Courtney Cox caught the live-performance bug when she was a 15-year-old student at the Paul Green School of Rock.
"It was probably the first time I ever walked on stage," says the lightning-fast metal guitarist from Delaware County. "Just hearing that eruption from the crowd and the exchange of power you have with the audience. You just close your eyes and let it go and the next thing you know, the show's over. It's like, 'Woo, that was intense! I like this. I want to keep doing that.' "
She has. Cox, now 28, is pretty sure that first time on stage was at a Judas Priest vs. Iron Maiden School of Rock show at the now-closed Indre Studios in South Philadelphia. "Funny enough, I think the first song I did was 'Flight of Icarus.' I just remember walking on stage and the lights making me sweat and I was like: 'Yes. This is so metal!' "
It's funny that she was playing that Iron Maiden song because Cox now — and for the last 10 years — is a member of the Iron Maidens, a tribute band to the millions-selling British heavy metal legends. She's toured the world with the Maidens — they're headed to New Zealand, Australia, and India this year — but the L.A. group hasn't been on the East Coast in nine years, and has never played Philadelphia.
But Cox, who grew up in Essington and debuted an original instrumental composition called "Delco" at a guitar clinic in Japan last month, will finally get to play a hometown show this week. The Iron Maidens headline the Foundry at the Fillmore on Wednesday night. "The World's Only Female Tribute to Iron Maiden" will top a bill that also includes Live Evil: Dio Tribute, the group inspired by Ronnie James Dio and named after a 1982 Black Sabbath album.
This will be Cox's first time playing Philadelphia since she did a gig at Johnny Brenda's with Metallica tribute band Misstallica in 2010. Talking on the phone last week from Toronto, Cox said it's "mind-blowing for me. Even just seeing Wawa is going to freak me out!"
Cox is quick to point out that the Maidens are a tribute band, not just a cover band. They have their own version of Eddie, the ghoulish mascot that adorns all of the band's album artwork. And though the Maidens don't stress this concept much, each player has a stage name that's a feminized version of her male counterpart.
Thus, as one of the band's two guitarists, Cox goes by Adriana Smith, after Maiden axman Adrian Smith. Her fellow guitarist Nikki Stringfield calls herself Davina Murray after Dave Murray. Singer Kirsten Rosenberg's play on the name of lead singer Bruce Dickinson is a little trickier. She's Bruce Chickinson.
The Maidens have met their male inspirers, who have given them their blessing. The women change up their set lists every night and tend to dig deep into the catalog of the band known for such platinum albums as The Number of the Beast (1982) and The Seventh Son of the Seventh Son (1988). Instead of sticking to the hits, they pull out gems like "Alexander the Great," which Iron Maiden has never played live, and other rarities, like "Madness" and "Still Life."
The Maidens formed in 2001, and Cox joined in 2009. Their popularity is cross-generational. "We get little kids with their tiny Iron Maiden shirts and their headphones who come with their parents. It helps that Maiden is like a religion around the world. It's mind-blowing when you travel to different countries. You have the culture shock at first. But at the shows you have the same passion for the music."
Cox had an older brother who was into metal. "I would always hear him blasting Slayer, and it just got into my ear. That oomph, that thump."
At 13, she surprised her father with a request for a guitar. Within a week, she was playing along to Metallica songs and practicing eight hours a day in her garage. At 15, she started at Green's School of Rock original location on Race Street.
"She was born to shred and a hard worker," says her teacher, Yanni Papadopoulos, the guitarist for veteran West Philly power trio Stinking Lizaveta, who are playing at Brainfest at Connie's Ric Rac on Saturday. He's currently an instructor at the School of Rock, which founder Green sold in 2009.
Cox doesn't remember it that way. "I'm the kind of musician who doesn't like to be told what to do and how to play. I was the worst student," she says with a hearty laugh. "Yanni was such a cool dude. He was the only one whose lessons I would show up for."
Papadopoulos, who released a six-song EP of improvised instrumental music called Planet – Y3 in February, paints a more studious picture. "She was game for practicing scales and took whatever pointers I could give her on pick technique. She was also kind to other kids who weren't as advanced as her. But most of all, she was hungry for rock performance and rock guitar. She loved Metallica but she also did a great job in my Devo show."
Cox went on the road with the School of Rock bands that backed progressive rockers Adrian Belew and Jon Anderson of Yes on tour when she was still only 15, while keeping up with her studies and graduating from Interboro High School. She enjoyed the gigs but wore her Slayer shirt at the sound check, yearning to rock harder.
"Me and my friends were metal heads," she says. "I was just being drowned by all this prog-rock and trees and sunshine." For kicks, they started Queen Diamond, an all-female tribute to the Danish horror metal band King Diamond. That group morphed into Misstallica, which Cox toured the UK with. "Then I started to get bored with Philly," Cox says. "I was in the thrash metal scene that was very small at the time. Everything else was like this artsy hipster music."
At 18, "I gave my mom a week's notice and left Delco for Los Angeles. I literally packed a guitar and a backpack." Taking every gig she could, she also managed a coffee shop. She saw her opening when the Maidens were in need of a new Adriana Smith. "I got that gig and never looked back."
Playing in a successful tribute band won't make you rich. "But it keeps the food on the table and the lights on. I'm very fortunate."
The guitarist, whose Twitter handle is @ccshred, plans to release recordings of the original tunes she's been writing for years but is so busy with the Maidens and her other all-female cover band supergroup, Starbreakers — who pay tribute to other metal gods, like Judas Priest and Mötörhead — that it can be hard to find time. "I want to get an EP of instrumental work out hopefully in the next year."
Playing in a succession of all-female bands "is not by choice," Cox says. But it does have its advantages. "You're all going through the same stuff. I wouldn't put us in the category of classy ladies. It's all burping and fart jokes. But I do find it easier to work with females than men. Men tend to be more moody. There's a lot more ego to deal with."
She spells her first name differently, but she has long had to endure answering to the same name as the Friends actress who has been on TV for virtually her entire life.
"Don't even get me started," she says. "I always joke about how much I hate Bruce Springsteen because he ruined my life by dragging her out of the crowd in that one music video. If you look at the comments on my YouTube videos, it's all the same jokes: 'Where's Jennifer Aniston?' Or 'I didn't know Monica could shred.'
"That's why I just go by CC sometimes. But it's really not that bad. My room service comes really fast."