Standing behind a podium, delivering a speech is not where you normally picture Motley Crue's Nikki Sixx, Motorhead's Lemmy or Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains, but the rockers took turns doing just that on Thursday. The three were at the L.A. House of Blues to honor their comrade in rock, Slash, and kick off the weekend's Sunset Strip Music Festival. "We've both faced a lot of demons," Sixx, his hair long, spiky and black, said of Slash, who practically grew up on Sunset Boulevard. "And it's insane we both have the same hair styles as we did 20 years ago."
Some things do change. The Sunset Strip Fest, now in its third year, is an emerging event in West Hollywood designed to draw heat back to the the site of legendary club shows by the Doors, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen and Jane's Addiction, among hundreds of other essential acts. Recent generations of fans and bands have followed the new sounds and media buzz shifting east to the neighborhoods of Echo Park and Silver Lake, the home of Silversun Pickups.
Club owners on the Strip want the fans back, and over the weekend, they managed to draw 12,000 of them (up 2,000 from last year). Among the attractions: Live sets from Smashing Pumpkins, Slash himself, and a broad group that included Travie McCoy, Common, Kid Cudi, and synth-revivalists Neon Trees. More than 65 mostly young acts performed on two outdoor stages and inside the Roxy, Whisky, Cat Club and Key Club.
"It's very poignant to me on a personal level," Slash told Rolling Stone backstage at the House of Blues, shortly before the West Hollywood mayor declared it "Slash Day." "I learned to play guitar and started bands here when I was 16. And Guns N' Roses obviously was from here. We got together and rehearsed all over the Hollywood area, and our first gigs were all here."
On Saturday, Slash performed new songs and hits from Guns N' Roses and Velvet Revolver. He unfurled GNR's "Sweet Child O' Mine," firing off the closing riffs with his signature Les Paul behind his head. Fergie joined him for a surprisingly heavy encore, falling to her knees and then doing actual cartwheels during Slash's solo on Heart's "Barracuda."
Just as Slash's set ended on the big outdoor stage, former GNR drummer Steven Adler rolled up behind the Whisky with his band Adler's Appetite. After a career wipeout and years of self-destruction, the drummer was back on the Strip, playing the old GNR songs. "When we pulled up, I said that's what it used to look like when we were hanging around the Strip in the '80s," Adler said. "It was all about entertainment and excitement and being alive. Like it is tonight."
The original Smashing Pumpkins first played the Sunset Strip in 1991, and Corgan returned in June to the Viper Room, where he was heckled by his friend Perry Farrell during a ukulele interlude. Corgan's expectations were high for Saturday's Pumpkins set. "Every once in a while you get to play something where you can look back and say, 'That was really special,'" he reflected before a 17-song set that mingled old and new. "For them to close down this street means someone really wants to support this area, because it's a huge hassle."
On the opposite end of the street, Semi Precious Weapons uncorked spiky hard rock as singer Justin Tranter strutted through the crowd in glittery high heels before demanding fans join him onstage. "Is this the Sunset Strip or New York City?" he taunted the crowd. "Jump over the fucking barrier!"
Travie McCoy performed songs from his first solo album, Lazarus, with live beats from Gym Class Heroes drummer Matt McGinley. The result was a mash-up of styles that Roxy co-owner Nik Adler said "is really where the Strip is today — with someone who came from a hip-hop background, has very catchy hooks, but knows how to rock a bunch of people." Common likewise introduced warm, playful grooves with his three-piece band, rapping lover-man rhymes on "I Want You" and a teasing "Punch Drunk Love."
On the Strip, there are remnants of the old hard-rock/glam scene that birthed Crue, GNR and dozens of lewd tell-all books, but club owners say the boulevard of 2010 is best represented by the diversity of the lesser-known acts that played the festival's club stages this weekend. "It's what we do every day on the Strip," said the Roxy's Adler, a co-producer of the Sunset Strip fest, who was born the same year his father, Lou Adler, opened the nightclub in 1973. "We are a launch-pad, a foundation for what's next."
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