Imperial Ball: Johnny Depp + Alice Cooper Jam in Anaheim

There’s no right way to load up your tacos while sitting inside the courtyard of a boys’ Catholic high school in Anaheim, waiting for Johnny Depp and Alice Cooper to perform on a stage not more than 200 feet beyond. Some might argue charred onions are appropriate for the scenario, others fall easily into the Extra Jalapeños School of Thought. But really, any way you do it, you’re going to eat the tacos—hey, you’re hungry—and you’re going to feel kind of weird.

Such a disjointed scene unfurled before me not more than one week ago, at the Duesenberg Imperial Ball 2017, and the unusual setting wasn’t the only thing shrouded in a Tim Burton-esque cloud of mystery on that too-cold California night … 

Why, of all grunge-but-rock-star-cool places in Los Angeles, does Johnny Depp year after year hold a charity concert in this very location? What prompted the event to begin exactly 11 years before? Why the name ‘Duesenberg’ stuck inexplicably before ‘Imperial’? Actually, why ‘Imperial Ball’ at all? 

The questions swirled into the courtyard air, mingling with the meaty smell of hot tacos, the sweet aroma of margarita mix and the oaky scent of white wine as a surprisingly docile crowd gathered by the food and drink stands, waiting.

And so I waited, too.

A quick google search on my phone yielded scant results; this concert is obscure because whomever organizes it—Johnny Depp and friends? A distant Depp cousin with good project-management skills?—wants it to remain that way. It did mention on the official website that the show is produced for charities, this year put on to benefit Autumn Leaves Project and Mercy House.

Beyond that information, there was little other detail, little promotion, little fanfare, just a short-haired and short attendant waiting at the entrance to the Servite High School, a location that happens to house the Anaheim Center for the Performing Arts, where Imperial Ball takes place. He checked my ticket with a shrug.

“That way,” the attendant mumbled, then the tiny taciturn man said no more.

Around 8:30, Phoenix-based desert hard rock band CO-OP played a bangin’ half-hour set, made memorable by the gritty vocals of lead singer, Dash Cooper. At 9 o’clock, The Band with No Name took the stage—it’s funny because that’s their actual name! They might not have a name but they do have talent and delivered to the awaiting crowd some choice 80s classics replete with heady guitar chords and blistering drum solos. Chris Rodriguez joined the No Names onstage, and though I hadn’t heard of him before this performance, let me say: that man can sing. With palpable feeling and a strong tenor’s range, Chris belted out two or three songs before passing the mic to Butch Walker, indie-rock virtuoso, who shyly asked the crowd in his warm Georgia drawl, “You expect me to follow that?”

Well, Walker did, and nailed a set of four songs from his 2016 release, Stay Gold.

As quick as The Band with No Name appeared, they were gone, replaced by a tall, dark-haired announcer in a plain, black tee who reminded us to tell our friends tomorrow, “What you’re about to see go down is happening at a Catholic high school in Anaheim. Now, let’s raise the curtains!”

Apparently the announcer forgot the curtains were never lowered, so the next three minutes were taken up by him calling into the mic for someone to lower the curtains, then the next seven minutes after that were spent presumably setting up for whatever would appear when the thickly hanging velvet slabs were raised.

Ten minutes later, the curtain lifted, neon lights flashed, classic California graphics filled a huge, high-def screen—Venice! The skyline of DTLA! Runyon Canyon!—and … wait, this is happening on a high school stage? My high school could barely get a cardboard cut-out of hills for our musical rendition of The Sound of Music

Anyway, back to the story: Lights whizzed, guitar strings were struck and Alice Cooper, Johnny Depp and the rest of the band known as The Hollywood Vampires sauntered across the stage. Of course “School’s Out for Summer” was among the selections played during the set, and Cooper’s iconic lyrics and clear voice rang loudly through the small auditorium; with seven or more musicians playing, it was a thoroughly guitar-guilded rendition of the jam and Butch Walker even joined the crew to add his rifts to the well-known melody. Next, Cooper sang a Depp original, something about a philosophizing, down-but-not-out uncle. The melody was surprisingly bright, the chorus catchy though a tinge forgettable.

Not to say the show wasn’t heart-thumpingly cool from start to finish, (it was), and above all else proves an ode to the astounding fact that Alice Cooper has still got it. He may be 68 years old but he stalks around the stage in his glittery-red jacket with the vitality and exuberance of a sugar-crazed pre-teen.

Depp, for his part, was a bit more reserved, never fully giving the audience the guitar solo we probably and unknowingly craved; even if his name was plastered bold and center on the laminated tickets, Depp only approached the mic to speak once or twice, each time tenderly checking if the thing was even on. He thanked the crowd at the end of the concert and despite the Depp-less-ness of the performances, you didn’t doubt his theatricality or A-list Hollywood appeal. He has the swashbuckling rock-star look, he has the musical chops, alluring stage presence and rhythm but you got the sense as he slashed at his electric guitar and paced behind Alice Cooper & Co. that he knew himself to be a giant among imperial legends. Maybe that’s where the name Imperial Ball comes from … or not; much like what condiments to put on an awaiting-Depp-and-Cooper taco, your guess about this wild show is probably as good as mine.

#Repost @zwhitford ・・・ #JohnnyDepp photographed in #LosAngeles during rehearsals with #TheHollywoodVampires #CanonUSA @canonusa

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Melissa Kandel is a Southern California-based writer and the founder/author of little word studio. If you really want, you can follow little word studio on Instagram here.