Heaven & Hell: Alice Cooper & Queensryche | 09.23.07

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Setting up the stage for Alice Cooper simply has to be a bizarre gig for a rock roadie. Okay, now the gallows goes here, the swords go there – has anybody seen the straitjacket?

Family Arena, St. Charles, Mo.
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The Heaven & Hell: Alice Cooper/Queensryche concert was an excellent place to people-watch. Beer-bellied 40-something ex-stoners in black concert T’s descended on the Family Arena, arriving on their beefy Harleys, turning St. Charles’ nominally Republican coliseum into a somewhat more pleasantly Satanic destination all about a Sunday night. You see, in order to appreciate the majesty of Heaven and Hell, formerly Black Sabbath of the Dio years, it helps to have lived as an adolescent through the years in question. That would mean being a teen in the early ‘80s, which would put the crowd at say, 37 – 45. It’s always fun to blend with the metal rabble, and it was curious to find myself aging along with my fellow permanently adolescent Midwestern metal brothers, as our bellies expand, and our musical horizons do not.

Speaking of aging, Queensryche is older than I realized, with four original-and-current members having first bonded up 26 years ago. The oft-touring group performed a tidy set of numbers from blockbusters Operation Mindcrime and Empire, along with some tunes from the ill-advised Operation Mindcrime II. They teased the crowd with a cover of Pink Floyd’s "Welcome to the Machine," from an upcoming album of cover tunes that have inspired them. Operatic lead singer Geoff Tate took up the saxophone during this one, which was impressive to see.          

Setting up the stage for Alice Cooper simply has to be a bizarre gig for a rock roadie. Okay, now the gallows goes here, the swords go there – has anybody seen the straitjacket? I’d never seen Alice live, and I now understand that it is a beautiful thing which every classic rock fan should manage to check off his life list at some point. There’s never a dull moment because the show, with its music attended by swordfights, dancing girls, and all sorts of unresolved issues concerning mannequins, is nearly plotted like a musical. The eyes are every bit as necessary as the ears. And our appropriately costumed ringmaster is evidently having so much fun, we have to have fun, too.          

The ageless (he’s actually 59, thanks again, Wikipedia) former Vincent Furnier began the festivities by having a swordfight with another Alice Cooper (always with the identity crisis, this guy) from behind a screen. The shadows of the two Alices slashed at each other, the screen came down, and there strode the bona fide Alice, secure under top hat, cane twirling with the insouciance of the elder statesman. It was the first of many large-scale magic tricks to come.          

He did "No More Mister Nice Guy" and "Under My Wheels," and sang "Is It My Body?" to a mannequin of himself. His "Welcome to My Nightmare," a song as elegant and funky as a New Orleans funeral dirge, was enlivened by zombies in business suits, lurching around the stage with briefcases.           

During "Steven," with its oddball time signature, oddball Alice drove a stake through the heart of a plastic baby doll. I’ve seen both Skinny Puppy’s Ogre and King Diamond do the same thing onstage, but somehow, Alice manages to kill a baby with much more brio than those other fellows. Of course, he did it first.          

At one point, he shared the stage with a Chinese-fan dancer. Later, the men in white coats came to fasten him into his trademark straitjacket. And it just wouldn’t be a party without a good old-fashioned hanging. Near the end of the set, a gallows was wheeled to center stage, a noose cinched around Alice’s head, and they hung the poor, old classic rocker – until he returned from his nightly capital punishment to sing "I Love the Dead," that is.          

The crowd was on its feet for the entire show. The energy was infectious. It didn’t hurt that we knew the words to all the songs from hearing them on the radio ever since we learned how to turn one on. aaa017a.jpg  

The only weak moment was Alice’s encore, the sing-songy, shallow 80’s hit "Poison." It smacks of snot-slick hard-rock hit making producer Desmond Child, whose sugary treacle continues to rot the fangs out from a frightening quantity of metal acts.  Fortunately, Alice followed it up with the ever-timely "Elected." As the show drew to a close, actors in rubber politician masks marched across stage, waving signs with such bon mots as "Vote for Alice: He Doesn’t Care" and "A Troubled Man for Troubled Times."          

If Alice’s endless tour ever comes to a stop, I’m guessing it will be in Vegas. The magic tricks, the high energy, the dark humor that has somehow mellowed into family-safe fare over the years – the man’s a crowd pleaser, and his classic-rock nuggets are sufficiently old that in the right context, he could be swallowed up by kitsch. A haunted house of rock, with satellite gift shops and restaurants, could be in the offing. Alice already lives in nearby Phoenix, and he lives to golf. Remember, you read it here first.

