Posts Tagged ‘concert’

It is April 2014 and I’m living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Not the metal epicenter that teeming 24-million strong megacity Sao Paulo is, Rio still has enough to brag about in terms of extreme music culture. Definitely some solid local outfits – the all-female three piece Nervosa being the latest to grab metal headlines – and enough concert tours come through to slake one’s thirst for all things extreme.  Just this past week, in fact, both Obituary and Hypocrisy played on different nights. Yet I went to neither show. The tickets were too expensive ($80); the taxi to the venue too long (nearly an hour in traffic, and in Obituary’s case, in torrential rains); and show times were unclear based on the venue’s website, but in Rio you can bet they commence consistently late, frequently around the witching hour. Both shows being on weeknights and your bedraggled scribe knowing he’d have to labor at the office the following morning made neither show especially attractive. And on top of it all, I’ve been having lower-back problems, so standing for a prolonged period of time was out of the question.

Rounding third base and chugging toward age 40, I’ve been sluggish in my metal of late. And it begs the question: WTF, peeps? A lifetime devoted to the world’s most tasteful musical art form, yet has the wind has gone still from the flag I once so defiantly waved? The air seeped out of my once-oversized metal tires? The flame gone ashen in the torch I once held aloft in more youthful days? How can I sleep knowing that I’ve missed two of the most important and enduring groups in death metal’s illustrious and esteemed history over some back pain, a bit of a commute, rain, and a ticket price, when I get paid more than I deserve and don’t even pay rent in this acclaimed Cidade Maravilhosa? Bellow blindly unto the heavens, beseeching an answer to this existential torment, and thy response cometh in pained whispers from disappointed gods on high: thou art aging, old fart, and soon the hour may be nigh to retire thy metal jersey.

If I’m being truthful, this is not the first time I’ve contemplated retirement from the metal scene. Once I left my band, Witch Hunt, in 1997, a series of false starts followed in the 1990s and early 2000s, yet none were serious contenders and I continued buying music, going to concerts, and supporting the music at all turns. The most serious talk of retirement crept under the door in August 2008 following a night with Judas Priest, Heaven and Hell (Sabbath sans Ozzy), Motorhead, and Testament at the Nissan Pavilion in Manassas, Virginia. Were a soothsayer to have read the tealeaves prior to the show, indeed all signs would have pointed toward mighty metal triumph. Indeed, the summer concert experience was always a milestone on which I once judged the worth of entire calendar years. It’s how Motley Crue made 1990 the first best year of my teenage era, and Jane’s Addiction kicked 1991 in the ass (literally, since it was their final show of the original era, having announced their scheduled breakup weeks prior). It’s how Overkill made 1992, Suffocation/Dismember/Vader made 1993, Cannibal Corpse made 1994, and Death made 1995  have summers of distantly outstanding merit.

Thus it was that hopes were high on the afternoon August 11, 2008, while inching through Beltway-area traffic and on the brink of an Exxon-styled bladder spill from too much Mountain Dew, I arrived at Nissan Pavilion in Manassas, Virginia. I parked my Honda Civic in the dusty mega-lot and made sure I had my e-tickets. Featuring Judas Priest, Heaven and Hell (Sabbath sans Ozzy), Motorhead and Testament, the gig would be my first since returning from Iraq a month prior. THIS was to be my summer concert for 2008, so it HAD to count. Gazing out over the tailgating headbangers in the parking lot, barbecuing and already libating themselves into pre-show oblivion, it seemed to me this was more than a simple gathering of metal fans, something grander than the collective reliving of an outdated adolescent soundtrack. My post-Iraq readjustment had been an awkward process, and I needed an elixir, a metal feather to Dumbo’s magic one. Indeed, so robustly did I believe in the restorative capacity of the Metal Masters that I was certain the gig would set my world a-right. With all this swirling in my mind, for a moment, I took the sweet birdbath of memory, awash in a humid trickle of nostalgia. But the joy did not last long.

