Rock and rumble all night

No one knows for sure if heavy metal is making a comeback. But if Chris Jericho has his way, it's going to look more like pro wrestling than ever.

A Canadian-born grappler currently affiliated with the World Wrestling Federation, Jericho flailed his way into Hard Rock Live last Friday night to introduce Orlando fans to his jokey musical side project, Fozzy. Yes, that's Fozzy as in Fozzie Bear and Ozzy Osbourne -- the furry, lovably dim-witted animals of two distinctly different entertainment strata.

The band isn't real, but a loving parody that will be spotlighted in a home-video "mockumentary" and CD that are scheduled for release just before Halloween. As lead vocalist, Jericho assumes the persona of Moongoose McQueen, a luckless belter who purportedly signed a bad recording contract in 1980, then found his group exiled to Japan for two decades. In the interim, their self-penned, headbanging anthems were "stolen" and turned into hits by lesser talents like Judas Priest, Twisted Sister and Krokus. (Funny, I thought Krokus lifted its every move from AC/DC.)

Friday's little Fozzfest was taped for the video's concert sequences, capping two days of filming that had taken Jericho and crew to local radio stations and Orlando International Airport. In true Spinal Tap fashion, they got lost on the way to OIA, but they made it to the Hard Rock stage with little trouble.

A rainy evening -- and the lure of opening-day screenings of "X-Men" at the nearby Loews Universal Cineplex 20 -- meant that Fozzy's Orlando debut took place in front of a tiny audience of wrestling fans, metalheads and other conscientious objectors to the Human Genome Project. I would have expected a better turnout given the concert's affordable ticket price, which was free.

Dressed to thrill

Sauntering onstage in a leather vest and matching trousers, Jericho certainly came across like a metal singer, or at least like a wrestler dressed up for his prom. Backing him were Atlanta rap/rock bruisers Stuck Mojo, who have been performing tribute shows to their axe-shredding elders for years now, with a rotating cast of guests handling the mike; Jericho is merely the most famous.

When Fozzy ran through its set of "purloined" classics -- beginning with Priest's "Riding on the Wind" and climaxing with the Scorpions' "Rock You Like a Hurricane" -- affection won out over accuracy. Some tunes were played in altered keys, and Jericho came in four measures early on Iron Maiden's "Wrathchild." (OK, so it isn't the Koran, but still.)

Jericho sounded no worse than most of the bar-band vocalists of the hair-flicking '80s, which is to say that he sang terribly. All the in-concert postures were in place, from dry ice and pyrotechnic explosions to the frontman's ingratiating spiel.

"I wish you guys could sing on our new album," he told the audience, "because you sound superb!" Later, he warned the crowd that the band would walk off the stage if a fight down front didn't cease. Soon after, the alleged victim of the beating was spotted at the bar, looking none the worse for wear.

The younger fans seemed to take it all as a good-natured goof, but there was less sarcasm in the way their older counterparts pumped the air with the familiar two-fingered salute. One man's send up is another man's muscle-memory vindication of The Way Music Is Supposed To Be.

Falling on deaf ears

I had hoped that Jericho would be able to help me find the point where satire ended and reality began. But when I located him backstage after the show, he stated that he would only be interviewed in character as Moongoose. My prepared interrogation scuttled, I instead asked how it had felt to see his material spirited to the top of the charts by wannabes.

"It's a rip off," he said. "We were getting Napstered before Napster was cool."

More straight-faced commentary came from Michael Alago, an A&R executive at the Palm record label, which will partner with venerable Megaforce Records to release the Fozzy disc in October. Once a rep at Elektra -- where he had signed Metallica to a deal after their two-album tryout on Megaforce -- Alago was hopeful that the Fozzy project signifies a resurgence of old-school hard rock.

"It's never like it went away," the wiry, young-looking businessman clarified. "It just kind of quieted down for a while." Had he been Spinal Tap's spin-doctoring manager, he might have said that its appeal had become "more specialized."

Alago was clearly a headbanger of the highest reproach, so I ambushed him with a query I thought he'd handle easily.

"Dave or Sammy?" I challenged, calling for him to choose his favorite Van Halen vocalist -- a heated, deathless controversy to riff-rock holdovers like us.

"Fuckin' Sammy rocks!" he argued. But he allowed that his answer would probably look awful on paper.

Moongoose, in contrast, got the question right. Twenty years later, he and his label still don't see eye-to-eye.

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