If Queensryche’s greatest moment came with Operation Mindcrime’s unexpected cohesiveness, and Alice Cooper’s came with his knack for dragging us over the borders of a conflicted mind, Heaven and Hell’s signature moment, the terrible fucking thunder of Dio’s voice paired with Iommi’s guitar, made a light lunch of everything that we’d heard ‘til then, and thank Satan they’d come back from the grave for this very special encore.

We knew Geezer and Tony could still play their instruments, to say the least. Years of appearances at recent Ozzfests and such mean they’ve had no time to lose their chops. And drummer Vinny Appice is the baby in this group of AARPers. The only question was Ronnie. Has he been drinking enough tea with honey to keep the ancient year-65 pipes golden? Or would he soft-pedal it, as Rob Halford has been known to do in his dotage, barking instead of soaring, leaving us to wonder if our gods are unwilling, or truly unable.

Intro/instrumental "E5150" sounded across the empty stage, and then, there they were – the Sabs, kicking into the mayhem of "The Mob Rules." God, it sounded good. It felt even better.

This was a rapprochement that made perfect sense. On his own, circa 2007, Dio plays clubs. Without Ozzy, an idle Sabbath can look for an inferior singer (one who isn’t Ozzy, Ronnie, or Ian Gillan), churn out something second-rate, and head out for some tepid tour dates. Together, though, they can fill modest arenas, and recreate an island in time when the most commanding singer in metal and the left hand of darkness, guitarist Tony Iommi, found a synergy that turned men into happy boys again.

The purists who never embraced Dio – and you know who you are – are welcome to have Ozzy back. His voice is flat and his records of the last fifteen years are a soft-rock embarrassment. But really, it’s all about the songs, isn’t it? And the albums Dio and the Sabs cut together, 1980’s Heaven and Hell, 1981’s Mob Rules, and 1982’s Live Evil, are black operas of power. If your mother was a Bible banger in ’82, this was exactly the sort of quasi-Satanic sound and imagery she hated, which, in turn, made you turn it up that much louder in your bedroom (as well as on the stereo of your dad’s Gran Torino).

From the galloping thunder of "The Mob Rules," H&H went into "Children of the Sea," one of their trademark dirges with wide-open spaces for Ronnie’s voice to play. And then, nearly unadulterated, we could hear his crushing tenor ring out.

His voice was, as they say, like buttah. He soared, he growled, he beckoned. In interviews, he has discussed the pains he’s taken to preserve the voice over the years, and it would seem it’s working. After seeing the just-released Heaven and Hell: Live from Radio City Music Hall DVD, I was skeptical. The pipes were not in top form for this show, so I didn’t know what to expect. My worst fear was that the sound guy would cover up an aged croak with a thick glop of reverb. Not necessary.

Dio sounded reborn, and he couldn’t contain his glee at being on a big stage, in front of a big crowd, on a big tour, sweating to the oldies with Tony and Geezer. He slapped hands with the lucky bastards in the front rows, and really got into the groove of obscurities like "Falling Off the Edge of the World." He chatted a lot between songs, at one point graciously addressing the fans high in the rafters, asking how those "up in the nosebleeds" were doing, and receiving an ovation.

The phlegmatic Tony Iommi and blurry-fingered bassist Geezer Butler held down "Sign of the Southern Cross," "Voodoo," and of course, "Heaven & Hell." Neither seems to have lost a step. If Geezer is dealing with carpal tunnel syndrome, I wouldn’t be surprised. He doesn’t use a pick, and his right hand spasms all over the strings for song after song.

In fact, each member of this foursome contends with material, though not as heavy with sludge as that from the Ozzy years, which is especially intricate. And they speed through the turns like a jazz band in the pocket, every part clicking together as one, age and experience winning the day.

H&H encored with a blistering "Neon Knights," and when the music stopped, the fans didn’t. Iommi, Butler and Appice left the stage throwing picks and drumsticks into an enflamed crowd, like a gringo tossing coins at third-world street urchins. The lights came back up, and suddenly, the orgasm was done.          

In "Die Young," performed exuberantly on this night, Ronnie opines that a young death means "you never get old." Truly, being a Sabbath fan means you never get old. And being in Black Sabbath – or whatever they’d have you call them – means you’re an ageless wonder. | Byron Kerman

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