Concert Review: Testament, Stuck Mojo, Strapping Young Lad, Withstand (1997)

Testament, Stuck Mojo, Strapping Young Lad, Withstand
Bogie’s (Albany, New York), August 30, 1997

It was an odd change from the usual pace when hometown heavy heroes Withstand took to Bogie’s tightly-packed stage and began playing for a thin, loosely-packed audience. Why the reversal? On the stage side, it was because the three touring bands brought a full big-rig’s worth of equipment (and set it all up beforehand) to support their respective sonic onslaughts. And on the floor? We can only speculate that the crowd was thinned by Labor Day defections. Or by new college kids not yet understanding that the undercards are as good as the headliners at local hardcore and metal shows. Or by Withstand having to take the stage early due to the rigorously tight schedules imposed by the touring bands’ road management team. Or even by a particularly fine beer special back at the bar. Who can tell?

Whatever the reason(s), those who missed Withstand Saturday night lost out as the potent four-piece put on a short but intense set, highlighting material from their latest disc, . . . and anger was a warm place to hide. One interesting side- effect of the crowded stage was the opportunity to watch drummer Matt Fallon as he played on the front-line with his band-mates: his expressive and complex rhythms would have worked just as well at the Van Dyck as they did at Bogie’s, providing excellent insight into the mechanics of how Withstand swing so exuberantly in the spaces where many bands simply pummel.

Divinity students should be encouraged to attend Strapping Young Lad concerts in order to hear what bodies possessed by unclean spirits really sound and look like, as front-man Devin Townsend’s unbroken, high-speed stream of abusive, hateful gibberish certainly couldn’t have erupted from any human soul. Amazingly, Strapping Young Lad’s instrumental attack actually matched Townsend’s vocal assault: think Slayer-with- samplers for the general concept, then double the speed and intensity. Surprising, stunning and skull-ringing. And very, very, very cool.

Stuck Mojo offered a thinner, one guitar version of Strapping Young Lad’s twin-guitar aural assault; preprogrammed samples were also substituted for the Lad’s on-stage keyboard mayhem. Mojo’s unique sound came from their triple-voice interplay, which covered each of the heavy-music vocal stereotypes: they had the guttural growler on guitar, the strong- lunged shouter on guitar and the speed-demon, high octane wordsmith devoting himself solely to mouth-work. Powerful, but not quite as potent as the horror-show offered by Strapping Young Lad.

Testament also offered those three vocal styles, but they all came from one man: the hulking and hairy Chuck Billy, who did an utterly amazing job of switching between those voices at the drop of a dime-bag. Testament mixed material from their latest album, Demonic, into their hearty back-catalog, crafting a set that was as deep as it was loud–and believe me when I tell you that this was a loud set, indeed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a drum-kit as big as Testament’s outside of a Van Halen concert, as one noise-level datapoint.

Testament offered no encore Saturday night–not because the audience didn’t want one, but because I don’t think anyone involved in the show could have stood another minute of the volume. Kudos to the Testament-Mojo-Lad road-team and Bogie’s own crew for pulling this one off without anything exploding or melting down and for minimizing the between-set down-time through deft stage management. If you’d been there, you’d know what a clubland coup they pulled off.

Interview with Jerry Only of the Misfits (1997)

“We played a show in Cincinnati recently, on Mother’s Day,” says Misfits founder Jerry Only during a recent phone interview. “And at the end of the show, this lady and her son came up to us and the son was saying ‘Hey, man, look! I brought my mom down to the Misfits show for Mother’s Day!’ And we were all thinking that was pretty cool when the mother says ‘Y’know, I never really got it before, but now I get it, now I see what you guys are really up to.’

“So we all nodded at her and smiled and I finally asked her what it was that she thought we were really up to and she said ‘Oh, well, just great fun, I guess.’ And that really is what it’s all about for me after all these years: everybody can be part of the Misfits experience, everyone can participate, everybody can have a good time, all are welcome. I mean, this mother had never understood why her kid was so into the Misfits, but now she’s into us too. And I think that’s the coolest thing imaginable.”

It’s been just over 20 years since the original Misfits (including Jerry on bass, vocalist Glenn Danzig doubling on keyboards and Manny playing drums) played their first guitar-free gig at New York City’s infamous CBGB’s, two months before Jerry Only graduated from high school. “When we were doing the whole Misfits thing at the beginning, I was 17 and I was the youngster in the crowd,” he recalls. “Then a couple of years later my little brother Doyle joined the band as our guitarist, so the two of us were like the young blood that was being introduced into this older New York punk rock scene. Today it’s just the opposite: Doyle and I are the old guys now and most of our audience is in the 16- to 18-year old range.”

