With guitar bands making a resurgence these days, we’re not only getting newer artists such as Greta Van Fleet, Dirty Honey and Rival Sons creating new music with a 70s feel but also bands that pay homage to the Rock of the 80s. For some, it’s a fitting tribute to the music. For others, such as Rock pranksters Steel Panther, it’s also it’s a tip of the hat to the look and debauchery of 80s hard rock as well. While they may come off at times as just a schlocky tribute band, to even get to that point musically they would have to be experts at their craft. It may not look like it but all of the jokes and irreverent behavior that makes them so outrageously fun takes a lot of work. It takes a blend of chops and shtick and without one, they really couldn’t have the other and be so successful. In fact, they have raised the bar (to their own dismay, I’m sure) of musical chops and comedy shtick that I’ve coined a new phrase for their insolence – Chopshtick!
Steel Panther first started out in 2003 as Metal Skool, playing 80s hard rock in clubs around Los Angeles. Guitarist Russell Parrish, along with singer Ralph Saenz, also played in a Van Halen tribute band called the Atomic Punks. After changing the band’s name to Steel Panther (and giving themselves new monikers as well), guitarist Russ Parrish (newly named Satchel) and vocalist Ralph Saenz (in guise as Michael Starr) recruited bassist Travis Haley (Lexxi Foxxx) and drummer Darren Leader (Stix Zadinia) and the lineup was set. Their debut album: “Feel the Steel” was nominated for a Grammy award in 2010 for best comedy album.
In this year of social distancing and empty concert halls, Steel Panther is one of the first bands to play a show together live. Their “Concert to Save the World” was a live stream event with all fans watching online – a LOT of fans. At my count there were in excess of fifteen thousand fans who paid their fifteen dollars to watch the live show. This is evidence to me that there is a lot of pent-up demand for live shows. In true Panther fashion, they even “piped-in” crowd noise and cheering after each song. They even made fun of the recorded fan noise and used it when cracking jokes. Musically, they were dead on, however. Running through songs such as “Eyes of the Panther”, “Community Property” and “Asian Hooker”, the jokesters were all business on the music end. In between songs the band would revert to its perverted comedy banter. This was Spinal Tap on steroids (or maybe Viagra™.)
In some surprise moments, the band was joined onstage by former Ozzy Osbourne and Quiet Riot bassist Rudy Sarzo as they played their hit “Wrong Side of the Tracks.” Sarzo stayed on stage while Ozzy himself joined the band as they ran through “Crazy Train.” This was Ozzy’s first appearance since neck surgery earlier this year that forced him to cancel all of his 2020 tour dates (it was good to see you back, Oz.) Sports satirist Rob Riggle even came up on stage at one point and helped sing the chorus as the band played AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” The band rounded out the set with “Death to all but Metal” and the finale; “Glory Hole.”
Being labeled a comedy act doesn’t do them justice, however. Their talent musically is without question: Singer Saenz can sound like a multitude of hard/rock singers. At several points during their “Concert to Save the World”, he displayed a Rob Halford-like vocal range. He can also duplicate David Lee Roth’s “train whistle” vocalizations. He was always on key and his voice never wavered, despite the non-stop singing and in-between-the-songs banter that he and the band continuously conducted. To me, the standout in the band though, is Parrish.
Russell Parrish (aka Satchel) is a 1989 graduate of the Guitar Institute of Technology in Los Angeles. He became an instructor there after graduation. There, he met Paul Gilbert (Mr. Big, Racer X) and the pair played in a Racer X offshoot band – Bad Dog. At one point he rented a room from Gilbert and recorded demos in Gilbert’s home studio. Along the way he played in a Thin Lizzy tribute band, played with Dokken bassist Jeff Pilson in War and Peace and Rob Halford’s solo band – Fight. You don’t get asked to play in bands with stars of their caliber without having the chops. It is clear watching Parrish play that he has all of the technique his contemporaries; two-handed tapping, neo-classical scalular runs, sweeps, bluesy bends and whammy excursions, all played effortlessly and without reservation. In fact, I was so impressed by his playing I believe he is one of the more talented players out there. Though he likes to ham it up with the rest of the guys in his band and try to appear that both he and the others are a bunch of jokesters, he is a player of immense talent.
Normally taking a solo break during ‘Panther’s stage shows, Parrish abstained (there’s a word you’ll never hear Steel Panther say live or on record) during this set. His solos are a combination of technical expertise and cheeky humor. This isn’t a fair description though. I am including one of his solos done several years ago to give you all a sense of his ability and inventiveness. I literally have never seen anything like it and was pleasantly surprised:
He is every bit as good, if not better than Paul Gilbert, Nita Strauss or other contemporary players. Parrish is old school and he’s been to school on past greats as well as the current “competition.”
It was welcome sight to see live music return in band form, without having the members appear in separate windows in a Zoom or Instagram session. It was another alternative way to get music back in front of the fans. They were all together, on stage and making us all laugh while playing some great 80s-style Metal and why not? With almost all of us forcibly shut-in over the last few months, this was a perfect to start getting back to normal. Hopefully we can all go see one for real soon.
What’s your favorite Steel Panther song?