So, on Friday, September 7, I attended my first live show in far too long: Stolen Babies, Paradise Lost, The Devin Townsend Project, and Katatonia at the Great American Music Hall.
The evening began with getting appropriately armored for the show. Note band T-shirt (Pretentious, Moi?); protective boots; pants with plenty of secure pockets for ID, cash, and Etymotic Research high-quality earplugs; and the leather motorcyle jacket which has been providing protection against the slings and arrow of outrageous mosh pits since Metallica's And Justice for All... tour. All in this season's fashionable color: black.
We had a pre-show dinner at Saha
, where despite my feeling ridiculously inappropriately dressed, we were served very tasty Arabic-inspired California cuisine. (My favorite dishes were gigantes beans baked with assorted vegetables and goat cheese, and a salmon baklava - salmon wrapped in phyllo dough with mustard, walnuts, and honey.)
The Great American Music Hall is one of the nicer concert venues I've been to. It has lovely interior decor, with marble pillars and elaborate mouldings on the balconies. It's got balcony seating for those who want a good view of the action while staying out of the fray, and not only does it have a bar, but it actually has waitstaff who will come by and take drink orders between sets. (I didn't partake, but it gives the place a very civilized feel.)
I'd intended to spend the show watching from the balcony, because straining to see over the heads of taller guys and having to elbow people in the ribs in order to create space to breathe are not among my favorite concert memories from my younger days. But when we arrived, I found myself drawn to the floor. I decided to stake out a spot near the front at stage right so I could make an escape if needed. Daniel took a position in the balcony opposite where I was standing, so we could flash each other a thumbs-up between songs.
Stolen Babies were first up in the line-up. They had a small group of hardcore fans in attendance, and they seemed to go over pretty well with everyone else. They meld heavy metal stylings with acoustic instruments like accordion, trumpet, and double-bass into a mix that's both dark and bouncy. And their singer wears glittery eye makeup and can scream like a banshee. Plus, they have, in addition to a drummer, a percussionist who plays barrels, chains, and tambourine. I would happily see them again live.
A couple of photos:
Next up were Paradise Lost. This was the band that was the real draw for me. I must admit, without intending any disrespect to the other bands on the bill, that it baffles me a bit that these guys (apparently) can't headline a venue the size of the Great American Music Hall in their own right. As special guests on this bill, they played an 8 song set - they could have played one twice as long and still not played all of my favorite songs. (In fairness, everyone on the bill got too short a set. It's the price you pay for getting to see four bands and still getting out in time to catch the last BART train.)
Singer Nick Holmes started off the set with a hearty, "Hello 'Frisco!"(someone should really tell him we don't call it that) and then apologized for the fact that the band were English. (I'm slightly baffled as to why this should be at all a problem. I think this is one of these British self-deprecation things.) They played "The Enemy" and "Honesty in Death". Nick then introduced "Erased" by saying that he was the only member of the band who'd wanted to play the song, and so we should all cheer really loudly to annoy the rest of the band. I did my best to oblige. "Tragic Idol" was next, followed by "Forever Failure", which finally shut up the guy who'd been yelling, "Draconian Times!" between every song. (At one point, Nick turned to him and said, "Yes, that is the title of one of our albums.") "One Second," "In This We Dwell," and "Say Just Words" rounded out the set. I'd have loved it if they'd been able to slip in something from the Icon
or Shades of God
albums, but it was a good set given the time they had available.
The band sounded great, apart from Nick's vocals occasionally being drowned out a bit. I'm not sure if that was a sound problem or a singing problem. I'm not sure how the band's performance was received overall - I was about four people from the front of the stage, and everyone I could see seemed very enthusiastic. But at one point, Nick said to the audience, "Clap your hands even if you don't care. I'll pay you ten bucks after the show." So, it's possible that everyone behind me was standing stock still with their arms folded. Then again, at the end of the set, Nick did thank the audience for "being so receptive to this bunch of English gits." Maybe it's that self-deprecation thing again.
I do have to say that if the rest of the band was perceiving any lack of audience enthusiasm, it wasn't reflected in their performance. I was standing pretty much directly opposite guitarist Gregor Mackintosh, and watching him sing along, headbang, rip out guitar solos, and fight an eternally-losing battle to keep his hair out of his face was hugely entertaining. (Greg has one of the best heads of hair in heavy metal. It's this incredibly long curtain of straight black hair, which 10 seconds into any given song, all ends up in his face. At which point he tilts his head back and puffs mightily, trying to blow the hair away from his face, which merely results in a few tiny strands flying into the air and falling straight back in his face again. At suitably dramatic moments, he'll snap his head forward and then back, clearing his face for a few moments before gravity has its way again. All this without ever missing a note.)
I had a less good view of the other members of the band, but from what I could see and hear they were all playing their hearts out.
Here are the best of my mostly-terrible photos of the band (So excited to see Paradise Lost, forgot how to use focus on cell phone camera.):
Singer Nick Holmes and bassist Steve Edmondson (with his back to the audience):
A terribly out-of-focus shot of Greg, but it gives you some idea of what his performance looks like:
After Paradise Lost's set, I retreated to the balcony, where Daniel had saved me a seat, and settled in to watch the Devin Townsend Project. They ran goofy cartoons like "The Badger Song"
and "The Mango Song"
while the crew did the setup.
The showmanship award of the night definitely goes to Devin Townsend. He had weird videos playing on the screen behind him; he had guitars with purple lights on the fretboard; he had audience banter and interaction aplenty. (I felt bad for one guy I nicknamed "Dour Fan" - he stood stock still and impassive at the front of the stage for Devin's entire set, and at one point Devin called him out from the stage, saying, "Hey, you're not happy, are you?" and coaxed the guy into a reluctant high-five. I know it must be a bummer to be playing your heart out to people who look bored, and you've really gotta be pretty cranky not to crack a smile during a Devin Townsend show, but if a beardy Scandinavian-looking dude is standing there going "meh," I think you assume he's there for Katatonia and move on.)
At some point during Townsend's set, I apparently remembered how the focus on my camera worked:
I have to admit, that despite Townsend's showmanship and the serious musical chops displayed by him and his band, his was probably my least favorite set of the evening. I was entertained, but I wasn't moved. (Mind you, for me, anyone would be a let-down after Paradise Lost. On another bill, Townsend might easily have been the highlight of the night.) The audience as a whole clearly felt differently - there were people singing along, and mosh pits, and people waving Commander Ziltoid puppets and doing the silly dance to "Lucky Animals". I was honestly a bit afraid that the night's headliners, Katatonia, would be upstaged.
Silly me. They might not have light-up guitars, their on-stage antics might be limited to synchronized hair windmilling, and their between-song banter might not stray much from, "Thank you very much" and "We're gonna play a song from the new album," but Katatonia had the audience enthralled from the first few notes of "Dead Letters". They certainly were the tightest-sounding band of the evening: everything sounded crisp, clear, and precise. Remember "Dour Fan" from Devin Townsend's set? He sang along to every song, even the ones from the album that came out just over a week ago, and frankly looked like he was having a near-religious experience. He wasn't the only one, either.
The band seemed genuinely thrilled to be playing San Francisco, as well.
Gotta give credit for one bit of showmanship: At one point late in the set, singer Jonas Renske looked up at the balcony and made eye contact with each member of the audience there. When our eyes met, I couldn't help smiling, and he grinned back. It was simultaneously weird and cool to have that tiny moment of connection while the band was blazing away on stage.
And I got a picture of the band, hair a-flyin':
TL;DR: The show was great, and if you're into this kind of music, you should catch this tour
if you get a chance.