- The Washington Times - Friday, July 10, 2009

Despite an enviable string of chart-topping albums, Def Leppard once was the unluckiest band in rock ‘n’ roll.

Drummer Rick Allen suffered a near-fatal car crash in 1984, resulting in the loss of his left arm. Determined to continue performing with Def Leppard, he spent the next two years learning to drum with one limb.

Meanwhile, guitarist Steve Clark struggled with alcoholism throughout the decade. His condition had considerably worsened by 1990, prompting his band mates to grant him a six-month absence from the group. While on leave in January 1991, he ingested a fatal mix of alcohol and prescription pills.

Def Leppard was halfway through the recording of “Adrenalize,” the band’s fifth album, when Mr. Clark died. The remaining members doubled their workload and finished the record, hiring Irish musician Vivian Campbell shortly thereafter to replace their former guitarist in concert. Mr. Campbell soon became a permanent member, and Def Leppard gradually shed the unlucky vibes that once had plagued the group.

For the past four summers, the band has toured the world in support of a hit-studded catalog, often playing alongside heavyweights such as Journey, Styx and Foreigner. The musicians are now rock ‘n’ roll veterans, and they’ve grown quite confident with their live show.

“I don’t know why we bother with the rehearsals,” Mr. Campbell says from Dublin. “We schedule two weeks of rehearsal time before each tour, and after the first day, we always say, ‘OK, that was easy. What are we going to do for the next 13 days?’”

Although Def Leppard continues to release new material, the summer tours typically showcase the band’s most popular songs, including “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and “Photograph.” Mr. Campbell, 47, says the process has its balance of perks and downsides.

“It would be nice to vary the set list a bit, but you kind of become beholden to your past successes,” he says. “It’s a double-edged sword. We’re very fortunate to have a whole load of genuine hit songs, and that allows us to go out on tour. The downside is that we have to play the same old hit songs over and over again.

“I know it’s a familiar refrain, but there’s no point in force-feeding your audience something they don’t know.”

The band’s latest album, “Songs From the Sparkle Lounge,” may not be as well-known as 1987’s “Hysteria,” but it still features Def Leppard’s sonic trademarks. Layers of airy harmonies coat Joe Elliott’s lead vocals, and Mr. Campbell shares guitar duties with longtime member Phil Collen.

For now, though, the emphasis remains on the band’s touring efforts. Poison and Cheap Trick will join the group on the road this summer, forming one of 2009’s most promising package tours.

“It’s about bringing value for money,” Mr. Campbell says of the triple-headliner shows. “We’ve done this in years past, and it always goes over really well. We’ve been playing for more people now than we have since the 1980s.”

Why are such large audiences still attending the band’s shows?

“We do what we do very well,” Mr. Campbell says, “and we don’t take it too seriously. I think that helps. It’s really all about enjoyment, entertainment and escapism, and the biggest thrill depends on the audience. We’ve been doing this every night, but they’re seeing it for the first time. We really feed off of them.”

Def Leppard, Poison and Cheap Trick will visit the Nissan Pavilion on Sunday. Tickets start at $29.50.

Damnwells on their own

Alex Dezen used to create albums the old-fashioned way. As leader of the Damnwells, he steered a steady course between melodic pop and country-influenced rock ‘n’ roll, landing the attention of several record labels along the way. Those labels helped the Damnwells release two albums, neither of which found the widespread attention it deserved.

Following a headlining tour in 2007, Mr. Dezen took a break from music. He taught literature in a Los Angeles school and applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a renowned program at the University of Iowa. When the program accepted him, Mr. Dezen relocated to the American heartland to focus on fiction.

“In New York and L.A., the world is pounding on your door,” he says. “In Iowa, you just get to live your life. It’s great for writing.”

The new surroundings stirred something in Mr. Dezen. He picked up his guitar and began writing music again, much to the chagrin of his softened fingertips. His calluses came back, as did his knack for crafting engaging songs.

However, when it came time to release an album, the singer chose an unfamiliar path.

“Artists rarely make any money selling records,” he says. “They make money touring, selling T-shirts and getting licensing deals. So I decided I should give this new album away, just so as many people as possible could hear it.”

The Damnwells’ new record, “One Last Century,” can be downloaded for free from the band’s Web site. Soon after the album’s release, the group traveled East for a series of shows, including its first sold-out performance at the Mercury Room in New York City.

“That’s the way it works,” Mr. Dezen says, while laughing at the prospect of selling out a famed venue without a label’s help.

“Once you stop pounding on the wall, you eventually find a door and walk through.”

The Damnwells perform at the Iota Club on Sunday. Doors open at 8:30 p.m., and tickets are $12.

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