I remember seeing the Rolling Stones twenty years ago thinking how lucky I was to catch what would certainly be one of their last concerts. More fool me! Nowadays the synergy between new media technologies and household names means that famous rock bands have long since escaped the gravity once imposed on their careers by aging.
Now, as long as they can get on stage, people will come, possibly for good Twitter fodder or a thumbs up of recognition on Facebook. So, the rock legends keep touring. But, the mojo of most rock ‘n’ roll success stories tends to drive stars to try to live up to their reputations, despite certain physical and logistical problems. Watching this process can be as fascinating as the concerts themselves—as I discovered at Whitesnake’s recent Tokyo gig.
While some performers make concessions to aging—at least in the image department—those driven by the will of the Nietzschean Übermensch refuse to recognize something as trivial as the effects of time. Meet David Coverdale, the driving force behind Whitesnake.
Back in their glory days in the 1980s, Whitesnake were known for their immaculately brushed, AOR lite-metal, which perfectly fitted the superficial ethos of that decade. However, admitting that “poodle rock”—as it was sometime called—is dated is certainly not on the 60-year-old English singer’s to-do list.
Not only do his tight jeans and shirt—open to the navel—cry youth, so do his choices of band mates, most notably, the longhaired Adonis of guitarist Doug Aldrich. While Aerosmith, a band of similar vintage, will come here soon with all the original members, Coverdale is the only original member of his outfit. Inevitably all the replacements are quite a bit younger.
Coverdale has obviously made the decision that enough youthful “visual semantics” might unconsciously disguise him as a younger man. Looked at closely, Coverdale’s six decades are there for all to see, given the added twist by what look like some after effects of plastic surgery. But up on stage, moving fast, weaving in and out of his younger band mates and with a large part of the approximately 2,000 audience willing to share the chrono-amnesia for their own ends, we enter the timeless “rock-zone,” a mythical space where years are blown away by searing guitar breaks, pummelling drums, and pure rock passion.
Whitesnake hit us with an energized version of “Best Years of My Life” from 2008’s comeback album Good To Be Bad. This leads seamlessly into a gritty version of “Give Me All Your Love,” despite the 21 years between these two songs. It’s only the second song and the audience is already in sing-along mode, steered by the rhythms of bassist Michael Devin and drummer Brian Tichy, both of whom joined last year.
Coverdale’s voice is on fire and he works the crowd with his trademark “I see YOU!!!” gesture, in which he points at his eyes and then points towards particular audience members.
A few nights before, Whitesnake was one of the headliners at the Loud Park heavy metal fest and the band has crammed in a few dates since then, but the rumors are his voice hasn’t been holding up so well. It’s early days so we’ll have to wait and see, but there’s something a little suspicious about the kampai he drinks to the audience at the end of “Give Me All Your Love.” Is that sake in that glass or possibly something to lubricate that golden larynx?
Next up it’s the raucous “Loving a Stranger,” with Coverdale throwing his voice into all sorts of shapes, followed by “Is This Love?” the kind of overproduced power ballad that made Whitesnake’s name in its ’80s heyday. The original studio version stylishly blended moody synths with Coverdale’s bruised and soaring vocal, but played live the song has a tendency to become plodding, though this performance is rescued by Aldrich’s scintillating solo. The difficultly of recreating overproduced album tracks from the 1980s live nevertheless is established as one of the night’s themes.
“Steal Your Heart Away” from the latest album is introduced by some overcooked bluesy slide guitar from Aldrich that transforms into a stonking riff. When Coverdale’s voice comes in it sounds ragged for the first time, but only because he’s pushing it to the limit.
The title song of the latest album “Forevermore,” is introduced as “a love song for Japan.” Aldrich’s expressive acoustic creates that requisite sun-dappled feel required by the sappy lyrics. The style and speed with which he switches from acoustic to electric guitar without missing a beat for the cranked-up finale is classic showmanship. Great entertainment, the same clichéd overkill that made the likes of Morrissey a necessary ironic counterbalance in the 1980s.
Now it’s time for Coverdale to go and have a lie down, while Aldrich and then second guitarist Reb Beach show off their licks with a bit of freeform guitar experimentation.
The wind back in his sails, Coverdale does a good job on “Can You Hear the Wind Blow,” but sounds a little shaky again on “Love Will Set You Free.” Maybe this is why drummer Brain Dichy is now given center stage.
While Coverdale sorts out his larynx backstage, Tichy treats us to a massive drum odyssey, exploring his massive kit with bare hands, chopsticks, and knives—and even actual drumsticks, which he juggles whenever he can. Good fun, but a little tedious after the first ten minutes.
With the main man back we are launched into some of Whitesnake’s biggest songs: “Fool for Your Lovin,” “Here We Go Again,” and “Still of the Night.” However these classics are almost unrecognizable. In addition to the difficulty of recreating overcrafted studio songs with a different set of musicians, the band is now playing too loud to cover the singer’s increasingly shredded voice. Worse, Coverdale occasionally launches into bouts of yelping, as if to prove he can still holler with the best of them.
Being David Coverdale is not just about having once had one of the best rock voices ever. It’s also about major mojo and a massive front. The guy can’t accept defeat, second best, or the gentle aging process, but keeps driving his voice—often beyond its natural limits—in an attempt to maintain his legend status. Sometimes he can pull it off, but often tonight it worked against the music.
An interesting moment comes towards the end. Over-busy guitars, intrusive drums, and souped-up synths subside and cease, and Coverdale embarks on a naked vocal version of “Soldier of Fortune,” one from his Deep Purple time. Without distractions, we get a glimpse of what a good voice he still has when he doesn’t blast it to the four winds. His subtle phrasing is particularly impressive.
Then the guitars kick back in, the drums’ thunder is unleashed, and the voice rasps, roars, and shrieks through a noisier Deep Purple classic, “Burn,” with any vocal shortcomings lost in the melee and forgiven by the enthusiastic audience.