Whatever you might think of Robbie Krieger and Ray Manzarek, just don’t call them “The Doors.” With third surviving member John Densmore taking them to court, Krieger and Manzarek (along with the Cult’s Ian Astbury) are now billing themselves as “The Doors of the 21st Century.” Ignoring the fact that this unwieldy moniker sounds less like the name of a rock band than a show on the House and Garden channel, it’s also a misnomer. With a setlist and cheesy staging that wouldn’t have been out of place when the band released “L.A. Woman” in 1971, a more accurate title would be “The Doors of the 20th Century: A Re-creation.”
But even that wouldn’t be quite right; a certain amount of historical revisionism was on tap at the Universal Amphitheater Friday night. As might be expected, the impression you come away with is that Manzarek and Krieger were the Doors’ driving force, the band’s truly essential members. Morrison, although he was the superstar front man (and the first image flashed on the video screen), comes across as merely a useful idiot. His good looks and moody lyrics were the Doors’ meal ticket, but, hey, he’s replaceable. Densmore, on the other hand, has been turned into a non-person, expunged from the band’s history with a Stalin-like ruthlessness. It’s an argument not completely without merit: Manzarek’s keyboards, mixing postwar blues and Weimar cabaret, and Krieger’s liquid, Wes Montgomery-influenced guitar gave the Doors a musical signature, and their improvisational flights were among the evening’s highlights.
The rhythm section of Angelo Barberi and Ty Dennis (the band’s second drummer in less than a month; maybe they’re also trying to be the Spinal Tap of the 21st century) performed ably.
Astbury, whose work with the Cult showed him to be a singer distinctly in the Morrison mold, steps into the breech with an admirable confidence. It’s the role he was born to play. He pored over the films and studied the band’s playbook and has all the moves down — from Morrison’s phrasing, to his little hop step dance, his leap during “When the Music’s Over” and the way he held the mikestand.
Manzarek and Krieger keep him on a short leash, and his performance never becomes more than an impressive act of mimicry. With his set jaw and poker-faced seriousness, the sly humor and headstrong brinkmanship that made Morrison a complex, involving presence is beyond him.
Without it, Astbury sounds downright silly intoning Morrison’s more self-consciously poetic lyrics (especially those of “Horse Latitudes,” with its invocation of equine “mute nostril agony”). The evening’s low point comes when he is asked to recite one of Morrison’s poems, “Ghost Dance.” He’s not helped by the flaccid cocktail jazz that accompanies the recitation; when the band is joined by a group of dancing Native American shamans, the specter of self-parody that was hovering in the wings most of the evening takes center stage.
Moments such as this make it clear why these Doors didn’t stray from the band’s classic hits. “Moonlight Ride,” Five to One” (which was accompanied by a video montage of political figures, including Nixon, Mao and LBJ, making it clear that like generals, the Doors are fighting the last war), and “Roadhouse Blues” were given straightforward readings, and retain their power; they’re prime examples of classic rock. The medley of Brecht/Weill’s “Alabama Song” and Howlin’ Wolf’s “Back Door Man” (heard on 1970’s “Absolutely Live”) is reprised; it’s still the band’s most audacious musical leap. But a revamped “Strange Days,” which turns the original’s eerie lysergic paranoia into an ungainly galloping tango, was tepidly received.
This doesn’t bode well for the band’s plan to record a new album. But then, they kept any new material under wraps; the two-hour show was less a concert than dinner theater rock, an exercise in empty nostalgia without the original cast. When they were looking for a new name, perhaps Manzarek and Krieger should have opted for Dormant.