[23 September 2009]
Undeterred by the sweltering heat—the kind that forms a sweat-‘stache on your upper lip within milliseconds of being exposed to its nuclear-level humidity— roughly ten thousand rock fans turned out to Holmdel, NJ’s PNC Bank Arts Center Amphitheatre to catch Crüe Fest 2.
In its second year, the festival provided a heavier, metal contrast to last year’s more pop rock-skewed incarnation featuring Crüe bassist Nikki Sixx’s side project SIXX A.M. on the supporting roster along with veterans Buckcherry and up-and-comers Papa Roach and Trapt. This time around, the Crüe tapped “newer” acts like Charm City Devils and Theory of a Deadman as well as established heavies, Drowning Pool and Godsmack to fill the bill.
In an effort to give recession-stricken fans more bang for their buck, a slew of other bands were added to the Monster Energy-sponsored second stage including Shram, 16 Second Stare, Cavo, and Rev Theory—who rewarded heat-weary fans making their rounds to the second stage with a tightly coiled performance that could have earned them a slot on the main stage. As one of the few venues with assigned seating buttressed up against the stage, Holmdel’s PNC Arts Center’s lack of pit afforded fans a prime opportunity to check out these interleafed bands on the second stage without fear of losing their spot on the rail. In addition, you could practically hear the collected sigh of bladder relief of Holmdel’s tailgaters and beer tent trekkers in light of the no-pit policy.
The variety of performers pulled in a mix bag of ages, and therein lies the beauty of Crüe Fest. Ladies of all ages sported bikini tops and mini-skirts, proving that groupiedom is still alive and well as sagging hooters jockeyed for a spot on the front lines alongside more pert peaks, hoping to find themselves plastered with the coveted all-access sticky pass by the end of the night. Providing additional comfort in its reliability was the abundance of faded black t-shirts sans sleeves in retaliation to the summer heat, standing strong as the unofficial dress code for male attendees regardless of age.
Elsewhere, in a row towards the front of the stage, a father could be seen with his son (no more than seven years of age) instructing him in the time-honored tradition of bending his tiny fingers into the horned salute that is a staple of any rock show. Midway through opening band Charm City Devils’ set, those in attendance could audibly hear a voice yelling: “Show him the metal!” uttered forth with the stern demeanor usually reserved for ordering a kid to finish his peas. The kid acquiesced, offering up a passable salute to lead singer John Allen.
While they may not have been as widely known as their Crüe Fest 2 cohorts, neo-glam pop rockers Charm City Devils won over several new fans with their live show, made more entertaining due to Allen’s humorous, self-deprecating stage banter. Initially, I was not expecting much, however I was pleasantly surprised. Then again, Charm City Devils may be a new band, but the Baltimore natives have been kicking around the scene for years, having changed their name from Chosen Son and with John Allen stepping out from behind SR-71’s drum kit to take to the microphone.
Things took a decidedly heavier tone when Drowning Pool hit the stage. The perennially pissed off Texans’ angst anthems instantly won the fans over, as did their tremendous interaction with the audience. Guitarist C.J. Pierce basted the crowd with glistening blades of jagged riffs as more festival goers piled into PNC Arts Center. Gravelly-voiced Ryan McCombs (formerly of Soil), is the band’s third lead singer, however, you’d never know it by his onstage chemistry with the band. McComb’s respect for Drowning Pool’s older material, as well as the newer stuff unleashed upon the Crüe Fest 2 throngs was evident. McCombs fearlessly descended into the audience to perform following his stage-side confessional of his years as a metal fan before finally getting his big break. By the time Drowning Pool whipped out “Bodies” to close out their set, the venue went nuts and the band had converted a substantial amount of new fans.
Any of the energy that Drowning Pool brought with their blistering set was promptly sucked out of the air mere seconds into Theory of a Deadman’s performance. Trouble was plainly a-brewin’ when lead singer, Tyler Connolly strolled onto the stage clutching a trendy little cup of Starbucks. Gently placing the beverage at the foot of the drum riser, Connolly parked himself in front of the mic stand where he stood glued for the duration of their set.
Between the general lack of stage presence and the half-assed attempts at addressing the crowd, to say Theory of a Deadman failed to connect with the audience would be a gross understatement. Lawrence Welk and his “luffly, luffly champagne music” would have made more of an impact. The words “epic fail” could very well have comprised an invisible backdrop when Connolly held out the mic stand to the crowd who couldn’t be bothered to sing the lyrics to one of their better-known songs. Silence ensued. Even the band’s radio hit, “Bad Girlfriend” failed to rally the crowd. Ironically, most bands sound heavier and louder live. The exact opposite held true for Theory of a Deadman.
After a quick break involving a trip to the sauna-like bathroom and guzzling a few bottles of water while people-watching, Godsmack hit the stage. A skeptic by nature, I was unsure about whether or not to believe the hype around Godsmack’s much-vaunted live performance. Walking around and chatting with fellow attendees, there were about equally as many people there to see Motley Crüe as there were Godsmack devotees, foaming at the mouth about what an incredible live show Sully Erna and company put on.
