Upon entering the Miller Lite Grandstand Arena at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, it was unclear what should be expected of Poison frontman Bret Michaels’ stage show. The crowd, a hodgepodge of crushed pink cowboy hats, obvious jailbait and Bret Michaels look-alikes (they exist), seemed utterly enthralled by the Jumbotron. When Michaels emerged from stage right, however, and launched into Poison’s first real hit, “Talk Dirty to Me” (also known as the best song Slade never wrote), one thing became entirely clear: Bret Michaels is more of a salesman than a frontman, and he’s a great one at that.
Watching Bret Michaels is part frat party, part meditation on the nature of celebrity. Sporting far less eyeliner than he did in his heyday and breaking the cardinal rule of rock ’n’ roll by wearing his own tour shirt to the gig, Michaels didn’t look like someone desperately clinging to fame, but rather like someone successfully sustaining the autumn of his career. Sticking to a tight set list and backed by truly talented musicians, Michaels was able to keep the momentum of the show high while downplaying his limitations as a vocalist. He vowed to “bring it because we’re ready to go!” in a classically campy hair band manner. He knows he does not have David Lee Roth’s chops nor the majestic stage presence of, say, Marc Bolan, but he also knows exactly what his audience wants and he knows how to deliver it.
What did the audience want? Hits! Did they get them? You bet, although the few cover songs interspersed with Poison’s glam metal pop were a bit lopsided. Chugging through “Sweet Home Alabama” is pretty much the easiest way to pander to a crowd and a little strange coming from a Pennsylvania native to an arena in California. Michaels probably disagreed, exclaiming, “I’m all fired up right now!” He broke out a harmonica and led a sing-along to a honky-tonk version of Loggins and Messina’s “Your Mama Don’t Dance,” relying on the audience to fill in the “and your daddy don’t rock and roll” part, and he did it joyously.
What keeps Bret Michaels famous after a 25-year-plus career is his commitment to showmanship. He could have played two hours’ worth of new material, a move that usually sends people streaming toward the exits, but he elected to perform Poison’s smashes, adding extra crowd-pleasers to each, such as a little slap bass and maracas to “Unskinny Bop.” An unexpected but welcome turn was the extended syncopated drum solo that somehow became more suited for Tool’s “Lateralus” than for a song presumably about a groupie.
Another surprise was the fact that Michaels did not conclude with “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” the sappy breakup paean to a stripper. Instead, he plunked it mid-set and, not afraid to poke a little fun at himself, he stopped before the ending and deadpanned, “Here’s the very dramatic acoustic guitar ending.”
Concluding with an exuberant “Nothing but a Good Time” and an A+ karaoke version of Kiss’ “Rock and Roll All Nite,” Bret Michaels accomplished exactly what he set out to do: he brought it, whatever “it” was.