Las Vegas used to be the place where musicians were put out to pasture- the white suited Elvis and other stars to be filed under ‘oldies’. My partner grew up in the area and apparently in the eighties the big pop and rock tours of the day would never hit the city. Now that has all changed as bands have realised money is to be made in the ever expanding showbiz capital of the world and there are no shortage of performance venues in which to do so.
Among numerous acts doing residencies this year are three of the biggest classic rock acts in Journey, Aerosmith and Def Leppard. Sheffield’s finest were early adopters of a Vegas residency when, after opening for themselves as Ded Flatbird, they played ‘Hysteria’ in its entirety, a concept that finally hit the UK on last winter’s tour and at Download in June.
Six years on, this was the first of a 12 night residency in a bowl shaped theatre that combined a spacious stage with the relatively intimate capacity for them of 5000 odd fans. They came from far and wide- judging by my straw poll, either side of a couple from southern California and a group from near the Texas’ border with Mexico, and with my party from New Mexico.
The question on many of the lips of us first night attendees was how they might use this residency to freshen up a setlist that has become rather predictable after a series of Greatest Hits-style tours. My personal, if perhaps forlorn, hope was that they would revisit more from their very first two albums.
However the set could not have opened with much more of a surprise: spotlights turned on Joe Elliott singing high up on one side of the stage and Rick Savage on the other strumming of all things an acoustic guitar, as they played the intro to ‘Die Hard The Hunter’.
While some of the audience seemed bemused, and Joe did struggle a little to carry the song at times, the way Phil Collen and Vivian Campbell traded the lead guitar solos with a rawness that was generally absent from their post-Hysteria world made it worth it.
Perhaps sensibly, rather than play another obscurity, the band went straight into ‘Animal’, particularly timely with Vegas signs prominent on the tradional neon lit backdrop to the song, followed by ‘Excitable’, rather surprisingly retained from the ‘Hysteria’ set but with Phil’s solo giving it a slightly rockier edge.
Inevitably on a first night there would be some teething troubles and ‘Promises’ sounded unusually disjointed by their standards, losing its way as it went along. There was a mix of songs that have been in and out of the set over recent years including ‘Slang’ which has never been a personal favourite, and ‘Foolin’ which certainly has, the third of that holy trinity of ‘Pyromania’ singles that broke them in the US and bridged the gap between their NWOBHM roots and their eventual more polished pop sound.
Around this point Joe mentioned they were going to rectify the fact the album had been somewhat overlooked on recent tours, and in another of the night’s surprises they played ‘Billy’s Got A Gun’. While great to hear, it wasn’t a complete success being a slightly plodding song. Joe actually sounded great on this occasion but the harmonies seemed to have a little less range than the original. Gallingly for me, the superior ‘Too Late for Love’ was played on some subsequent shows.
A fully electric version of ‘Bringing On The Heartbreak’, giving Vivian a chance to shine, segued as usual into ‘Switch 625’, given a bit more of a big production including a short drum solo from Rick Allen, at which point the stage went dark.
I wondered if it might be for an interval but very swiftly the lights came on again to reveal a makeshift stage deep into the audience at the front of the walkway, with Joe inviting each band member down in turn.
They have regularly done acoustic interludes over the years, but this was one with a difference, beginning with a couple of songs they had never performed in ‘Let Me Be The One’ and ‘We Belong’. The latter saw all five members sing a few bars each, leading to jibes- of the sort that used to be aimed at Joe’s contemporary Jon Bon Jovi – that the vocalist is not even the best singer in the band.
‘Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad’ got a welcome rescue from its undeserved mothballing since being a hit ballad at the time, and though a bit uneven, the way it closed with a precise vocal harmony was breathtaking. Only then did the acoustic set end in more usual fashion with ‘Two Steps Behind’ though the crowd singalong was disappointingly muted compared to previous shows I’ve seen.
With Joe still playing rhythm guitar, there was a surprise outing for ‘Now’ from the controversial ‘X’ album (funny how ‘Classic Rock’ raved about it at the time before disowning it) and was an interesting listen with a Darker ‘Slang’-era vibe allied to a greater pop sensibility on the chorus.
That was it for obscurities, as wisely for the rest of the set they resorted to the tried and tested polished hits that always get the crowd going, accompanied by immaculate choreography- ‘Rocket’ and ‘Lets Get Rocked’, which I used to hate but now rather enjoy as a fun live singalong.
On ‘Hysteria’ Phil and Viv seemed to swap a joke as they came down the walkway to play the twin solo, while my attention wandered trying to catch some of the magazine cuttings that formed the backdrop, while both played immaculate solos on ‘Love Bites’.
Vivian then cranked out the riff to ‘Armageddon It’ which even some rather meaningless sloganising flashed onto the screen could not spoil, and on that and ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’ Joe was working an enthusiastic crowd masterfully.
There was a disappointing choice of first encore in ‘Lets Go’, a more recent and rather lame Xerox of ‘sugar’ before the familiar finale: a singalong ‘Rock Of Ages’ with some great work from Phil, then he and Viv going down the catwalk to crank the riff to ‘ Photograph’, complete with another montage of the band’s history.
Those two songs will always be the bridge between the two eras of Leppard and provided a suitable climax to a more ‘Pyromania’ focused evening than usual. It also tipped their set over 2 hours for the first time in a long while. Nevertheless, given it was the first night of a residency I did wonder whether Joe for once would dispense with his ‘until next time and there will be a next time’ shtick, but it seems engrained as a catchphrase.
One of the hoariest old showbiz clichés is that ‘what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’. On this occasion I hope the opposite is the case and that the newly energised and refreshed Def Leppard set be taken around the world.
Review and photos by Andy Nathan
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In this two hour special David Randall plays a selection of the GRTR! reviewer choices for ‘Best of 2019′ and announces the results of the popular poll. First broadcast Sunday 22 December 2019.
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