You have to question the wisdom of Motley Crue's decision to perform, as it did Friday at the San Manuel Amphitheater in San Bernardino, on a stage set to resemble a morgue.
The idea that this band is dead, after all, is not one that needs any help: Though it has stayed relatively active (in various permutations) since first emerging as a product of the early-'80s hair-metal scene, Motley Crue hasn't released a worthwhile album in 20 years. Its latest, last year's "Saints of Los Angeles," summoned some renewed energy but lacked any memorable tunes.
Additionally, the group features a guitarist, Mick Mars, whose signature look is more or less that of a corpse, as well as a bassist, Nikki Sixx, who wrote in his book "The Heroin Diaries" about the time he was thought to have expired as a result of a drug overdose.
Still, despite the ample evidence of their has-been status, these unlikely Sunset Strip survivors managed Friday to blow away the cobwebs and flash back to their glory days. Somehow they turned a morgue into a place of life.
At least one of the secrets of their success was song selection: As the headliner on its second annual Crue Fest tour -- other acts along for the ride include Godsmack, Theory of a Deadman and Drowning Pool -- Motley Crue is dedicating the first hour of its shows this summer to playing the entirety of "Dr. Feelgood," the band's 6-million-selling smash from 1989.
"Dr. Feelgood" -- the haunted-hospital artwork of which inspired the current tour's production design -- marked the last time that Mars, Sixx, singer Vince Neil and drummer Tommy Lee made a convincing marriage of glam-pop and hard-rock values; two years later, Nirvana released "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and relegated a cosmos of hair-metal stars to instant obsolescence. (In the eyes of some, that is: Before "Time for Change" on Friday, Neil acknowledged that he and his bandmates had witnessed a lot of transformation over the last two decades, "some good and some bad." His words echoed those of Mickey Rourke in "The Wrestler," when Rourke's Crue-loving character says that "the '90s sucked.")
In San Bernardino, the band ripped through "Feelgood" hits like "Kickstart My Heart" and "Same Ol' Situation (S.O.S.)" with lurid party-boy menace, Mars' guitar snarling at top junk-punk volume. Lee drove the music not like the hip-hop dabbler he's become but like a hardened rocker in a hurry; when he descended from the drum riser in order to invite the audience to take part in "one big group hug in our minds," it was difficult to reconcile his goofy stoner-dude demeanor with his tightly focused playing.
The band even gave "Without You," one of its trademark power ballads, a sense of momentum that made the song feel vital. (The same couldn't quite be said for a sluggish rendition of "Home Sweet Home," which the band played during its set of non-"Feelgood" material.)
Who had this darn album on vinyl? Neil asked the crowd (in somewhat saltier language) before "Without You." "This one was at the end of Side 1."
Neil was lost in memories of more hospitable days, and for a little while he transported us along with him.