Jerry is quick to debunk any romantic myths related to the late-’70s New York City music scene. “Everybody that we were opening for back then, all the people who were heading the New York scene, they were all junkies,” he explains. “And they’re all dead now, so I want kids today to know that my reaction to those people was to just try and avoid them, to focus on my band and my little brother and then to get back to Jersey as soon as I could. It was just a really tough scene back then, and people talk about it today like it was the best thing in the world–when really it was just a total shambles.”

Despite their youth and relative isolation in the Jersey suburbs, the Misfits steadily ingratiated themselves into the underground cultural consciousness via a unique, genre-spanning musical vision that incorporated huge instrumental chops (neither punk nor hardcore nor metal, but something bigger than all three) and a nearly fetishistic appropriation of B-grade horror and science fiction movie aesthetics. After seven years of laboring in relative commercial obscurity, Danzig finally left the Misfits in 1983 to form Samhain and (later) the ongoing goth-metal band that now bears his surname.

Danzig’s unexpected walk-out sparked a lengthy legal struggle over rights to the Misfits name and royalties. The conflict took on a heightened sense of commercial significance in the late ’80s as a variety of bands (including Metallica, Guns n’ Roses and the Lemonheads) began playing Misfits covers and publicly citing the band as a seminal creative influence. (“The tributes were nice”, notes Jerry, “but I think that they threw a major misconception into millions of people about what the Misfits did because I don’t think we sounded anything like any of those bands.”) It wasn’t until January, 1995 that a final legal decision was reached, a decision that awarded Jerry Only and Doyle the right to revive the Misfits name.

“It was a long, hard battle,” says Jerry with a weary tone to his voice. “And the main factor in the time delay was that Glenn and others continued doing Misfits business under shaky terms for several years, so things were going out without our consent, without our release, and I was really concerned about the quality of the material that was being sold as the Misfits. As an example, Glenn re-recorded all of my bass tracks for [1985 B-side and rarities compilation] Legacy of Brutality. I was really aggravated by that move, because Legacy was probably the biggest selling Misfits item at the time and it wasn’t even me on there!”

Upon regaining the legal rights to his band’s catalog and name, Jerry and Doyle’s first act was to compile a four-disc box set of crucial Misfits material, appropriately issued in a coffin-shaped box by Caroline Records in 1996. “The whole purpose of the box, as far as I was concerned, was to make the rest of the unofficial ’80s catalog worthless as far as musical value went. The box also helped take care of the bootlegging problem: now you’ve got the box you’ve got 104 original tracks mixed and mastered the way they were intended to be.”

Jerry and Doyle also wasted no time in assembling a new live band, recruiting drummer Dr. Chud and singer Michale Graves to round out their new line-up. The revitalized ensemble has played two European tours to date under the Misfits moniker, as well as an East Coast headlining tour. The four-piece is currently in the middle of a 14-show regional jaunt that stops at Bogie’s on Saturday night, then will take a short break before embarking on a major summer tour with Megadeth. In concert, the new band has been offering lengthy sets that mix equal portions of vintage Danzig-era material with new works from the recent Geffen Records release, American Psycho.

After years of laboring on small and self-run labels, Jerry Only finds himself particularly gratified by the financial and creative support that came with the major-label record deal for American Psycho. “What Geffen does is they try to make me famous. What I try and do is help them,” explains Only, laughing. “And I think that we’ve earned the right to enjoy the benefits of the deal, y’know? So if anyone’s got any political or social dilemma about it, I just tell ’em to chill out and enjoy it, ’cause I certainly am. And Geffen has really been great to us, they’ve just done everything that we’ve asked them to do . . . even the bubblegum cards.”

Bubblegum cards? “Yeah, Geffen did this five-card set for us that tells the story of the band and has each of our pictures on a card. And after all these years of making music, I don’t even feel like the CD release is as big to me as these bubblegum cards are. I mean, people ask me ‘How will you know when you’re a success?’ and I say ‘I think I am now, ’cause I’ve got my own trading card.’

“Or here’s another way I can tell I’m a success: the other night my son, who’s 11 years old, starts yelling from his room ‘Dad! Dad! Come in here!’ and I’m thinking ‘Oh god, what’s up, has he got a giant raccoon or something crawling into his window? Am I gonna have to fight some fierce animal?’ But I get to his room and he’s watching professional wrestling, watching these two bald guys called the Headbangers–and one of ’em’s got a Misfits shirt on! And the Headbangers are jumping all over some guy and we’re going crazy yelling ‘Get him! Get him!’ and just having a great time. So, y’know, it’s hard paying the bills sometimes, but I got a trading card and I can tell my son to wear his Misfits shirt so he’ll grow up strong like the Headbangers . . . so life’s really pretty good these days as far as I’m concerned.”

