Hollywood Vampires were down one legend after Aerosmith’s Joe Perry’s was forced to stay home and recuperate from pulmonary issues that had caused him to collapse backstage at Madison Square Garden in November.

But knowing his doctors expect him to make a full recovery, the 17th annual Alice Cooper’s Christmas Pudding concert was as festive as it’s ever been, from an early set set by Proof is in the Pudding guitar hero Conrad Varela to the grand finale. 

Ending the night with an all-star rendition of Chuck Berry’s “Run, Rudolph, Run” is a Pudding tradition. This year, that all-star rendition included two surprise guests – Nita Strauss, who had her own show that same night in Scottsdale, and the woman she replaced in Cooper’s band, Orianthi. 

Alice Cooper, Johnny Depp

This was after a crowd-pleasing headlining set by the Vampires, featuring Cooper and Johnny Depp, who commands the stage with the presence you’d expect from looking at him while bringing more than swagger to the table on guitar.

If you’re looking for flash, he’s no Strauss (or Varela). But he’s great at the kind of guitar he plays, which is more in the Chuck-Berry-filtered-through-Dave-Davies blues-punk tradition. 

The Vampires opened strong with the muscular post-Stooges forward momentum of “I Want My Now,” following through with the equally raucous “Raise the Dead” and “As Bad As I Am.”

They’re more a band now than they were the first time they played Pudding in 2016, with more original material to share.

And they kept the focus on the strength of that original material as they made their way through “The Boogieman Surprise,” “My Dead Drunk Friends” and – “just to you show we’re not a one-trick pony,” as Cooper introduced it – “Welcome to Bushwhackers,” a song that had more of a Sun Records rockabilly flavor. 

Then, they got back to their roots with a handful of covers, from “Baba O’Riley” by the Who, complete with a synth loop, to David Bowie’s “Heroes,” with Depp really making a case for himself as a front man, Cooper playing blues-harp on “The Jack” by AC/DC and bassist Chris Wyse assuming the vocal spotlight on a raucous “Ace of Spades.”

They closed their proper set the way you’d close your proper set if you were them, with “School’s Out.” After all, as I heard Cooper tells his bandmates while discussing setlist order during soundcheck, “Generally, you can’t do anything after ‘School’s Out’.” True enough.

Then they brought everyone back for an endearingly sloppy rendition of “Run, Rudolph, Run” with one guitar solo after another. 

Spotlight on the Rock Teen Center 

Nearly five hours earlier, the concert began with a song by the Rock Teen Center’s percussion ensemble, the Solid Rock Bucket Brigade with the Teen Center’s music director Court Stumpf on guitar.

For 17 years, the Christmas Pudding concert has raised funds to underwrite the building and now operation of Cooper’s the Rock Teen Center, an idea Sheryl Cooper recalled taking shape at her kitchen table more than 20 years ago. 

As such, a portion of the night is always given over to reminding ticketholders why we’re here, from the video testimonials to heartfelt speeches, and raising funds in a series of auctions. This year’s auction items included a wardrobe case of Cooper’s full of actual costumes worn on stage, and an autographed guitar by Depp that fetched $31,000.

That connection to the Rock Teen Center is further underscored by a handful of performances by acts connected to the Center, from the Bucket Brigade to the Solid Rock Dancers (with special guests Footklan) and the winners of the Alice Cooper Proof is in the Pudding content.

Proof is in the Pudding winners rock

Varela, this year’s solo winner, opened with a dizzying display of talent on a playful Christmas medley that featured “Adeste Fideles” and “Winterland Wonderland” and earned a standing ovation from many in the crowd. Then, he played an original song that earned an even more enthusiastic and genuine standing ovation.

I’m assuming those who didn’t stand just couldn’t pick their jaws up off the floor in time. As Cooper told me, “Conrad could be playing for just about any touring band right now out there.” He’s that good. 

After the concert’s first auction, the band that won that Proof is in the Pudding contest, Undecided Youth, took the stage and proceeded to show you what it took to win. As Cooper said of 16-year-old Summer Welsh’s presence at the finals, “You’re born with that charisma. You can’t develop charisma. You either have it or you don’t.”

