuld national anthem got a few cheers, as did the dude playing behind his head, but far and away the biggest cheer was for the guy who dropped in the intro to "Thunderstruck" - at a metal show, in case of emergency break out the AC/DC.

Lordi were first up, and were pretty awful - it must have been a real slow year at Eurovision. The costumes were elaborate: stupid, but impressively so. The Dom Post reviewer rightly saw the resemblance between the drummer and a Gamorrean guard from Return of the Jedi, and the chubster vocalist was rocking the Fraggle Rock trash-heap with bonus wolf-head look. The tunes were terrible, but the crowd didn't seemed to mind, especially the bone-heads who couldn't wait for something better than lame klingon-metal to slam-dance too.

The between-band show was a little disappointing - the Weta Workshops dragon was pretty cool at first, all grand scale puppetry and laser beams (enough to make the slam-dancers start a "Holy shit! Holy shit!" chant), but was starting to wear a little thin by night two after its sixth identical outing. There were some fire dancers and zombie cheerleaders way off in the distance, and a few token local bands (the Valves, Symphony of Screams and Sonic Altar), who all tried hard to widespread indifference. Admirable effort to fill in the gaps between acts, but if there's a next year, then getting a few bigger Kiwi acts might be a better plan: Shihad or the Datsuns, or how about a reformed HLAH?

After Lordi's "Our songs are crap but hey, I'm wearing a monster outfit" shtick, it was up to Alice Cooper to show how them how putting on a show should be done. Decent tunes are pretty important: when you can bang out "No More Mister Nice Guy", "Under My Wheels" and "I'm Eighteen" up front, with your voice sounding even better than your golf game and a slick as hell backing band you've got a good start, but the crowd were here for the full package. And Alice jazzed it up with simple props (his cane, a stack of US dollar bills and strings of pearls to throw to the crowd) or much more elaborate ones. "Welcome to My Nightmare" kick-started a mini stage play, with Alice joined by ghoulish bride and monstrous baby: cue a couple of murders, a straitjacket and a public hanging. This was more like it, although the guy next to me was getting a little too into it. Just prior to Alice offing his bride he chanted "Kill the bitch! Kill the bitch!", and just before the vampire baby was dispatched he yelled "Kill the baby! Kill the baby!": he'd either seen this show before and wanted everyone to know, or was just a homicidal maniac. The real crowdpleaser, though, was "Poison". I was pretty fond of this tune when it came out, but I thought this was just because it sounded pretty badass to a ten year old. Seems like every else here was pretty keen on it too: cue one of the bigger mass singalongs of the weekend. They finished it up with "Elected", supported by his backup actors holding "Alice for President" placards: a cheesy but fitting end to a great set. No boa constrictor, no guillotine, alas, but we’ll still vote for you, Alice.

In between sets, the Jumbotron scanned around the various KISS costumes amongst the crowd. As you'd expect, there were plenty of Simmons and Stanley faces, but a surprising number of kids with Peter Criss facepaint, including solo gig-goers: if you're going with three mates and you draw the short straw, fair enough, but you guys chose to be the crappy one? I bet you think "Beth" isn't a stinker, either. The single best outfit was a rotund fella in full Simmons regalia, including a winged cape and a dangerous looking studded codpiece - where the heck do you buy one of those from in this day and age, and did they let him take it on the plane?

There are quite a few reasons to dislike KISS: they blueprinted the merch-heavy, business-first corporate rock that now dominates our airwaves, and without Gene Simmons there could never have been a Fred Durst. There are many more reasons to like them, though - particularly that KISS RULE! Alice Cooper was a tough act to follow, and in all honesty they didn't quite match him, but anyone who doesn't think cracking stage dressing, slick pyro, six inch platform heels, Paul Stanley flying on a wire over the crowd, Gene spitting blood and a hydraulic drum riser that blasts off upwards isn't cool should probably take themselves less seriously. Where Lordi's costumes and antics seemed a fairly transparent cover for a lack of decent songs, KISS have the tunes to support the fluff, plus they pretty much invented this gimmickry. But do they mean it? The great Tim Rogers has a tune on his second solo record called "Letter to Gene", where a younger Tim writes to the man whose moves he's practised countless times with a tennis racket in front of the mirror and asks: "Tell me Gene, is it just about the money?". You're right, Tim, it is, but I'm not sure that bothers me as much as you. The souvenir KISS t-shirts point out that it's 35 years since these boys started playing, and they must have played "Black Diamond" thousands of times, almost every one with the same cheery, cheesy "You're the best crowd we've ever played to" banter. It's clearly just about the money these days, and it probably always was. That doesn't stop "Detroit Rock City" being freaking awesome though (not even Stanley's worst-of-a-bad-bunch banter can stop it: "Wellington, you've been a great rock city. And here's a song about another rock city - it's called Detroit! Rock! City!"). So even though they are the original soulless money-grubbing corporate rock whores, KISS are choice. The rock snob in me shouldn't be having such a bloody great time, but maybe that's why metal has such enduring popularity: it's nice and easy to turn your brain off, punch your fist and sing along. As the lights go up and the PA blares "God Gave Rock and Roll to You" as we kick through the PET beer bottles to the exit, I almost start having warm and fuzzy thoughts about how nice a community this metal thing builds. At least until the skinhead dude walks past sporting a charming "Christian Scum Die Bleeding" shirt. Happy Easter to you too, bro.