Within seconds of the pyro-laden performance, it was plain to see how seasoned and energetic a group of performers the band were. While Godsmack had always been compared to Alice in Chains, those comparisons went right out the window as the band claimed their right as an entirely different animal – more of a metal jam band than grunge throwback. Right out of the gate, bassist Robbie Merrill – wearing a knit skullcap even in the dead of summer – made a beeline for the front row, mugging for the camera phones and having a high old time ripping through songs like “Awake,” “Re-Align,” and “The Enemy” while affable, yet unassuming guitar virtuoso, Tony Rombola played to the crowd at the other end of the stage.
Although Godsmack’s material had a dark, heavy, almost primal mysticism about it, the atmosphere was lighthearted, the group happy to be back onstage after several years out of the spotlight. The crowd appeared equally grateful to have them back. Erna’s stage raps seemed natural and unforced, very at home with the Godsmack faithful as well as new converts to the band – myself included among them, seriously impressed with the band’s performance. The crowd was held in sonic rapture with renditions of mega-hits “Voodoo” and “Keep Away.”
The best was yet to come, when towards the end of the set, drummer Shannon Larkin’s kit was pushed to the forefront, rotating a full 360 degrees on a platform turnstile wowing the crowd with a fifteen minute drum solo that managed to be both dynamic and rhythmic at the same time. Kicking things up a notch or twelve, drum vet Sully Erna sat down at an opposing kit on the other end of the stage, dueling on the skins alongside Larkin with the pair jamming together onstage before closing out the set with “I Stand Alone.”
At this point, the audience was rarin’ and ready for Motley Crüe, ready to kick off the Dr. Feelgood portion of their stage show, heralded by the giant wheelchair pushed to the stage. Prior to drummer Tommy Lee injuring his hand, the original plan was for a straitjacketed Lee to Houdini his way out of the chair and onto the drum kit. Instead, the curtain just dropped and the band – with Sevendust’s Morgan Rose at the drum kit in lieu of Lee – kicked things off with the landmark album’s title cut, sounding as fresh and relevant as ever twenty years after its original release. The elaborate set design (which folded back up into the rafters after the opening song) featured a padded cell rigged with harsh, white fluorescent lights where the band launched into “Dr. Feelgood.”
Vince Neil, often unfairly maligned, was pitch perfect throughout (with a few minor wavers), singing into a bedazzled microphone and matching stand that was a nice nod to the band’s glam roots. The entire album was played live in its chronologic entirety with the band performing songs that hadn’t seen the inside of a concert venue in over a decade, if not ever, such as the bluesy “Rattlesnake Shake,” “Slice of Your Pie,” “Sticky Sweet,” and ballad, “Time For Change” – which came off as eerily prophetic and appropriate in light of current events.
As the disc that brought the Crüe their greatest number of hits from a single album, many fan favorites from Dr. Feelgood received a welcome reception from the fans attempting to weasel their way from the cheap seats and infiltrate the front lines. “Kickstart My Heart” got a huge reception, as did “Don’t Go Away Mad (Just Go Away).” Tommy Lee, still nursing his hand injury, came out to play drums on “Without You” after chatting with the crowd and passing around the communal bottle of Jaeger to the front row. He lauded Morgan Rose for stepping up to the bat on such short notice and filling in for him. While Rose lacks Lee’s flash, the Sevendust drummer did a solid job at the kit and should certainly be commended.
The second half of Motley’s set involved a more industrial change of scenery and threw a new song, “Saints of Los Angeles,” into a handful of hits including “Girls, Girls, Girls,” “Wild Side,” and “Primal Scream.” Stalking the stage in his platform boots and top hat, Mick Mars interacted with the band and audience, not allowing his Ankylosing Spondylitis—the painful bone and spinal disorder that ails him—to deter him from performing. Compared to live bootlegs of Feelgood-era concerts, Mars’ skill as a guitarist has only improved with time, his sense of tone and genuine feeling instantly grabbing the fans by their weathered black concert t’s. Any grizzled rock concert veteran can tell you the difference between an uninterested silence and a crowd hushed by sheer awe. Mick’s flamenco-influenced spotlight solo fell into the latter category as he plucked away on an acoustic guitar, amplified to perforate the air with his own melodic construction that borrowed from his 1984 instrumental, “God Bless the Children of the Beast,” albeit a version that demonstrated Mars’ considerable growth as a musician 25 years later.
Nikki Sixx (sporting a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Who The Fuck Is Mick Mars”) was uncharacteristically quiet. He seemed to be in a jovial mood, however, interacting with the audience and security staff – going so far as to rub the bald noggin of one rather large, austere yellow-shirt guarding the front of the stage. A tense moment was had when Sixx wordlessly demanded the iPhone of the front row resident, putting it in his back pocket. Just when the fan was resigning himself that Sixx had joined the ranks of the Camera Nazis, the bassist bounced back to the front of the stage, taking a picture of his crotch with the fans’ device before handing it back with a grin.
Although the band seemed a bit road weary from the non-stop touring since their 2004 comeback, the brotherly camaraderie between the original four was evident as Tommy Lee sat down at the piano to play “Home Sweet Home” with the rest of the band, taking to the drum riser one more time for the electrified portion of the song. Throwing in a few more up-tempo songs, the Crüe rocked the crowd home with a few more classics. Tommy came out (yet again) to keep the momentum going with an impromptu rap as the Crüe took their bows and exited the stage, a good time had by all.
While it’s tentative if there will be a Crüe Fest 3 next summer, the Motley boys may be taking a well-deserved break from the road until 2011, which coincides with their thirtieth anniversary.