As harbingers go, ominous signs were already afoot, obstacles in the path of all enjoyment, even from my vantage position in the parking lot whilst I sat in my car’s air conditioning and demurred entering the late summer humidity for that long walk to the gate. Forgetting a cardinal protocol of platinum membership in the old school Metal Club, I neglected to recall that book-smart headbangers are still sometimes regarded with skepticism by our otherwise beloved cohort. Perhaps this explains why, as I read The Economist in my car before the gates opened, black-shirted passers-by eyed me with the jaundice Khmer fighters once reserved for bespectacled middle school graduates. On come accusations of selling out and being a preppy, despite the best Iraq mission-ready “mean mug” I could muster to shoot them as they passed and stared, jutting out my jaw line to its physiologically feasible limits. Not even inside the venue and I’d already been pushed from the litter of my brethren, a defective puppy never again to suckle at the metal sow’s guitar-shaped teat. Then getting inside the venue was a task in itself. I stood in line for half an hour, then stomped back to my car when denied entry due to my camera (“…by the artist’s request…”). I got back in line and waited, finally entering. A non-recoverable hour of life surrendered unto the abyss of venue bullshit bureaucracy.

Once inside, the open hand of extreme hunger guided my drift to the concessions booths. The deep-friend sirens on Chicken Finger Shore bade I partake of their greasy legged, white breasted wares. The hypnotic spell they cast is the only rational explanation for why I paid $13 for a tiny paper trough of three chicken fingers around a midget’s handful of soggy fries. The hand and fingers clenched tightly into a figurative fist that punched my wallet in the pie-hole. It still hurt even with knowledge that Iraq had treated my bank account decently, my genetic cheapness and sense of fair economic play both egregiously offended. My attempts to extract sympathy from the hag at the refreshments window amounted to nothing: the pearl of sympathy long stripped from her soul’s oyster, her dead-pan stare told me she had nothing left to give. I was thus left to sulk alone in my poverty. Urgently needing reaffirmation that things would be okay, especially after accidentally dropping my chicken fingers to the ground, I went to my seat under the pavilion and waited impatiently for the bands to start, naively certain that redemption lay on the impending horizon.

There was certainly enough to convince me this was the case based on a few superficial observations before the show began. The climatic conditions were as favorable as one can get on an August day in Virginia: the sun still shone brightly but the punishing humidity was at a late-day lull under the amphitheater’s cover. It was too early in the show for the smell of sweat and urine to flog my nostrils. The lighting trusses flickered blue and red and greens as the crew ran a few final checks, and smoke billowed side-stage. The crowd – at this early hour still filling few of the venue’s seats, was on Bud Light-heartened feet screaming mostly-coherent praise to whoever was preparing to go onstage, an eruption not generally afforded opening acts, certainly not before they’ve even begun their set.

You can tell how a show will go by the first band. This is not dissimilar to how the first kiss foretells a couple’s long-term compatibility. And in the world of metal, that first figurative kiss is everything.

Testament was on first. I stood in respect when the undisputed thrash metal titans confidently strode onstage. Let’s be honest: yeah, they had a few rough points along the way, but their classic-era work is scandal-proof, and you can’t lay claims against Formation of Damnation, the disc the band was road-dogging throughout 2008. Fully clad in black, their tattoos seemingly newly retouched and waist-length locks as lion-like as in their horn-raising heyday of the early 1990s, vocalist Chuck Billy made metal faces at us old-school style, serpentinely flipping his filthy-old-man’s tongue at the crowd, perhaps in homage to groupies who once were. Unabashedly pirating a whole chapter from Ozzy’s call-and-response playbook, the front man exhorted us to “get fuckin’ crazy” whilst the other band members took their positions. So far, so good.

But it was markedly downhill from that high water point, a musical disaster gathering momentum until control was surrendered wholly. As the intro tape for “Eerie Inhabitants” drew to a crescendoed close, Testament slammed into the first brash cords of opening salvo “Over the Wall”. Oh, how totally awesome would this first song have been if only Testament had simply played the tune from which the intro was culled, the first track of 1987’s The New Order, still the band’s finest work to diehards. The cognitive dissonance created by starting with one song’s intro, only to play an entirely different one, left me, in the spirit of the toked-up crowd, dazed and confused. And I’m the sober smart-ass reading The Economist. I can only speculate as to the confusion felt by the rest of the audience, all now cocking their heads to one side like befuddled puppies.

There was barely time to sort it out. Testament only played 30 minutes. They were squeezed onto a small space onstage, barely moved without bumping into one another, and experienced frequent sound trouble, including the magical vanishing of Greg Christian’s bass during, of all inopportune moments, his intro to “Souls of Black”. Vocalist Chuck Billy was too chubby to be headbanging. His insistence on wearing a cut-off tee merely added to the offense, revealing not a conquering metal god’s six-pack abs, but an unmanly muffin-top. In fact, my discriminating eye spotted the unsightly jiggle of belly fat all the way from Section 101, seat G-23. He flailed about in his oversized flesh and played air guitar on his mic stand during all the guitar solos, tummy truffles flapping in defiance of all coolness. And speaking of guitar solos, they were incredible, the highlight of the band’s performance. But every time he deftly executed one, fingers skitting across his Ibanez’s fret board, axe-man Alex Skolnick’s knees buckled like a girl in a mini-skirt for the first time, sheepishly hiding her hoo-hah from public scrutiny. It sapped the macho right out of Testament’s chest-beating theatrics and posturing.