Interlude: we spend Sunday at Te Papa, New Zealand's national museum and general centrepiece of Kiwi culture and learning. And it's packed to the gunnels with metalheads. Every second person seems to have an Iron Maiden patch sewn onto their stonewash denim jacket; there's a guy who looks like Lemmy studying the diorama on global fault lines; someone in a Reign in Blood tee is engrossed in the seabirds of the Pacific display. It's like we're in a strange parallel universe where bogan is the norm, and it's kinda cool...

Day two started with Poison, and if I were them, I’d have been more than a little miffed to be on the bill behind Whitesnake. They didn’t seem to mind though: indeed, the overwhelming vibe was that they were really grateful to be here. As Bret Michaels kept saying, in between thousands of thank yous and Happy Easters, they’re pretty stoked to have been allowed to do this for 20+ years. My gig buddies and I were talking pre-show about some of our favourite one-hit wonder metal songs, and “Cherry Pie” by Warrant came up. Apparently, Mr Warrant absolutely loathes that song – it was the moment they sold out, lost all relevance and became those “Cherry Pie” guys. Contrast that with Bret Michaels, who played “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” with a kind of reverence, recognizing it as the three and a half minutes that has paid for him to party round the world for two decades. He doesn’t care if that’s what they’re remembered for – it bought him a lot of expensive drinks and cheap women. Michaels’ enthusiasm was rather endearing, and his band’s easy-going, goofy stripper-metal was a lot more fun than I expected. Although they’ve ditched the poodle perms, mascara and frills, it’s pretty easy to see why they sold a lot of records to Middle America in the late 80s. It’s very different to the standard perception of metal as outsider music, somehow threatening, though: these are jock-friendly riffs for barbecues after football practice, songs about back seats and drive thrus, about as mainstream as it gets. As the spraytan-orange CC DeVille wailed the solo from “Every Rose”, and the dude in front of us in the leather vest with no shirt underneath hoisted his lighter, it may as well has been Iowa in 1989, and that felt alright. Thank you, Poison, and Happy Easter.

Whitesnake were utterly devoid of merit. Think of everything bad that the term cock rock suggests, and then take away the tunes. David Coverdale strutted about doing his fourth rate Percy Plant impression (little wonder Hammer of the Gods calls him David Coverversion) while a band dressed like the 1983 Slavia Prague third XI out on the town pounded out slick versions of cruddy hard rock that all seemed to have the word love in the title, in front of a banner that very cleverly had a white snake on it. “Here I Go Again” is an admittedly decent song, and inspired another mass singalong, but it just as a reminder of how completely execrable the rest of it was. Poison should have been even more pissed that they were on before these guys after watching an hour of that crap, but I expect they were either knee deep in whisky or politely thanking some groupies by this point.

I hoped Ozzy would be great, and lean heavily on the Sabb, but if I were a betting man it would have been a fiver on it being a total car crash. I didn’t expect a skit show though, so when the video screen played five minutes of clips from famous movies and TV shows with Ozzy spliced in being “hilarious”, it was a strange start. But then there he was, still doddering about like an old man but looking a bit more compos mentis than expected. He’s definitely no longer the Prince of Darkness though: when you see him lumbering around the stage in ill-advised trousers that suggest he may have the saggiest bottom in all of Los Angeles, doing above the head handclaps with a shit-eating grin, it seems rather unlikely that he’d be able to bite the head off a gingerbread man let alone a live bat. The crowd are going bananas, although not bananas enough for Mr Osbourne, who constantly told us we weren’t fucking loud enough. I must confess to not being that familiar with Ozzy’s solo stuff, although familiar enough to know that he was a fair way out of time and key on “Bark At the Moon”. In the main though, his voice wasn’t too bad, and he started hitting his stride on “Mr Crowley” and an amped up version of “War Pigs", complete with wild-eyed Ozzy on the Jumbotron. Then, just as we were getting warmed up, we were treated to a fifteen minute Zakk Wylde solo set (while Ozzy presumably went offstage to have his blood changed or something), which was more proficient but even less interesting than the radio contest from the day before – he should have thrown a few bars of "Back in Black" in to liven things up. The rest of the Cake Tin seemed pretty keen though, and were whipped into a fever by the encore versions of “Mama I’m Coming Home” and a slightly sketchy “Paranoid”. I was glad I’d seen Ozzy before his brain turns completely into soup, but unlike Alice Cooper, KISS and Poison, I think I was about 20 years too late to catch a great performance.

Wilco review to follow…

(reposted at and NZ musician magazine)

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