Slash & Friends, live in Norway 2009

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In a forest in Norway, candles light the darkening glade, and men in black clothes and mirrored sunglasses mutter to each other in a strange tongue.

The Prince of Darkness is in residence and over by Slash’s tent a sinister creature is babbling bizarre oaths and muttering obscenities… But you don’t want to know about Ross Halfin - you wanna know about the shaven pussy, right? Right?

“We’re not hurting cats, are we?” Perla Hudson, aka Mrs Slash, is looking at John 5 with a comically arched eyebrow. John - the whizz kid guitar hero who’s surely the only man to have served time with both kd lang and Marilyn Manson - is sitting absentmindedly playing guitar, looking like butter wouldn’t melt.

“Oh no,” he says, “I usually take ’em out and kiss ’em.”

Ah, says Classic Rock, I heard about this. Someone asked for a shaven pussy on their rider. So it was you!

“I asked for a hairless cat,” corrects John. But earlier that afternoon, unable to find a bald moggy, the road crew had put two cats in a cage and left them in John 5’s dressing room, with a set of hair clippers on top and the unspoken message: shave ’em yourself.

“Well, I took your clippers,” says Perla, shuddering at the thought of inflicting cruelty on our feline friends: “If it’s a chicken I’ll snap its neck and do a whole thing with it, but a cat…” She makes an ‘aw-the-lickle-lovely-puddy-cats’ face.

“I love kitties,” says John, with a ‘well-I-love-skinning-the-little-fuckers’ face. If a hairless cat was on there, what else was on your rider? “A Kiss pinball machine,” he says.

Did you get it?

“No,” he laughs, “but I always ask for stuff like that to see how far people’ll go.”

Fifteen minutes later, at 10pm, we’re driving out of the forest and into broad daylight. It could be confusing if anyone actually knew what time it was. Everyone on the bus – Slash, Jason Bonham, John 5, bassist Chris Cheney, singer Franky Perez, piano player/singer Teddy ‘Zig Zag’ Andreadis, tour manager Pete Merluzzi – everyone has flown miles to be here, some through several time zones. No-one knows if it’s New York or New Year – we’re just doing what Pete Merluzzi says.

The bus snakes down from the dressing-room compound up in the forest and below we can see a 20,000-strong crowd in the natural bowl of the Quart festival site. The bus follows the track to a sharp dog-leg bend next to the perimeter fence. As the vehicle gets closer, people flock to to see who’s on board. A kid spots Slash’s hat and starts screaming. A cheer starts up and people start piling towards the fence – which is when the driver realises he can’t turn around such a sharp corner. We stop next to a couple of hundred sun-burned, beer-distorted faces – then start reversing back a bit. We go back and forth a few times as the noise grows on the other side of the fence – a clamour of hysterical whoops. Fingers stretch through the fence. Wild, hungry eyes peer into the bus. Drooling mouths emit lustful cries… and then suddenly the bus is straight and we’re off to the stage.

“This is so Spinal Tap,” says someone.

Dawn Of The Dead, more like.

At 10.15pm, the band take to the stage and rip the arse out of Immigrant Song, destroy Highway To Hell and bulldoze into Nazareth’s Hair Of The Dog. Slash gives it soul and rock’n’roll swagger, John 5 is note-perfect, the rhythm section is deadly and singer Franky is a convincing frontman with the perfect rock voice. Witnessing possibly the greatest rock covers band ever, the crowd of zombies goes apeshit.

Now you’re messing with a son of a bitch…

The Quart festival takes place at the side of a fjord in Norway. One of the biggest music events in the country, it is most famous for an incident in 2004 when two people from a rainforest charity group called Fuck For Forest had sex on stage during a set by The Cumshots. Last year the festival promoters cancelled at the 11th hour citing poor ticket sales, so when a new promoter took over the event for 2009, they knew they’d have to go the extra mile to win punters back and make Quart unmissable. They hired A&R legend Tom Zutaut as booker. Tom spoke to an old buddy, and voila: Slash & Friends were booked – the ‘friends’ later announced as Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie Wood, Fergie (of the Black Eyed Peas), and an all-star band.

Slash & Friends is also the working title for the album the guitarist is currently recording in LA. Scheduled for release “somewhere between January and March” 2010, the record is “pretty much done” but still shrouded in secrecy, with the internet abuzz with rumours as to who exactly his ‘friends’ will be.