Motorhead was up next. Before they began, I noted their road crew bore the hallmarks of crest-fallen Ultimate Fighters scraping for work. I thought I spotted Ken Shamrock sauntering about with cables and amps at stage right. And I’m pretty sure Tank Abbot – in his requisite shaven-headed, bearded thuggery – was the guitar tech. Personally, I wouldn’t let a dude who was last dispatched with by a toe-hold in under 30 be responsible for my guitar in front of that many people. As for Motorhead themselves, after 35 years in the business, they just didn’t seem to care. This was reflected metaphorically in their inclusion of select uninspiring songs like “Killed by Death.” While we can all agree it’s tough to break Cannibal Corpse’s monopoly on grisly ways to perish, I simply must believe that a $60 ticket price entitles me to a higher caliber of lyrical ingenuity if you’re going to sing about death. Moreover, all the songs they played were slow, decidedly bluesy and bereft of energy in their execution. And since when do the Metal Rules allow for even well-known opening bands to perform lengthy drum and guitar solos? Understandably legendary frontman Lemmy Kilmeister remained physically muted and stationary for most of the gig, and his occasional wobbles at the mic made me sense the lovable codger either couldn’t hold his liquor as deftly as in younger years, or was experiencing the onset of serious health problems (the latter being confirmed just a few short years later, I’m sorry to say). It seemed the entirety of Lemmy’s energy was expended on merely remaining upright, holding up that heavy Rickenbacher bass, and keeping his mouth firmly planted before the mic, clearly now feats of great concentration for the man. He evinced no energy the 45 minutes the band was playing, not even when parading out staple classic “Ace of Spades” (mumbling “…it’s time to play THAT song again.”). I know, I know… I ought to cut him some slack. Lemmy’s well past 60 now and he must be tired of life on the road. In a way, I feel bad for him, despite the joy he’s brought to millions and his admittedly unabashed torch carrying for rock and metal over the decades. But he knows he can’t stop. They don’t make 401(k) for aging rockers.

Heaven and Hell were third on the roster, the final band before Judas Priest. They had a massive stage set, something out of metal mockumentary This is Spinal Tap. The whole setup had a plastic feel to it, like Castle Greyskull for grown-ups. A rusty graveyard fence surrounded the band’s backline and the drum riser. There were full-blown gargoyles with red glowing eyes. The gargoyles blew smoke, choking the stage, and the first 10 rows with thin grey fumes for a full 20 minutes prior to Heaven and Hell taking the stage. The gargoyles’ gnarly, clawed paper mache talons supported light-up crystal balls, and every time they ignited bright yellow, ostensibly with some variety of mystical metal magik, the gargoyles’ eyes burned crimson, they belched smoke, and the crowd roared in apocalyptic – and one might assume inebriated – approval. Despite my expectation that the band would show their true renegade-ness by storming onstage and pretending to slay the gargoyles or jumping the faux-fence, they emerged as proper English gentlemen (with the obvious inclusion of one Ronnie James Dio, a metal gent for the nations), casually strolling onstage and smiling ever-so-politely. It is true: to be in their presence of the masters, the forefathers, is mind-blowing at the outset. Yet Tony Iommi’s guitar was muddy, nearly beyond comprehension. There was too much bass in the mix and Geezer Butler’s every hand-slap-on-heavily-gaged-strings was audible even on the law, creating an annoying clicking not in-time with Carmine Appice’s kick drum. Dio crooned and gestured broadly, and his voice wavering with a diva’s emotion. But ‘twas not sufficient to save Heaven and Hell from an overall sound more befitting of an opening band on poorly-run club PA, not guys with this much experience on state of the art equipment in one of the Washington, DC area’s biggest premier live music venues.

