There’s a wide variety of entertainment options on any given night in Los Angeles, but there was no doubt that the El Rey Theater was the place to be on this Tuesday evening. There was a long line outside the theater as showtime approached, which is what happens when organizers offer a rock ‘n’ roll supergroup to benefit a noble charity.
The benefit show was staged in service to Rhonda’s Kiss, a local organization which raises money to help cancer patients who can’t afford the exorbitant costs of treatment for the all too often deadly disease that continues to plague modern society (see www.rhondaskiss.org). Thus the Hellcat Saints were born to draw music fans in and those fans can only hope the group had such a good time that they’ll have to play more shows together in the future.
The band’s all-star lineup was put together by guitarist Dave Kushner of the now defunct Velvet Revolver. Kushner spoke during the week of being touched first hand by cancer himself and desiring that cancer treatment should be available to all. He called upon a variety of star-studded friends, including former bandmate Duff McKagan who is of course better known as the incomparable bassist from Guns ‘n’ Roses. The band would also feature guitarist and face melter Dave Navarro from Jane’s Addiction, former GNR guitarist Gilby Clarke, singer Mark McGrath from Sugar Ray, actress/vocalist Juliette Lewis (Juliette & the Licks) and drummer Josh Freese (A Perfect Circle, Nine Inch Nails). And that was only the announced lineup, with more special guests promised to appear.
The show opened with the quartet of Kushner, McKagan, Freese and Navarro being fronted by actor/singer Donovan Leitch for a Cheap Trick doubleshot of “Hello There” and “Surrender,” kicking off a high energy set that would only continue to gain momentum. McGrath then fronted the band for KISS anthem “Rock and Roll All Nite” and Sugar Ray’s hit “Fly”. Everyone was having a good time but the set moved to a higher dimension of rock power when Juliette Lewis took the stage to sing AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap”, which also featured Gilby Clarke subbing in for Navarro.
Lewis had earlier posted a message on Instagram of her character Mallory Knox from the classic film Natural Born Killers leaping in the air to express her excitement at being backed by a rhythm section of McKagan and Freese, and it was clear that she was fired up about it. A bolt of electricity seemed to charge the room as she belted out the AC/DC classic with a vengeance befitting of the Knox character, while McKagan and company seemed to relish in watching her cut loose. Clarke also stepped up to rip a hot guitar solo, conjuring visions of 1992 era GNR what with McKagan right across the stage.
The band shifted gears seamlessly for the next tune as Lewis morphed from rock goddess to rhythm and blues diva for a hot version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary”, which featured a stellar jam as the band really seemed to gel with the dynamic Lewis as frontwoman and Clarke firing off hot licks. These would be her only two songs of the night, but the segment was easily one of the evening’s top highlights. She plays out from time to time with her band the Licks, but the scintillating performance suggested that the rock ‘n’ roll world greatly benefit with more live musical performances from Juliette Lewis.
The show proceeded with a parade of guest vocalists for more classic rock hits with Jamie Common fronting the band for Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”, providing a bit of a breather. “How can you follow Juliette Lewis, she’s insane,” remarked actor Bill Burr, who was MCing the show before he jumped in for his own chance at rock ‘n’ roll mania by replacing Freese on drums for the next song. This would turn into a chance to play the legendary John Bonham as the band launched in Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”, with pop star Kesha appearing to deliver a smashing vocal as the show continued to soar in sublime fashion. Burr proved a monster on the drums, obviously delighting in the chance to rock out with McKagan and company.
The surprises just kept coming as the band talked of pulling in a random friend who just happened to be passing by on his Eliminator. Freese and Navarro returned to the stage as well to back none other than ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons for a smoking version of “La Grange”. It was clearly classic rock night at the El Rey and what a night it was turning into as Gibbons, Kushner and Navarro exchanged bluesy licks while McKagan and Freese held down a mean groove. The show could have easily concluded triumphantly right there but another lineup change saw Billy Idol and guitarists Steve Stevens and Billy Morrison hit the stage for a great sequence that saw the Doors’ “LA Woman” sandwiched between Idol’s “White Wedding” and “Rebel Yell” to close out the magnificent set.
Throughout the night it was McKagan who provided the sonic glue, holding it all together as the only musician who played on every song and providing the perfect bass tone and rock attitude for each tune. There may be other bassists in the rock world with greater chops, but there are few who can match McKagan’s relentless skill at holding down the low end with maximum sonic vibe and tonal aggression. What a treat it was to see McKagan back in action, especially with rumors swirling of a GNR reunion tour to come with the band’s classic lineup. If mercurial singer Axl Rose and enigmatic guitarist Slash can indeed patch up their differences, it promises to be a sensational tour with McKagan clearly ready to rock just like the old days when GNR ruled the rock ‘n’ roll world.
In the end, those who plunked down their money for Rhonda’s Kiss received an extra special and unique set from an all-star lineup of Hollywood luminaries from both stage and screen that is unlikely to be matched anytime soon. The members of the Hellcat Saints may be known more for their adventures on Hollywood’s dark side, but they channeled those energies in service of the forces of Light on this night. In doing so, the Hellcat Saints demonstrated rock ‘n’ roll’s vast and all too underutilized power to be a force for positive change on this crazy, mixed up third stone from the sun.