Considering he's a famed 62-year-old guitarist who stepped out of the metal scene for more than a dozen years between his time in Badlands and the 2014 self-titled debut of new band Red Dragon Cartel, you couldn't blame fans for salivating at the return to the Alamo City of Jake E. Lee on Friday night.
Lee, who oh by the way replaced the late Randy Rhoads in Ozzy Osbourne's band on iconic releases Bark at the Moon in 1983 and The Ultimate Sin in 1986, co-writing several non-credited songs along the way, is the feature component of Red Dragon Cartel. Along with oft-maligned vocalist Darren James Smith, drummer Phil Varone and the bassist on Lynch Mob's inaugural and best album Wicked Sensation in 1990, Anthony Esposito, Lee's visit had the potential to be shattering in terms of volume and entertainment value. At least on paper.
But it was another piece of paper where Red Dragon Cartel came up short. The choice of songs.
Touring in support of sophomore release Patina, a more bluesy record than the first RDC album, Lee understandably set out to promote the latest effort. Unfortunately, he did so at the expense of the majority of his Badlands years, shunning his Osbourne material almost entirely and scaling back on Red Dragon Cartel's heavy debut.
Playing a 13-song set, Lee opted to perform 80 percent of his new album -- eight of its 10 tracks -- out of those 13 offerings. Lee waited too long to throw the audience a Badlands bone, saved his shockingly lone Osbourne offering for a Bark at the Moon 2002 re-issue bonus track that was truly just for the diehards in "Spiders" (ATM footage below), didn't realize that some fans departed following the fourth, fifth and sixth songs after hearing nothing but Red Dragon Cartel material and, in letting only his stellar guitar skills do the talking, said nary a word to the crowd. Other than a pair of male fans jumping up and down repeatedly, the audience spent more time wondering when a recognizable Osbourne or Badlands track was coming and filming with their phones instead of pumping fists or tossing up horns.
That Lee didn’t speak was perfectly fine. His absence from the metal scene rekindled desires to hear him play, not chat. And shred he did. But even that came with a caveat, as the somewhat reclusive axeman spent 99 percent of the 75-minute performance on the left side of the stage. Lee ventured just once to the right half to tell Esposito something before playing in the middle solely on finale "Feeder," one of only two tracks from the self-titled record. Even when Lee kept to his comfortable stage left, he often turned to the side, facing one or two crew members standing there, and the wall, rather than the people who paid to see him amaze them with his skills.
The formation of Red Dragon Cartel got off to an inauspicious start in 2013, and Smith will always be measured against that, as unfair as it may seem as time passes. During Red Dragon Cartel's inaugural concert at the Whisky a Go Go in Hollywood, an inebriated Smith jumbled lyrics to Osbourne songs in a less-than-solid performance. After Lee and Smith were said to have ironed out some issues, the guitarist took what many may have seen as a gamble by bringing Smith back for Patina. To his credit, Smith is more than credible on the album and carried it over to the Rock Box, though he admitted when the group finally got around to playing "3-Day Funk" by Badlands: “This song might truly kill me!” (ATM Facebook Live footage here; setlist in 57-photo slideshow below).
While some may point out Red Dragon Cartel played the Rock Box on Nov. 18, 2014 (with a different bassist and drummer) and offered up some Osbourne tracks that night, the fact remains Lee's career, which also involved playing in Rough Cutt, is mostly known for being one of the madman's guitar sidekicks. Lee also would've been better served by keeping in mind that because of his lengthy sabbatical, Friday's concert was witnessed not only by those who brought his classic records to the meet-and-greet that he graciously autographed, but by many seeing him live for the first time. Even Michael Jordan played meaningless NBA preseason games that took place in cities without professional franchises because he was mindful many at those exhibitions were watching him play for the first, and perhaps only, time in their lives.
Ironically, Lee’s bassmate on The Ultimate Sin, Phil Soussan, was scheduled to play the same stage three weeks earlier on Valentine's Day with Last In Line only to see that gig canceled, presumably due to low ticket sales. While Lee had no such issues, the approximately 150 fans who showed up, though paltry by "Heavy Metal Capital" standards, deserved to hear a couple of tracks from that classic record. Or at least more than a show dominated by Patina. Playing a set vastly different from his previous visit and dominating it with new material would’ve been fine if that previous visit occurred within the past two years rather than a 4 1/2-year gap.
That said, the only other Badlands offering was arguably the highlight of the night as Smith gutted out "High Wire" for the first of two encores after admitting he was “scared” to attempt the high-pitched sound of the late Ray Gillen (ATM Facebook Live footage here). Badlands' biggest hit "Dreams in the Dark" was performed in 2014 but not on this night. Nor were other favorites “Winter's Call," "Hard Driver" or "Rumblin' Train." It would've been nice to hear the band try.
It also was odd that in a group where a legendary guitarist is the featured member, the only solo belonged to Varone on drums. The fact that tracks from The Ultimate Sin such as the title track, "Killer of Giants," "Secret Loser" or even MTV smash "Shot in the Dark" were ignored and that Lee's mesmerizing ending to "Bark at the Moon" was omitted meant most fans did not get what they expected to see and hear.
Five or six songs from Patina would have served Lee's purpose of promoting his new album and still satiated the crowd’s appetite. Eight new tunes at the expense of his more well-known eras, however, was like eating the Caesar salad only to find out the restaurant would have to close prior to receiving that fat juicy steak you looked forward to before leaving the house.
Hopefully one of rock and metal’s best guitarists ever will keep that in mind while remembering the Alamo City would love to see him return. With a better choice of his great music expressed for all to experience.