She definitely has it, rocking the stage with conviction in a fringed outfit that looked like something a young Tina Turner might have worn. They’re also blessed in Connor Kelly with a lead guitarist whose presence is just as commanding if more restrained. 

Undecided Youth performs during the 17th annual Alice Cooper’s Christmas Pudding concert on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018, at Celebrity Theatre in Phoenix. (Photo: Sean Logan/The Republic)

They opened with “Breathin,” a headbanging track from their self-titled EP that served as a powerful showcase for Welsh’s formidable vocal chops and featured a solo from Kelly that rocked the blues like a young Jimmy Page.

Then, they dusted off their hard-rock reinvention of “The Grinch,” which made the most of Welsh’s over-the-top theatricality, especially on the spoken parts. 

Beasto Blanco with Calico Cooper

The first of the national acts to take the stage on this year’s Pudding bill was Beasto Blanco with Calico Cooper and Cooper bassist Chuck Garric. 

When I spoke to Calico before the show, she said her character is based on “the part of you that’s feral” and further noted “Beasto is a werewolf set loose on the stage.” And Saturday’s performance definitely lived up to the promise of Cooper’s description. 

After setting the tone for their performance with a song called “Beasto Blanco,” Garric snarling, “Hell yeah, it’s a freak show,” Cooper grabbed a spiked bat, which she brandished like a proper movie monster, as they launched into “Death Rattle,” which featured Garric on harmonica.

And by their final song, which featured Cooper on lead vocals, she was spraying the crowd with a smoke gun. It was intense and as feral as promised with actual hooks to back up the theatrics, especially “Death Rattle.”

Sebastian Bach’s voice is 18 for life

Sebastian Bach’s entire set was taken from Skid Row’s self-titled debut, which hit the streets in 1989. And if his voice has aged a day since then, you couldn’t tell. It was a stunning show of vocal prowess. 

As Larry the Cable the Guy asked at the end of Bach’s performance, “Sebastian, how do you still hit them damn notes?”

Then, or course, it turned into a joke. “Unbelievable. Seventy-nine years old.” 

In reality, Bach is 50, but he doesn’t sound it and/or act it. And his loopy cult of personality helped put across the youth-centric appeal of Skid Row songs as ageless as “18 and Life” and “Youth Gone Wild.”

Speaking of voices, Gretchen Wilson

Country singer Gretchen Wilson also brought some vocal pyrotechnics to the mix with her set-closing cover of Heart’s “Barracuda.” 

If all you knew of Wilson was her Grammy-winning breakthrough single, “Redneck Woman,” you might think that Heart song fell outside her Southern Comfort zone. But Wilson nailed it. 

She opened her set with a spirited “Here for the Party,” then asked “Do we have any rednecks in the house tonight?” by way of introducing “Redneck Woman,” which inspired more singing along than you may have imagined for a 21st Century country song performed at Alice Cooper’s Christmas Pudding. 

More cowbell with Blue Oyster Cult

Blue Oyster Cult’s Eric Bloom and Buck Dharma were the final musical attractions to perform before the Vampires, treating the crowd to three songs anyone who’s ever listened to rock radio should know by heart, “Burnin’ For You,” “Godzilla” and “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper.”

Like Wilson and Bach, they were backed by the members of Sixwire, whose lead guitarist did an admirable job of keeping up with Dharma on that dual guitar lead on “Burnin’ For You.”

Dharma is a true guitar god and it showed, especially when he stretched out on the epic jam that brought their all-too-brief performance to a close during “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper,” with guest cowbell by Vampires drummer Glen Sobel.

Larry the Cable Guy for comic relief 

The night was hosted by Larry the Cable Guy, who rose to the occasion with some really funny jokes and even funnier asides. 

When he performs, he said, he likes to come out and imagine everybody naked. “I’m not nervous,” he said. “I’m just a pervert.”

After telling the crowd the maid at his hotel had walked in on him naked at 3 in the morning, he said, “What the hell is a maid doing on an elevator at 3 in the morning?”

He got big laughs all night long, in fact, and kept the show’s momentum going through the changeovers so that the night flew by. 

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