The best piece of theater in the Twin Cities Saturday night wasn't at the Guthrie, or in a theater at all. It was at Xcel Energy Center, as Mötley Crüe came through town on their last tour, closing out more than 30 years as a band.
It was a real goodbye -- the boys signed a contract and everything -- and they treated it with all the gravitas it deserved. They played the hits, and nothing but the hits, and it was bright and fast and loud. Even though it was everything that everyone in the audience expected, the Crüe worked in enough heart and power that it felt more like a homestretch sprint than a victory lap.
Shock-rock godfather Alice Cooper's opening set hit hard with the closer "School's Out." It was easy to see why this man is so influential to rock 'n' roll performance. The band managed to bring a dose of euphoric summer freedom to the always disheartening first weeks of winter. Alice stood on the edge of the stage during the closing crescendo, swinging at large balloons he had released into the audience with a sword. During the closing riff, a psychotic nurse ran onstage and mimed a fatal stab wound in his side. As he said during his curtain call, Alice Cooper played the part of Alice Cooper.
After playing Rogers and Hammerstein's "So Long, Farewell" over the PA, Mötley Crüe took the stage. While it wasn't quite hair metal, they certainly dressed the glam rock part. Vince Neil wore the most phallic belt buckle I've ever seen, which is saying a lot.
The most memorable thing about many of their first few songs was the visuals, from an explosion of fireworks shooting from a spiked mace to go-go dancers casting silhouettes during "Looks That Kill." There were moments of strong performance, particularly from Mick Mars, and the Crüe were unfailingly hard and fast. But the vocals were often muddied or lost in the noise, and the band seemed a bit disorganized.
In the middle of the set, Nikki Sixx had all 15,000 fans in the sold out stadium sit down for "storytime, motherfuckers." The story was the origin of Mötley Crüe in L.A. in winter of 1980. It had all the elements of the classic rock creation myth -- a small-town kid moving to a big city, an ad in a record store magazine, a lead singer stolen from another band. The story ended with the Crüe reaching rock music's ultimate goal -- to make something that outlasts your band. "Our music will haunt you until the day you die," Sixx said.
The band picked up considerably after this interlude. "Dr. Feelgood" featured strong falsetto vocals from Neil, a steady groove, and some truly inspired cowbell. But the band were at their best during "Shout at the Devil." Sixx lit a hanging pentagram microphone ablaze with a jet of flame from his bass to begin the song, and the stage was showered with a rain of sparks from a larger pentagram on the ceiling, as even more fire and pyrotechnics went off throughout the stage. These visuals were backed up by about the most satanic performance possible in such a large, seemingly sterile venue -- heavy, angry, and pure rock.
The ominous strains of Orff's "O Fortuna" drifted through the stadium, signally something epic to come. And then, with a bang, it arrived.
It wasn't a surprise to anyone when Tommy Lee started riding his flying drum rig -- it's a well-known part of their set, and the roller coaster tracks are hard to miss. But it managed to be crazier than expected, with Lee adding live drums to a medley of heavy club hits. If there had been any rave kids in the building, they would have gone apeshit. Most of the audience just looked up in admiration, phone cameras in hand.
As the massive drum rig came to a stop at the far end of the track, Tommy Lee thanked one of the people that made it possible for him to do something so out of this world: his dad, who was born in St. Paul. "He gave up so much so I could do my drumming," he said. It was a small sincere moment in the middle of a larger-than-life display.
The fireworks would return soon enough. The drum show was followed by an extended guitar solo from Mick Mars, the one band member who said nothing during the entire two-hour set. His virtuosity had been apparent throughout the night. When Neil's vocals were drowned out or garbled (which happened more than a few times), Mars's guitar gave the audience something to latch onto. In his solo, Mars revved up like a jet taking off -- and was nearly as loud -- before putting on a show of masterful and subtle shredding, switching between techniques at will.
As the closing riffs of "Kickstart My Heart" died down, the band faced backstage. Neil had his fist raised, seemingly preparing to end the set with an emphatic gesture. But of course, it wasn't enough to end the set with a fiery rendition of their biggest hit -- not when there was so much actual fire yet to be used. With a "Fuck yeah!" from Tommy Lee, the stage absolutely erupted in flames and fireworks, and the band rocked on through the onslaught.
"Home Sweet Home" would have been an almost intimate encore, if the small, bare stage they performed on wasn't on a rising platform 30 feet in the air. The band made their way to the second stage with a procession led by flashlights scanning the audience in the darkened stadium. Any uncharacteristic seriousness this entrance may have had was soon rightly dispelled when Tommy Lee used his flashlight as a stand-in for his dick (someone had to, I guess).
As the platform rose, so did the power of the ballad. It was arena-filling and spectacular, and yet showed the band for what they are without the pyrotechnics and go-go dancers -- four dudes playing hard rock 'n' roll music.
Personal bias: Metal and hard rock in general is outside of my wheelhouse, but I had a great time covering this show.
Overheard in the crowd: "Mötley fuckin Crüe!" and variants thereof, a lot of times.
Random notebook dump: Shout out to the woman next to us who gave us smuggled raspberry vodka shooters. She really got us into the spirit of Crüe.
Saints of Los Angeles
Same Ol' Situation (S.O.S)
Looks That Kill
On With the Show
Too Fast for Love
Smokin' in the Boys' Room
Motherfucker of the Year
Anarchy in the U.K.
Shout at the Devil
Don't Go Away Mad (Just Go Away)
Too Young to Fall in Love
Girls, Girls, Girls
Kickstart My Heart
Home Sweet Home
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