Four songs into Heaven and Hell’s set, during “Children of the Sea”, with the sloppy sund and the house still only three-quarters full, something came over me, a sadness of some inexplicable kind. Agitated by the previous months in Iraq, unable to stand or sit immobile for too long or concentrate for the length of time required of a musical performance, ill in the innards from the pounding yet muddy amphitheater sound, dismayed that my heroes could be so lackluster, I knew that, at least for me, the end was neigh, that my retirement from metal was on deck. I could not bear to witness the death throes of this entire performance, and would not stick around to see Judas Priest, who I’d wanted to see live since I discovered them with Painkiller in 1990 as a 13-year old. It was only fitting that my final act would be to walk out while Tony Iommi, the man who started it all, was onstage. As I departed my seating section, I halted occasionally for an uncomfortable pause and nervous deliberation, glancing over my shoulder at the stage. Was I really gonna do it?

I made it to the lawn area. I surveyed the sparse crowd seated around me. I looked for the loneliest face. Judging from the forlorn grills surrounding me in the lawn, I knew it wasn’t just me who needed a miracle at that moment. And then I found a special one, the one to be the recipient of my True Metal Miracle: probably 14 years old, pimply and alone, squinting to see the figures performing at a great distance, sipping a lukewarm Mountain Dew, likely on the lawn because his parents were too cheap to purchase him a seat under the pavilion, or his allowance and yard-mowing cash simply didn’t suffice for a more expensive ticket. Yes, I was once like him, and if he remained in the Washington, DC region then statistically he would one day indeed be me: a member of the walking dead, a government employee, relegated to his cubicle and subject to dancing to The Man’s unpredictable whims, wondering how glory had so easily escaped him and sadly reflective on his metallic teenage glory era. Yes, the boy would one day grow painfully aware that the magic does not last. That this time of musical discovery in his life will one day draw to an abrupt close, sooner than he anticipates and much faster than he is prepared to accept. His guitar gods will be revealed as nothing more than men, and they would someday pass from this life, their corporeal beings withered, their souls drifting unsung into the ether of rock history. There they will be celebrated on tee-shirts and posters and shitty mall kitsch that will NEVER do justice to the greatness of the men themselves, the wonderful contributions they made to lives of their fans who adore and love them, the dreams they inspire and the memories their music creates.

It was time to pass the torch.

I tapped the boy’s shoulder. He wheeled to face me. Not defensive, just curious. I could tell the band transfixed him and that my contact jolted him from another world. Maybe this was his first concert, and though I was angry about its outcome for me personally, I fully understood how it was likely the proverbial Big Deal to the kid who didn’t have 25 years of metal concerts under his belt as a barometer for separating chicken shit from chicken salad. I forced a smile, attempting to conceal the heavy woe in my heart. No, I would have no one pity me in this final act. I gave him my ticket, pointing to the seating info on the page and giving him a quick thumbs-up. I patted him on the back paternally, my palm thudding soundly a few deliberate times, and I hoped each one would convey to him the gravity of the moment and the charge now upon him. A perceptive young man, he was already well ahead of me: if anything counter-balanced the sob welling in my gut, it was the sudden and unadulterated joy in the boy’s eyes. He jumped all at once and sprinted down the hill, all pretense of detached coolness gone from his exploding teenage heart. And for a moment, I was happy. I was free. I marveled at how we never exchanged a word, yet we both had said so much. The communicative power of music, I thought.

I began walking again, stopping only once to peer over my shoulder and deliver a silent goodbye to Tony and the boys. Thank you, gentlemen: I owe you the best of my youth. It was a good run.

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Tomorrow, at my office talent show, I’ll strap on a 6-sting, jam the cord into the amp, gradually twist the volume knob up (though lamentably not to 11, seeing as how it’ll be in a government office), and commence strumming, my right hand’s kitten-light touch across the strings plucking tonal magic from the musical ether. Yes, you have surmised correctly: tomorrow I will play guitar live for the first time since 2002. That time, I was living in China and a friend’s punk band was in dire straits and in need of a stand-in guitarist, as their regular axeman was down ill a fortnight prior. Following a tight rehearsal in an even tighter chicken coop (literally, that’s where we rehearsed), I took the stage with them in an Christian church gutted during the Great Cultural Revolution and later refitted and reopened as a night-spot for Chinese punk and metal youth. We performed one of the band’s originals, the name of which I cannot recall, and the NoFX song “Angry Young and Poor”. I was woefully out of condition to perform live – I was singing as well, which smoked my lungs blacker than a burnt BBQ frank – that when we finished the warp-speed abbreviated set, I was winded beyond description. Hence realizing that my time had long passed and I didn’t have “it” any more, I foreswore playing live anew, heretofore restricting my live musical activity to concerts I have paid to see, and air guitar before every reflective surface I encounter.

