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Mr. Nice Guy

By Shawn Stone

Alice Cooper

Proctors Theatre, Oct. 26

Few in rock have combined first-class songwriting and shameless show-biz trickery with the bravado of Alice Cooper. When his original band hit in the early 1970s, they were a refreshing breath of skanky air signaling the death of hippiedom (and not a moment too soon). Almost 40 years later, he’s still got it. Cooper entertained a packed Proctors Theatre on Sunday evening with a slick combination of his trademark musicianship and showmanship.

After singing a bit of “It’s Hot Tonight” as an intro—and after, in silhouette, killing a guy with a blade—Cooper and his band (guitarists Jason Hook and Keri Kelli, bassist Chuck Garric and drummer Eric Singer) launched into three of his best early hits. The amusing, self-lacerating “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” the thundering “Under My Wheels” and the witty, anthemic “I’m Eighteen” are exhibits A, B and C for why Cooper (the original Alice Cooper band, specifically) belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—a slight that Cooper, from all reports, takes very personally.

A 60-year-old man singing “I’m Eighteen” should have registered as self-parody. That it didn’t is a tribute to the song and the audience, which contained a large contingent of fans on the younger side of that age also singing along. On that last point, I’ve been to, ahem, adult-oriented rock shows where I was embarrassed that kids were in the audience. Cooper, for all his intimations of violence and horror, puts on a hard PG-13 show; there’s nothing in it a kid hasn’t already seen in, say, The Dark Knight. Judging from the large number of parents with children, being fans of Alice Cooper is a family affair.

Cooper’s later songbook is a mixed bag, but his selections here were solid enough: the silly snark of “Lost in America,” which borrows its refrain from Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up” (name another metal dude who even listened to new wave); the horror-matinee vibe of “Feed My Frankenstein”; and the corny metal romanticism of “Poison,” which was the second song in the encore and got the ladies dancin’. Strangely, songs from his new album (Along Came a Spider) were piped in as warm-up music before the show; it’s solid, and it would have been fun to hear some of it live.

The centerpiece of the show was a cascading swirl of Cooper’s moody, horror-film songs as “Welcome to My Nightmare” segued into “Cold Ethyl” and then into “Only Women Bleed.” Cooper’s wife and daughters provided the (as noted) PG-13 sexiness and choreographic accompaniment to Alice’s psychodrama; after driving a stake through a doll’s heart while crooning “Dead Babies,” they brought out the scaffold and hung him.

Like I said, first-class entertainment.

The show ended, of course, with the timeless “School’s Out.” The encore began with one classic, “Billion Dollar Babies,” and ended with another, “Election.” There was more stage pizzazz with Alice dressed in an Uncle Sam hat, and his family costumed (and masked) as Bush, McCain and Obama. It was wonderful tomfoolery, excellent musical entertainment, and kinda made you want to go vote.

The Troubadour

Richard Thompson

Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, Oct. 25

About 20 years ago, I got sick of reading about Richard Thompson in the rock press and went out and bought Shoot Out the Lights, his 1982 record (with then-wife Linda) that still shows up on most “best album of all-time” lists. I felt terribly behind the curve, as Thompson had already over 20 years worth of stuff out. But I got stung bad.

I don’t remember how many times I’ve seen him since then—6, 7 times? Always brilliant, no more so than in 2004’s 1000 Years of Popular Music program, the last time I saw him.

No more so, until now. Saturday night’s show at Great Barrington’s little Mahaiwe Theater was so manifestly provocative, focused, entertaining, and astonishing that it’s hard to know where to start.

Thompson was solo, which means we didn’t get to see him play electric guitar, but he made up for that in spades—he assumes a fighting stance, legs slightly splayed, leaning slightly forward on the balls of his feet, and precisely batters his guitar with a mesmerizing firebrand thumb and fingerstyle technique. He actually rocks harder, much harder, when he’s alone than when he’s fronting a band.

The show was close to a career retrospective, with a couple things from 2007’s Sweet Warrior, including the antiwar “Dad’s Gonna Kill Us” (“Dad” being Baghdad), big old rockers like “Feel So Good” and “Valerie,” a couple of super-dark-to-the-point-of-hilarity treks into madness like “Hope You Like the New Me” and a devastating “Shoot Out the Lights” complete with heart-stopping guitar work, and delicate tear-jerkers like “From Galway to Graceland” and “Beeswing.” There’s always gonna be some absurdo-comic material (who can forget “Dear Janet Jackson” and “I Agree With Pat Metheny”), and we got the new Brit dance-hall ode to brainy women “Hots for the Smarts,” which was chock full of money lines. My fave: “She likes to be goosed while reciting from Proust.” We even got a super-obscure Left Banke cover. And he happily took requests.

All of this was served up with dizzying guitar technique, good cheer, pathos, and more than a little machismo. Maybe it was the stage backdrop of ever-changing cool colors that made Thompson look like some kind of Celtic bohemian superhero. Maybe it was the exquisite sound, comfortably loud, dense, and all-enveloping. The only rational response to this barrage of brilliance was to grin like a monkey and shake one’s head back and forth. And just maybe, to further the analogy Seth Rogovoy made in his blog about Thompson’s music being like a good complex scotch, maybe the guy is simply getting better and better with age. I think that’s it.

—Paul Rapp

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