“The reason for the secrecy is that – the music is easy and getting everybody to do it is fine – but then there’s the red tape that has to do with getting clearances,” says Slash. “And I don’t want to overstep my whatevers and say that ‘so-and-so’s doing it’ and then find out that I caused some legal hassles.”

In years to come this period will be known as What Slash Did While Velvet Revolver Looked For A Singer They Could Live With. Or, just maybe, The Birth Of Slash & Friends. Think about it: an all-star album from the guitar hero of the moment (“Slash is a Jimmy Page for the 90s and 2000s,” says John 5) and, potentially, a touring band with a revolving A-list line-up – a Camp Freddy for the masses. It has potential to be a massive, crossover Santana-style success – to dwarf Velvet Revolver – doesn’t it?

“I have no idea,” says Slash, waving away the whole idea. “The whole reason for me doing the record is… You know, I always support whatever group I’m playing with – I’ll never say anything bad about them while I’m in it. But, fuckin’ Velvet Revolver – that was the toughest five years, just because of the obvious [Scott Weiland] and really, really bad management.

“For that entire five years I could never be happy. I could never get comfortable and happy with it because it was such a fuckin’ mess. That last tour in the UK was the first time I ever had any fun in that band – because I knew that Scott was leaving and it was a huge relief.

“But, all things considered, Scott to me is now like George Bush – I like him now that he’s not here. I have nothing bad to say about Scott, but he doesn’t work well with others in a group situation. So towards the end I had written a bunch of music and there were a lot of restrictions because of him writing in Velvet and a lot of stuff that I wanted to do was just sort of squelched.

“I was writing a lot of material and on that last UK tour I started taping a lot of stuff, and when I got home I was like: ‘I need to get away from this group situation – I just need to be in control of something and do things my own way.’ So it was a relief. It’s not really about trying to make the biggest record in the world, but I will support it. I’ll go out there and do what I have to do to make sure that people listen to it ‘cos I think it’s a cool record. And how that affects Velvet Revolver? Well, Duff’s on tour, I’m doing my record, so it’s sort of at a standstill. I haven’t heard any amazing submissions from singers as of late, so… Y’know, Velvet when it finds the right guy will be amazing, but I’m in no rush. I’m not freaking out – because that’s how we got Scott in the first place. He was the first decent guy that came up.”

Meantime, there’s this gig to set tongues wagging. Surely Franky Perez is going to be seen as the frontrunner for the VR spot after this? “I thought about that,” says Slash. “Franky’s fucking bad-ass. You know, he did some time with Velvet last year but I think because I was so preoccupied with my record nothing really came of it.

“We’ll see what happens. When my record comes out there’s going to be a lot of different things that I can do, so as far as Velvet is concerned we’re going to be on a hiatus until we can lock together and [work out] our options. I don’t know if Franky is going to be the guy – he’s just a really, really good singer.”

Perez, a Las Vegas rocker who’s worked with System Of A Down side-project Scars On Broadway, is also a solo artist who released a debut album on Universal in 2003. Ironically, the country-tinged anthemic rock of that album is similar to the country rock of Shooter Jennings, another singer linked with the VR job after he told Classic Rock’s Henry Yates in March this year: “They’ve asked me twice, dude. I’ve done a couple of shows with those guys, and they asked me a couple of years ago and they asked me again last year to be the singer. And it pained my heart not to say yes, because those guys are the best players in the world…”

When the story blew up online, and Duff and Slash issued denials, Classic Rock a) asked Henry to check his tape (to find that, yes, Shooter did say exactly that) and b) went back to Jennings for clarification. Via his PR, Jennings stressed that wires had been crossed: he had been “asked about the possibility of jamming with these guys to see where it would go twice” and “given tracks to audition to, not an offer to be the singer flat out, but in both cases I quietly declined because I didn’t feel like I could fill the shoes before me.

“I was never given a straight-up offer and I never meant to give that impression.”

Nevertheless, it gives you an idea of VR’s collective taste in frontmen these days: not flamboyant, decadent clothes-horses, but more soulful, down-to-earth, blue-collar, rootsy rock singers.

