Jack Russell's Great White
Michael Olivieri Band

May 4, 2012
Coach House
San Juan Capistrano, CA

Review by Shawn Perry
Photos by Glen Willis

OK, I’ll say it: It’s kind of surreal for me to see local, hometown musicians — people you knew about when they were still trying to make it — transform over time into classic rock acts. Which isn’t to say Great White, or more to the point, Jack Russell’s Great White, is your typical, garden-variety classic rock band. They are, however, integral to what became known as ’80s hair metal by virtue of their early achievements.

In 1983, they released Out Of The Night, a four-song EP produced by Don Dokken. The record gained a generous amount of airplay on LA’s legendary radio station, KMET. This led to a record deal with EMI and a somewhat inauspicious run that included tours with bands like Whitesnake and Judas Priest, and eventually platinum success with their albums, 1987’s Once Bitten… and its follow-up, 1989’s …Twice Shy.

As with most of their peers, the ’90s and ’00s were not all that kind to Great White, who persevered in the face of their diminished popularity. It was the infamy of an unfortunate fatal fire at a Rhode Island gig that put Great White back into the spotlight, albeit one the band would have rather avoided. Details of the aftermath are foggy, but apparently substance abuse and health issues eventually sidelined singer Jack Russell and put the group’s future in jeopardy.

At one point, Warrant singer Jani Lane was brought in as a temporary replacement. Lane, of course, had his own history of problems that ultimately claimed his life in the summer of 2011. Russell told Vintage Rock in January 2012 that Lane’s passing served as a powerful wake-up call. The singer’s rehabilitation has, unfortunately, been tainted by acrimony between himself and the other members of Great White — so much so that the rift has produced TWO Great Whites circling the same audience. Yeah, it’s time to cue the Jaws theme.

While the version without Russell is releasing a new album, Jack Russell’s Great White, as it is now officially known, are playing out, showing audiences that despite all odds, the singer still has the goods. For his performance at the Coach House before a hometown crowd, Russell clearly gave his all, keeping his spirits up despite technical difficulties and his own recuperation from years of mayhem and its lingering effects.

Before Russell’s Great White hit the stage, another survivor from the ’80s and his band played a remarkable set. Michael Olivieri, known as the lead singer for Leatherwolf, was something of an anomaly at the Coach House that night. Like Russell, he’s from Orange County and nurtured a loyal following as a hard rock/metal vocalist. With his own M.O.B. (Michael Olivieri Band), the singer has switched gears — abandoning the heavy-handed tactics of Leatherwolf and embracing a rootsier hybrid flowing over with blues, country and even a sprinkling of gospel.

It’s a risky endeavor, playing uplifting, almost spiritual music with seemingly unending possibilities like Olivieri’s before a fist-raising crowd of middle-aged hard rockers. It probably helps that the singer, whose lifestyle never reeled into the insane asylum, still retains a full mane of shakable, youthful rock ‘n’ roll hair, along with a charismatic smirk, to get all the ladies giddy. And then there’s the band’s insurmountable talent — collectively and as individual players.

Guitarist K.K. Martin’s economical, meticulous fretwork may have confounded those inclined to favor the shred of a hard rock apprentice, but that’s the whole point. A journeyman of incalculable fortitude, Martin and his guitarist cohort Buzzy James simply did everything right to serve songs like “More Than I Do,” “Old Souls” and “Dead Man Crawl.” Even as the 45-minute set rang with a refined sense of musicality and dynamics, considerable muscle from drummer Paul Wilson and bassist Tom Croucier gave the songs an infectious, thumping swing that appealed to the audience.

Once M.O.B. finished, it was reasonable to wonder if they were a good fit on the bill. Aside from Olivieri’s hard rock origins, his band’s whole style and approach is entirely different from Jack Russell’s Great White. Yet, reaction was fairly positive, commonly framed around bewildering statements like, “This guy is really from Leatherwolf? Well, I think I like it.” And off they went, all grown up with a broadened appreciation, to buy the CD. Well, let’s hope so.

When Jack Russell’s Great White hit the stage around 10:30, the audience was more than ready to take that trip back in time. A well-paced introduction — with the theme from Jaws worked in for good measure — had each musician taking his place before Russell climbed aboard. Immediately, the band popped right into the 1991 mainstream rock hit, “Call It Rock & Roll,” and off we went.

Unfortunately, the momentum was cut short when guitarist Matthew Johnson’s (a former member of the other Great White) amp blew. This sent the band, their crew and the Coach House’s sound personnel into a mad scramble for a back-up, while a few of the anxious attendees hemmed and hawed uncomfortably in their seats. During the near 20-minute delay, Russell and lead guitarist Robby Lochner made some lighthearted remarks before disappearing behind the skull and crossbones screens that strategically shielded the backline.

When things like this happen, it makes the experience that much more real. And like the pros that they are, Russell and his band rose above it and jumped right back into the fray. Since re-emerging back into the public eye, Russell has weathered a fair share of criticism about how he looks and, more importantly, how he sounds.

As far as I’m concerned, Russell has aged like the rest of us, and his adapted Johnny-Depp-as-Captain-Jack-Sparrow image does little to diminish the sentiment. The beauty of it all is how the singer seems to acknowledge it with a wink and a smile. “I’ll bet you didn’t expect to see me,” he announced early on. “It’s been a long, hard road.”

Despite a slight limp and not as much energy as a 20-year-old, Russell sang with conviction and purity. Hearing “On Your Knees” from Out Of The Night was like reliving 1983. It got even better when the faithful sang along and the players segued into a rough and ready version of Led Zeppelin’s “Achilles Last Stand.” Later, Lochner’s extended guitar solo gave Russell a brief break before the singer bounced back effortlessly with “House Of Broken Love.”

Surrounded by younger guns like Lochner, bassist Dario Seixas and drummer Derrick Pontier (another recent former member of the other Great White), Russell seems willfully revitalized, determined to overcome any and all obstacles and simply get down to the business of rocking and rolling. He led the way through an array of Great White favorites. “Lady Red Light” and “Desert Moon” (featuring Russell on cowbell) ably buttered up the flock before “Rock Me” and an encore of “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” showcased the very best, with that distinct, assured vocal out in front.

In recent interviews, Russell has stated emphatically that when a band loses its singer, it loses it identity. There are valid arguments on both sides of the fence, but in the case of a band like Great White, Russell is probably right. And though it’s confusing to have two, and even sillier for grown men to air their laundry in public and squabble about a band name, it’s nice to have Captain Jack back where he belongs.

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