For the overwhelming majority of Hollywood Vampires’ Wednesday night set in Los Angeles, Johnny Depp was content to hang stage right and strum his Gibson with a minimum of guitar hero posturing. Fresh off promo duties for his gangster opus Black Mass at the Toronto International Film Festival, the actor seemed content to let his more illustrious bandmates—Aerosmith’s Joe Perry, Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan and Alice Cooper on vocals—bask and preen in the Sunset Strip limelight.
But just before the curtain went down on the cock-rock supergroup at Hollywood’s venerable Roxy Theatre—Hollywood Vampires’ first-ever live show—Depp stepped to the lip of the low proscenium to crank out the angular opening chords to the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar.” Call it an oblique homage to Keith Richards. Keef, of course, inspired the movie star’s most famous (and lucrative) dramatic persona, Pirates of the Caribbean’s Captain Jack Sparrow.
But befitting a loose rock collective that claimed its name from an Angeleno drinking club of a certain distinction that gathered at the Rainbow Bar & Grill (located next door to the Roxy) in the ‘70s—John Lennon, Keith Moon, Harry Nilsson, Cooper, Bernie Taupin and the Monkees’ Micky Dolenz were charter Hollywood Vampires members—the vibe last night was bar-band jovial. Easy, fun and familiar. Even as the small stage clogged with platinum-selling recording artists, everyone was in it for the love. (All proceeds from the group’s Sept. 11 album are being donated to the charity MusiCares). “We didn’t drink the blood of the vein,” Cooper explained of the group’s name, “but the blood of the vine.”
Hollywood Vampires opened by throwing down an ageist gauntlet apropos of the members’ advanced years; Perry is 64, Cooper, 67; and Depp is the baby at just 52 years of age. They ran through the Doors “Five to One” with its memorable refrain, “The old get old and the young get stronger…You got the guns but we got the numbers.” And they performed the Who’s “My Generation”—Roger Daltry’s famous line, “I hope I die before I get old,” not getting lost on anyone in the crowd.
But the celebrity cameos became their own kind of show. Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello and Black Sabbath bassist-lyricist Geezer Butler joined in for an athletic rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression.” (Morello played the solo with his teeth). Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Ferrell grabbed the mike to pogo and vogue his way through Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire.” Pop songstress Kesha joined the all-male guitar maelstrom to head-bang her way through Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” wearing an obsidian-colored monotard and star-sparkled waistcoat.
And about two-thirds of the way through the Hollywood Vampires’ performance, Cooper took time out to introduce its core members with fittingly phallic and blood-sucking magniloquence: “The balls of the vampire: Duff McCagan, Matt Sorum! The wings of the vampire: Joe Perry, Johnny Depp! And, of course, the fangs of the vampire: Me.”
Standing near the wing of the stage with rhythm guitar in hand, Depp arrived as a curiosity of the first order. A star with a global following and his own island in the Bahamas, to be sure. But appearing as a musician Wednesday, Depp seemed earnestly focused upon being himself in public for a change.
Disappearing into role after movie role—the flamboyant Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland, gonzo tweaker/truth-seeker Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, all blue contacts and bald cap as Boston mob boss Whitey Bulger in Black Mass—it was a fascinating spectacle to see Depp out of character. On Wednesday, the star’s tattoos were visible beneath his rolled-up shirtsleeves. He wore a suit vest, a fedora, and a collection of rough-hewn necklaces including an anchor and a trident.
As Hollywood Vampires steam-rollered their way through the members’ cherished hits—Cooper’s 1973 single “Million Dollar Babies,” Aerosmith’s “Train Kept a Rollin’” (1974)—Depp’s face was affixed with a shy smile and he was dripping in sweat.
But the closing “yeahs” and “woos” of “Brown Sugar” would be his curtain call. Hollywood Vampires clasped hands, drew together at the edge of the Roxy stage in a bow and then retreated into the velvety Hollywood night.
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