Franky Perez, for one, is no longer the fresh-faced pop-rocker of 2003 that you can see in online videos. He’s rougher round the edges, but easy-going and instantly likeable – a road-worn character who may have been chewed up and spat out by the industry but who’s still smiling. After his solo career “ran its course”, he says, “I had issues with addiction for a while.” He dealt with his problem and while singing in a covers band in New Jersey, got an offer to join System Of A Down man Daron Malakian’s new band, Scars On Broadway, on guitar. He had two years with Scars and around six months or so ago started working with VR. “I started working with them and then about the same time Slash had to work on his solo project and Duff was doing Loaded so that dissipated – the cool thing is that I got to have a great relationship with Slash.”

Does he realise that after tonight, the internet will be filled with ‘Franky Perez is the new Velvet Revolver frontman’ rumours? He gives a shrug and a smile: “Well, you know, if the opportunity comes around, I’m ready.”

On stage at Quart, Franky takes a break and McQueen’s Leah Duors takes over on vocals for Nightrain. Slash has long championed the all-girl band and Duors shows why, with a vicious Axl-with-PMT vocal, and a stage presence that belies her band’s current little-league status. (Earlier, McQueen delivered a performance that suggested they’ve learned a thing or two in the two years since their debut album – especially impressive considering guitarist Cat left the band just four days before the festival, to be replaced temporarily by friend Mark Thompson. Kick-ass female guitarists take note: there’s a situation vacant.)

After Leah, it’s time for the big guns. Ronnie Wood leads the charge through riotous versions of Honky Tonk Women, Stay With Me, It’s Only Rock’N’Roll and Knocking On Heaven’s Door (cheekily – or sincerely? – dedicated by Slash to Michael Jackson) with Teddy Andreadis on piano and Dr John-meets-Joe Cocker vocals.

Black Eyed Pea Fergie looks like a rock goddess and sounds like a rock god, taking Black Dog by the scrotum and hitting high notes that Mr Plant just can’t anymore, followed by an epic Sweet Child O’Mine. By the end the audience is a huge, braying, horny mass of Viking puppy dogs, tongues out, eyes on stalks. Rumours that Fergie is one of the singers on Slash’s album provoked inevitable knee-jerk reactions in web forums – on this evidence we needn’t worry. In fact, we should be kidnapping her, Beyoncé and Aguilera, locking ’em all in a room with these guys and Rick Rubin, and feeding ’em raw steak, Marlboro reds and Jack Daniel’s…

“Ferg’s awesome,” says Slash. “I don’t think anybody this side of the Atlantic has seen Fergie do this rock’n’roll stuff.”

Working with Fergie, appearing on Satan’s own TV show American Idol… People are worried that this album of yours might not be rock – that it might be R’n’B or pop…

“Nah,” he says. “I mean, that’s good. Keep ’em guessing. It’s actually a very raw rock’n’roll record. And the Fergie song will blow people’s minds ‘cos it’s a rock’n’roll song, not a pop song. One of the cool things about this record is that it is pretty heavy but there is some stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily have expected me to write.”

“I’ve been fortunate enough to write with Slash,” says Franky, “and the stuff we were writing for VR and other stuff – his writing is unbelievable. It’s guitar hero shit.”

Backstage Ozzy chats to CR about about his search for a new guitarist (when we print it online it snowballs into a big ‘Ozzy-sacks-Zakk’ story when really he just said he was looking to work with some other people too). Ozzy’s arrival on stage sends the crowd into a frenzy, responding to his shouts of “Let’s go fucking crazy!” with panache. (The guy next to me starts walking around, randomly humping the legs of strangers – that’s pretty crazy.) They plough through Crazy Train, War Pigs, I Don’t Know and Paranoid, and the sound is so big I swear it created a new fjord.

Then he’s off and Franky and Fergie are back on for Whole Lotta Love and Paradise City. The show ends, Fergie writhing on the floor, Franky leading the charge, Slash soloing into the night. “This is one of the best gigs I’ve had in a very long time,” says the man himself.

It’s a remarkable gig for Slash for one other reason: it’s his first as a non-smoker. In March he caught pneumonia and had to quit for two weeks. (“They told me to stop, but the truth was I just couldn’t anyway – believe me, I tried.”) At the same time his mother, Ola Hudson, was in hospital with lung cancer – she died three months later. It gave him pause for thought. Having already made it through the first tough two weeks, he decided he wouldn’t start again.

“I’m all for looking cool,” he says, “but there comes a time when it’s bullheaded.”

So, do you feel better for it?

“No,” he says firmly.

First published in Classic Rock magazine, issue 136, 2009. Win tickets to see Slash play the House of Commons, here. Pre-order the new Slash album here.