Interview with Dave Matthews (1997)

Guitar, bass, drums, saxophone, violin.

It’s an intriguing line-up, typically used by art/prog types like Roxy Music (during their Eddie Jobson period) or Hawkwind (when Nik Turner and Simon House shared the stage). Unfortunately, few of those bands ever fully blended their jazzy reeds, classical strings and rock-rooted core instrumental trios into coherent wholes without subsuming one of the component pieces; when violin and sax were deployed together, they were usually assigned long open/drone roles while the rock instruments carried more conventional melody and rhythm lines.

The Dave Matthews Band (who kick off the SPAC Summer Season this Saturday with Ben Arnold) have spent six years working that odd art/prog line-up, but have done so with a strong 90’s spin–drones are out, folk/jazz jams are in; studio albums capture musical points in time, lovingly groomed tape trees fill in the spaces between the points; arty obscurity is jettisoned, heavy rotational popularity follows.

Guitarist/vocalist Dave Matthews didn’t plan it that way when the Charlottesville, VA-based band bearing his name was organized in 1990–the former bartender just wanted to make his music with guys he liked and respected.

“Well… we all just sorta met,” he explains during a phone call from Florence, Italy, where the Band are supporting their new album, Crash. “I had been a fan of Carter [Beauford, drums] for a long time; I was a friend of LeRoi [Moore, sax]; I knew Stefan [Lessard, bass] through his music teacher; I’d seen Boyd [Tinsley, violin] a few times when he came into the bar… I used to give him juice. It wasn’t me hiring anybody, it was more So do you want to work together? Yeh!.”

But wait… it’s the Dave Matthews Band, right? Isn’t the guy whose name is on the album cover the boss by default? Matthews demurs: “The name is very deceiving–it really is a democracy. I’m a figurehead in a way as a front-man, but musically the sound comes from all five of us.” It’s a sound that invites dissection, as pop, jazz, folk, rock, and blues elements continually criss-cross and overlap. Matthews himself has difficulty categorizing the sound or explaining where it came from: “Each band member brings his voice and brings the way that he plays. There are no rules, we play from our hearts. What you hear on the bass, that’s just Stefan–not Stefan trying to do something. LeRoi isn’t ever trying to be jazz guy or pop guy or soul man–he just plays the way he plays, so you’ll hear the way he reacts at a particular moment to a particular song. It’s really too hard for me to describe… so that’s why we just play it instead of talking.”

The Band has allowed people to tape its shows since its inception; the audience base built through tape exchanges fueled a strong demand for their (mostly-live) 1993 independent debut album Remember Two Things. “People tape shows anywhere if they can,” says Matthews. “But it’s cool that we have this underground trading system that I’m very into. Originally, it was our only way to get stuff out. We were doing quite well in Virginia, but we didn’t have an album out so we didn’t have any help from radio–so the whole foundation of our success was from that taping.”

RCA Records heard the buzz and signed the Band in 1994; their major label debut Under the Table and Dreaming hooked new devotees via heavy exposure to the kinetic single “What Would You Say?” and stayed near the top of the charts for much of 1995. The Band, touring as usual, took things in stride: “We didn’t expect it to be that successful, so we were surprised–but we weren’t sitting at home twiddling our thumbs saying I wonder how it did this week? We were playing every night so we’d get updates in passing; as we were running on stage someone would say It did better this week! and we’d say Oh, cool… bye!”

There may be a downside to this live-show focus and adulation–witness the critical blahs and mediocre market performance of most post-Pigpen Grateful Dead albums. Does Matthews worry that the Band’s studio albums may ultimately be rendered superfluous by concert tapes? “It hasn’t affected us yet”, he reflects, “I think our albums are very different from us live, so I hope people will like them because they’re different. I also hope that we can get better and better at making albums and then get out on the road and get better and better at playing live–so the two things stay completely independent from each other.”

One key difference comes from guitarist Tim Reynolds joining the band in the studio, but not on the road: “Tim’s been on every album we’ve done as an equal member, but when we go on the road he just doesn’t come out with us. It adds some mystery to the whole thing… whenever anyone asks me why he isn’t on the road with us I just say I dunno; it just turns out that we’re six when we’re making records but we’re five when we’re on the road.”

The Reynolds-fortified “What Would You Do?” garnered the Band its first Grammy nomination last year. “The nomination was cool,” Matthews recalls, “We all understand that it was a helluva thing, but we’re all just facing in a different direction. I’m personally glad that the honors are coming back to us… but it’s really not my department. My department is to go out a play and do the best I can musically for the people in front of me.” With that, Matthews and bandmates were off to soundcheck–and then to do the best they could to show the small group of Florentine club goers in front of them just exactly how intriguing that rarefied guitar, bass, drum, sax and violin line-up could be.