The Darkness & Hollywood Vampires, Wembley Arena, London, June 20, 2018

It’s only Wednesday, and it’s been a busy week – three evenings, three gigs. So I’m already semi-exhausted before even arriving at Wembley Arena for this evening’s concert with the Hollywood Vampires. I miss out on the first support band, The Stranglers, but take my seat just in time for the second support band, The Darkness. Wembley Arena will never be on the list of my favourite venues, but if the bands you want to see play there, what can you do? For Wembley Arena standards, it’s a reasonably good seat, but still far enough from the stage for me to appreciate the two big screens on both sides of the stage, on which I will be watching at least 50% of the concert.

The Darkness has Opened My Eyes
The Darkness (I didn’t know they still existed) take to the stage. I know the most famous hits from what seems like a long time ago, but I’ve never really thought much about them. So it’s a lovely eye-opener to see how good they are and what a great rock and roll show they put on.

The Darkness

Made to be on stage, frontman Justin Hawkins is a substantial presence. Strutting and posing and pouting while singing his heart out and playing his hands off (or something to that effect). He certainly knows how to work the audience. I catch myself thinking that this is as close as I ever get to see anything a bit like Queen, so it’s funny to find out later that the drummer of The Darkness is Queen’s drummer, Roger Taylor’s son Rufus Taylor. Well, there you go.

I don’t know most of the songs, but it doesn’t matter; they’re all catchy and rocking, and when The Darkness play the two songs I do know, Growing On Me and I Believe In a Thing Called Love, I appreciate both songs more than I ever did before. One could say they’re really growing on me.

The whole band plays well, but my eyes are primarily on Hawkins (he is the frontman after all), not least of all, when he does a handstand on the drum riser and claps his feet together (instead of his hands) – one of the bolder (so much could go wrong) and funnier rock and roll tricks I’ve seen.

Before The Darkness enters the stage, a blond rock and roll-looking dude comes on and introduces the band. The person next to me tells me who it is, the drummer for the Foo Fighters, Taylor Hawkins (no relation to Justin, I’m sure). I guess that’s just the kind of evening this is. Rock stars on the stage and rock stars hanging out backstage, bands playing, and their friends from other bands coming on and introducing them – and why the hell not?

The Coming of the Vampires
After The Darkness leaves the stage – no doubt to go and have a drink or ten with their Foo Fighting friend Taylor, the rest of us wait a while before the stage crew have done whatever it is they need to do, and finally, the lights go down for tonight’s main attraction. From my seat, I can see a big group of silhouettes walking from the backstage area to the back of the stage – the vampires are coming from the shadows and will soon enter the light through a misty haze of white smoke, to the sound of Bela Lugosi’s Dead/The Last Vampire.

Hollywood Vampires

And there they are, the main vampires being Alice Cooper (of course), Joe Perry (him of Aerosmith) and, gasp, Johnny Depp (the scissor-handed-cry baby-undercover cop-drug-smuggling-pirate-Don Juan in person). The other, less famous, musicians (well, they’re not on the poster) are Tommy Henriksen (guitar), Glen Sobel (drums), Chris Wyse (bass) and Buck Johnson (Keyboards).

The set is a proper rock and roll set of Alice Cooper songs and covers of some of what might have been your favourite rock songs if you’d been a teenager in the seventies. There’s no doubt who the frontman is, this is Alice Cooper, dammit, but a certain middle-aged former heartthrob manages to, unwittingly, garner the most attention from the audience.

Johnny Depp wears an outfit that’s very similar to what he might have worn in Pirates of the Caribbean and plays the guitar, probably proficiently. Still, it’s hard to tell when two other excellent guitarists are at play on the other side of the stage, Joe Perry and Tommy Henriksen. Whatever Johnny Depp’s guitar skills may be, he certainly looks like he belongs in a rock band, and when he takes over the microphone for two songs, first People Who Died by The Jim Carroll Band, and later, Heroes by David Bowie, he sings both songs well. Not a bad voice there.

Heroes who die
People Who Died is accompanied by images on a screen of some of the famous contemporaries (and friends) who have died – like the writer of the song, Jim Carroll, David Bowie, Tom Petty, Jim Morrison, Chris Cornell, Kurt Cobain, Joe Strummer etc. The chorus (‘Those are people who died, died…’) might seem a bit crass when shouted by a 70-year-old man in horror makeup and a group of middle-aged men all dressed up like they were still in their 20s, but when listening to the lyrics in the verses, the song is quite moving in a very matter of fact way. 

For a Bowie fan like myself, I am always sceptical about the thought of others singing his songs, and often my scepticism is valid. Still, I have to give in and admit that Hollywood Vampires’ take on Heroes is really good, staying very close to the original version but somehow making it their own.

Main Vamps: Joe Perry, Alice Cooper, Johnny Depp

It’s great to hear some famous rock hits that I’ve listened to on soundtracks or in bars but never heard live before. Like Baba O’Riley (The Who), Ace of Spades (Motorhead) and Sweet Emotion (Aerosmith). All songs are played with appropriate respect for the original artist but still played like they were Hollywood Vampires’ songs. It’s fun, in your face, and importantly, unapologetic, just like rock should be.

Sure, it is a bit ridiculous when they play old Alice Cooper classics like I’m Eighteen (no, you’re not) and the last song of the evening, School’s Out (you haven’t been to school for decades), but it doesn’t matter, this is a proper rock and roll show, and in rock and roll-land no rules apply. Everyone’s young forever (unless they kill themselves or O.D.).

The giant balloons that we’ve all noticed hanging in the ceiling when we entered the arena will have to come down at some point. During School’s Out, the balloons are released. Roughly 50 lucky people will go home with a giant balloon, perhaps symbolic of the concert itself; overblown, without much substance, easy-going and youthful and reckless. And that’s precisely why this evening was so much fun – just a couple of hours of losing oneself in complete and utter carefreeness.

The Darkness setlist
1. Solid Gold
2. Growing on Me
3. Love is Only a Feeling
4. Japanese Prisoner of Love
5. One Way Ticket
6. Barbarian
7. Buccaneers of Hispaniola
8. Get Your Hands Off My Woman
9. I Believe in a Thing Called Love

Hollywood Vampires setlist
(Bela Lugosi’s Dead / The Last Vampire)
1. I Want Mine Now
2. Raise the Dead
3. I Got a Line on You (Spirit cover)
4. 7 and 7 Is (Love cover)
5. My Dead Drunk Friends
6. Five to One / Break on Through (to the Other Side) (The Doors cover)
7. The Jack (AC/DC cover)
8. Ace of Spades (Motörhead cover)
9. Baba O’Riley (The Who cover)
10. As Bad As I Am
11. The Boogie Man Surprise
12. I’m Eighteen (Alice Cooper cover)
13. Stop Messin’ Around (Fleetwood Mac cover)
14. People Who Died (The Jim Carroll Band cover)
15. Sweet Emotion (Aerosmith cover)
16. Bushwackers
17. Heroes (David Bowie cover)
18. Train Kept A’Rollin’ (Tiny Bradshaw cover)
Encore
19. School’s Out (Alice Cooper cover)

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