Welcome Back To My Nightmare: Alice Cooper introduces Steve Hunter in Columbus.

It’s a great time to be an Alice Cooper fan. Just last November, Alice wrapped up a 16-month world tour dubbed Theatre of Death, an over-the-top theatrical extravaganza propelled by his best band in years. In April, the original Alice Cooper Group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with a bombastic celebratory box set arriving in the summer. Next month will see the release of Welcome 2 My Nightmare, a conceptual sequel that reunites Alice with legendary producer Bob Ezrin and includes contributions from the ACG as well as veteran solo career collaborators. It would surely be permissible for the rock icon to take the summer off and relax.

But no. Not only has he been canvassing Europe and both North and South America since May, he is doing so under the banner of a new tour called No More Mr. Nice Guy. As the concert filler between Theatre of Death and the forthcoming Welcome 2 My Nightmare tour, it could easily have been a minimally produced affair in which Cooper & Co. make a few bucks off an assortment of greatest hits, and few would have complained. But Alice is firing on all cylinders right now, and his current show is no mere stopgap, as Wednesday’s date at the LC Pavilion in Columbus, Ohio proved.

In comparison to Theatre of Death, this tour is less theatrically ambitious. The key phrase there is “in comparison.” A simpler Alice Cooper show is still more theatrical than your average concert production. Thus, audiences are treated to many of the things they have come to expect from the Prince of Darkness, such as the appearance of a live boa constrictor and the always-crowd-pleasing decapitation by guillotine. Refusing to rest on his laurels, Alice has introduced a new gag this time around, a ridiculous 12-foot Alice puppet that sings the last few choruses of Feed My Frankenstein while stomping around the stage and clawing at the musicians. This, in itself, is worth the price of admission.

As visually captivating as the show is, however, it complements rather than overwhelms a supporting band that is continuing the excellent musicianship of the previous tour. Returning from Theatre of Death are bassist Chuck Garric and guitarist Damon Johnson, solid players who are as exuberant in their musical duties as they are at encouraging more participation from the crowd. New drummer Glen Sobel dutifully keeps the beat, while guitarist Tommy Henriksen tears around like a sugar-filled kid locked in a heavy metal candy store. They’re all great, but the real musical thrill for longtime Alice Cooper fans is the goateed rocker wearing a Remember the Coop t-shirt at stage left: the legendary Steve Hunter.

Coop fanatics were listening to Hunter even before they knew his name. It was he who ghosted as a session musician on 1973’s Billion Dollar Babies album, contributing classic solos to Sick Things and Generation Landslide. A couple years later, he became one of the regular players behind Alice’s new solo career. Hunter’s work is all over Welcome To My Nightmare, Alice Cooper Goes To Hell, Lace And Whiskey, and The Alice Cooper Show. Not only did he play on the supporting tours for those albums, he was also on board for the great Madhouse Rock tour, which promoted 1978’s From The Inside. In the pantheon of Alice Cooper notables, Steve Hunter occupies a platform alongside Dick Wagner, just below the original members of the ACG.

Four-guitar assault: Johnson, Garric, Henriksen, and Hunter.

Bringing Steve Hunter back for this tour was an unexpected treat, providing Alice with four guitarists instead of the customary three. The result is a fantastically full sound permeating a diverse setlist that dips into many different phases of Alice’s career, even leaving out a few perennials to make room for some deeper cuts. There are the hits, of course, and the obligatory Eighteen, Under My Wheels, School’s Out, Billion Dollar Babies, No More Mr. Nice GuyOnly Women Bleed and Poison were trotted out in Columbus, though the welcome presence of Hunter gave an extra dimension to these familiar tunes. Much more exciting, however, is what Alice has chosen to do with the rest of his set.

Brutal Planet fans get the title track as well as Wicked Young Man. Hair metal aficionados can whip their manes to Hey Stoopid. Devotees of that obscure 80’s era when Alice infused his character with a dose of New Wave punk may wet their pants at the opening notes of Clones. Nightmare enthusiasts are given not only the expected Cold Ethyl but also a full version of The Black Widow, which opens the show. ACG hardcores can rock out to Halo of Flies and Muscle of Love. And in this age when the presidential race starts long before an election year, everyone gets to cheer for an encore of Elected. Looking into the near future, Alice allows a peek at Welcome 2 My Nightmare by performing the first single, a Neal Smith-penned number called I’ll Bite Your Face Off.

The Columbus audience ate it up and then some, starting “Al-LICE!” chants between songs and lustily grabbing for tossed canes, fake hundred dollar bills, confetti-filled balloons, and other memorabilia. It was classic Alice, that unique and highly entertaining formula of great tunes and tongue-in-cheek, vaudevillian horror, all delivered with a wonderfully dry and surreal sense of humor. You can go to an Alice Cooper show and simply enjoy the songs, and it works on that level, just as anyone who doesn’t care for the music might be amused by the spectacle. For those who care to dig deeper, though, there are many subtleties to be savored.

And what of the old man, himself? At 63, age has diminished neither the theatrical appeal nor the vocal chops of Alice Cooper. In fact, the inescapable weathering of time has merely added depth to his deranged character. That hunched back, the famous beak of a nose (the most menacing profile since Margaret Hamilton), and the legendary scowl are only enhanced by wrinkles that suggest obstinate immortality. Alice even hams up the fact, doddering along like an old man during School’s Out, Old Man Cooper taunting the neighborhood brats to stay out of his yard or else.

As always, he played to the sympathies of the local crowd, sporting an Ohio State jersey for the encore. In a nod to the recent NCAA scandal, the number 2 and the name Pryor were crossed out with black tape. Cruel, perhaps, but then again, he did warn us: No More Mr. Nice Guy.