The specific piece I’ll play tomorrow is one I wrote at age 14 in 1991. I had just listened to the b-side of Metallica’s Black Album and upon indulging a virgin ear-voyage into “Nothing Else Matters” was suitably inspired to pen a softer piece to balance out all the corpse and war tunes I’d been writing up until then in a failed teenage bid to eclipse Slayer as World’s Most Evil Songwriter. Writing the piece came easily; in fact, you might say it wrote itself, though unlike Black Sabbath I cannot readily claim divine (or un-divine, as it were) intervention. It flowed from me as effortlessly as, say, Taco Bell leaves one’s intestines, to paraphrase Swedish band Dismember, “like an ever-flowing stream.” I have since perfected the passage: pseudo-classical and dealing heavily in minor keys, with finger-picking lending me the appearance of being far more skilled than I actually am at the instrument, it’s the song I’m most singularly proud of composing. And it’s ironically the piece the fewest people have ever heard. The last time – and ONLY time – I played it live was January 1995, also at a high school talent show during my senior year.

I was 18 years old then. Now I’m 37; it’s been nearly two decades. I had a waist-length lion’s mane of blond metal locks then; now I have a bald scalp peppered with spots from sun damage. (Thank you, 2nd-degree sunburn in Puebla, Mexico). Before I had dreams of head-banging stardom; now, 19 years later, I’ve made the full transition from metal head to walking dead, being a professional bureaucrat, and a federal one, at that! So on the surface, in every conceivable way, things have changed.

And yet none of the essentials have morphed over time. The night before a live performance is eternal: random nerves are the accepted price of dealing in live music. And let’s not forget the stress-eating: I just put down an entire block of Minas cheese. But most importantly, just like in the old days, yet again I find myself pissed over perceived equipment malfunctions that could adversely affect my performance tomorrow. I just changed guitar strings and I’m CERTAIN something isn’t right. Is that a buzzing E string? why is the sound so thin, is the cable not pumping enough juice into the amp? Why isn’t the chorus function on the multi-effects board giving my guitar the choir-like boost I desire?

And yet tomorrow it will all fade to the background and the joy of performing will reign supreme. Until, that is, a string breaks. Or a cable dies. Or a bum note is struck. Any of which will suffice to derail the entire show and, verily, ring in the fifth death of my macho.

What teen idol descends from the stratosphere, inspiring on the order of 1,000 Brazilian teenage girls to amass before the Copacabana Palace Hotel in Rio de Janeiro, chanting and shrieking in pants-peeing unison at the very top decibels of their hormonal lungs? Justin Bieber, who arrived today for a weekend’s worth of gigs at the municipal Praca da Apoteose, which I believe means “Enormo-Dome” in English. On the way to Laranjeiras this evening, my taxi driver – in the middle of chronicling to me every sordid detail of his recent vasectomy – asked me if I’d like to see Bieber at his hotel. Naturally I assumed he was joking, until he plowed up to the hotel, dumping me front and center and – I swear this as I live and breathe – there stood The Phenom himself on the balcony of his 10th floor suite, blowing kisses and gesticulating broadly to all us gawkers huddled below. And with his every kiss blown, so in direct proportion rose skyward the screams, punctuated with outstretched arms capped by sweaty jazz fingers, which trembled with baby-making frenzy as they tickled the summery night air at the Copacabana Palace.

Update one day later:

I went to a barbecue with a local friend, to the satellite city of Niteroi on Rio de Janeiro’s outskirts. Once there I found myself making the acquaintance of a foursome of beer-swilling brasileiros who were deadly serious about two things and two things alone: metal and child-rearing. And as your modest servidor bespake them, these men fumbling about for their rugrats while toe-tapping the blast beats to Morbid Angel’s “Chapel of Ghouls” as it blared from someone’s iPod, a pair of urgent items was imparted to me. First, that the Black Sabbath/Megadeth concert two weeks ago was amazing. As well it should have been, given the $150 booty even nosebleed seats fetched. And second, the Justin Bieber faithful had already besieged the venue a fortnight prior, anticipating the coming of their mop-topped messiah. Hence the line of Black Sabbath fans entering the Praca da Apoteose was forced to snake around a refugee camp of Beliebers, a meeting of two worlds not dissimilar to Marco Polo and the Chinese coming face-to-face all those centuries ago.