Up onstage where Elvis once performed are John Payne and Robin McAuley, and they are howling some classic rock ’n’ roll. The selection at the moment is Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” and the song’s sonic force thunders through LVH Theater.
A guy wearing a bandana tied tightly around his head is standing in the aisle, observing the band’s roaring rendition. He is watching as if he has a great investment in the people and things onstage, including the five video screens, a DJ booth and a vault professed to be filled with rock riches.
He is “Sir” Harry Cowell, one of the producers of the hybrid production show and rock concert “Raiding the Rock Vault,” opening tonight at LVH (tickets are $49 and $79, with a $100 VIP meet-and-greet offered).
“Sir Harry,” as he is universally but not entirely accurately titled (this British night owl is not an actual knight) is asked how he likes the show’s progress.
What is the biggest challenge?
“Getting bums in the seats,” he says.
Hey. Who you calling …
“Rear ends, I should say,” he adds, “but they can be the rear ends of bums. We don’t care. As long as they are here and having a good time.”
The plot for “Raiding the Rock Vault” provides just that. This is a rock show featuring universally popular rock classics played by actual classic rockers. At the front is Payne, onetime bassist and vocalist of Asia who (along with Grammy Award-wining producer David Kershenbaum) envisioned and drafted a concept more fanciful than simply mobilizing a bunch of musicians to play cover songs. Sir Harry stresses he is not in the band; he is the CEO of the production company Papa Entertainment, which has invested more than $1 million in a show that is contracted to run for a year at LVH.
The “Rock Vault” band is further bolstered by guitarist Howard Leese of Heart and Bad Company (he is known to pack guitar picks noting his spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, inducted with Heart), guitarist Tracii Guns of Guns N’ Roses and LA Guns, Paul Shortino of Rough Cutt and Quiet Riot (and also a frequenter of many live-music venues and even hockey arenas throughout the city), drummer Jay Schellen (Badfinger and Asia), vocalist/guitarist Andrew Freeman (the Offspring and Lynch Mob), and keyboardist Michael T. Ross (Lita Ford and Hardline).
A stream of guest vocalists will join the show, beginning with Bobby Kimball of Toto and Joe Lynn Turner of Rainbow and Deep Purple at the end of the month.
Musically, the show is adventurous in its wide reach of legitimate rockers to play the greatest rock songs of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. But that has been done, with such rock acts as Steel Panther turning the formula into an art form. Many of the “Rock Vault” players had never taken part in a cover project — they were pretty busy recording and touring with the bands who released those songs. So the idea became, “Let’s make a show of it.”
“We can have a core band with a bunch of great songs, but it became clear that we wanted it to be a great trip down memory lane,” Payne says. “It’s like a history lesson, much more of a rockumentary than a traditional rock concert.”
But it stops short of playing out as a proper musical. This is not a “book” show in the tenor of “Million Dollar Quartet” at Harrah’s or “Rock of Ages” at Venetian. The musicians are not focused on a single era or event, and they don’t play characters. They play instruments.
Even so, there is a thread of a plot. The story arc following the time-honored rock theme of time travel, made famous by such varying artists as Rush with “2112” and Spinal Tap with its backward glance at “Stonehenge” (and the “Tap” connection is strengthened by Shortino, who played Duke Fame in that classic satirical rock classic).
The story starts in 3012 and winds back to 1948, about the time when the term “rock and roll” was born. The musical adaptation kicks off in the 1960s, with “My Generation” by the Who, and the show draws from the Beatles, the Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, Led Zep, the Eagles, Queen, Van Halen, AC/DC, Journey, Free, Bon Jovi, Supertramp, Toto, Foreigner, Def Leppard and Deep Purple.
The set list is malleable, tilting to whatever guest vocalists are visiting the show — expect more Toto tunes when Kimball is onstage, and Deep Purple for Turner’s stint. A sample of the songs from the ’80s/MTV era: “Livin’ on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi, “Separate Ways” by Journey, “Run to You” by Bryan Adams, “Amageddon It” by Def Leppard, “Rosanna” by Toto, “Jump” by Van Halen and “Juke Box Hero” by Foreigner.
Already it is audibly apparent “Rock Vault” might be the loudest show ever in the Hilton/LVH theater. That’s not much of a distinction if you consider that Liberace, Liza Minnelli and Johnny Mathis have played the room. But so have such rock acts as ZZ Top and the similarly styled rock show "Monster Circus," which pulled out after a three-month run at the then-LV Hilton in the spring of 2009. That show was also an all-star lineup of veteran rockers — Dee Snider, John Corabi and Rudy Sarzo among them — playing along to something of a theme (though that show was very heavy on “monster” and fairly light on “circus”).
What separates “Raiding the Rock Vault” is its vast staging, an ominous set evoking the images of a 1980s Ozzy Osbourne world tour, and such cleverly placed elements as a DJ representing each era. That is an inspired touch, as veteran voiceover actor Richard Malmos (whose work includes a year stint as the announcer for “The Late Show With Craig Ferguson”) performs as a DJ from a 1960s AM station, a '70s FM station, and finally as an MTV video jock. And who among us would have expected to yearn nostalgically for the days of J.J. Jackson?
The reach back to the static days of rock played on AM stations has shifted Payne into a position of part-time rock educator. He is asked which AM station is specified in the show but doesn’t quite hear the question right. He hears it as, “What is AM radio?”
And Payne patiently states, “Well, AM was the first method of broadcasting rock music, and it was a mono broadcast …”
Seated next to him, Sir Harry laughs, “Oh, dear.”
“Oh!” Payne says, correcting himself and noting that KHJ is the AM station used in the show. The Los Angeles station was a formidable top-40 AM outlet in the 1960s. KLOS, a co-promoter of the production at the The Mayan Theater in L.A. last year, is the FM station. The periods are tidily compartmentalized as AM in the ’60s, FM in the ’70s and MTV in the ’80s.
Plans beyond the stage show include a few versions of the show to play across the country, similar to how Trans-Siberian Orchestra bloomed to become one of the world’s top orchestral rock productions. The crew hopes to have “Raiding the Rock Vault” productions touring at the same time the main show is playing Vegas. Also, Payne has taken over a dressing room at LVH once used by Elvis to record tracks for an upcoming soundtrack double-album. There is an idea banging around that the music will be issued as an actual vinyl, foldout album, just like the old days.
But before any of that can happen, the show needs bums. Lots of them. In the seats. Pronto.