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The Cult @ The Paul Paul Theater, Fresno CA 10/07/16

It’s pretty cool when an international rock group of this caliber and history does a date like Fresno or Bakersfield. Like a friend of mine had mentioned, it keeps us from having to fork out the extra money and time spent traveling to a primary market like LA or San Francisco. Gigs like that are usually a 3 hour drive for most people in this area. Fans in the Central Valley have to pick and choose wisely when it comes to pricey out of town “big” gigs like that. And these days it seems like EVERYONE’s touring. To be more accurate, there are more options to choose from, with groups hitting the road with more frequency even without new material to support, flooding the market with an overwhelming amount of live options. The Cult, at least, were still touring in support of Hidden City, a worthy offering of new material featuring the rocking “Deeply Ordered Chaos.” The Cult have been called the hard rock version of U2. I don’t really see the comparison, but for me, the Cult are a mixture of post-punk hard rock infused with blues and dark wave. Think of bluesy hard rock like Led Zeppelin, plus the baritone of Jim Morrison, the psychedelic mysticism of The Doors, with a dash of Joy Division and early Cure. It was an early set, beginning around 7:15pm with no opener. The energy level in the venue was ok but not quite up to Cult standards. Ian Astbury was engaging the crowd and playfully remarked “tomorrow you will get Country annnd Western. But tonight, you will get Rock n’ Roll.” Numbers-wise, it was a strong turn-out. From what I could see the venue was at least 3/4 full, which is great considering the area and minimal promotion. The Central Valley is a hot spot for country, big name pop and urban acts. The unfortunate reality of a well known rock group touring in a secondary market (especially a rural secondary market) is that you’re going to get an audience of mostly casual fans. Support for rock artists in this area is difficult to assess or even describe. There was a healthy sized crowd present and they were appreciative, but it appeared that most of them were only familiar with the group’s mainstream period of work, albums like Love, Electric and Sonic Temple. Sure there were die-hards present, rocking out, singing their lungs out to the majority of the live set, but from my position at least, they were few and far between. Astbury commented that the group would be performing 3 new selections, and in a playfully self-deprecating move, said “Don’t drift away now, come back, come back, it’s not like we’re in Fresno every week…get it while it’s hot!” 

The performance was mostly good. For most of the set, the group played ferociously. John Tempesta’s drums thumped and rumbled along while Billy Duffy’s guitar smoldered. Damon Fox of Big Elf was recently added to the touring line up, handling keyboard and rhythm guitar duties. Grant Fitzpatrick on bass is another recent addition to the lineup, rounding out the rock solid rhythm section. The live renditions flew over with power. Stand out performances for me were “Wild Flower,” “Rain,” “Fire Woman,” “Deeply Ordered Chaos,” “Love Removal Machine” and “Sweet Soul Sister.” Frustratingly, what was an otherwise very solid set tanked with “She Sells Sanctuary,” one of their most beloved and widely-known numbers. The vocal delivery was uninspired and lacked effort. Astbury was phoning it in. The first verse was practically spoken word. The rest of the vocal performance was just as disappointing, picking up only at the outro. I had waited the whole set to hear this song in particular and upon hearing it live, I thought “what the hell!?” I don’t know if Astbury’s short winded vocals made the rest of the band sound bad, but on SSS, Billy Duffy’s guitar tone wasn’t as magical and John Tempesta’s drumming sounded restrained and tame compared to his playing on the rest of the set. It was like the energy level got dialed back down when there should have been a climax. Pardon the analogy, but it’s like we got blue-balled. The group rescued the set when they returned for an encore of “Love Removal Machine.” It was a good ending to the show but I was still bummed about the lackluster rendition of “She Sells Sanctuary.” Still glad I was able to catch The Cult at a local venue, makes me wonder what the gig would have been like in Oakland or LA.

Lamb of God/Anthrax/Deafheaven @ Hollywood Palladium, Los Angeles 02/12/16

Metal fans will want to smack me, but I walked into this gig as a curious novice more than anything. I was a fan of drummers Charlie Benante and Chris Adler, not necessarily of their bands, Anthrax or Lamb of God. But the value in this tour package was unbeatable: 4 groups for $50 after fees. WOW. Power Trip and Deafheaven would open and I had zero familiarity with either band, so this particular concert offered a LOT of new music for me to experience. First and foremost, it was a chance to see thrash legends (and survivors) Anthrax for the first time. It was also a chance to see Lamb of God, one of the most important flag bearers of the new wave of American heavy metal. The trip itself was an adventure, no thanks to bing maps. Security was impressively tight, with the ladies being asked to empty the contents of their purses (a surprising amount of ladies I might add). Even the guys had their wallets finely inspected. The staff were so thorough, one robust latina said “aye, I felt like I just got to second base!” I’m surprised they didn’t check the guys for hernias. Power Trip had wrapped up their set by the time I walked into the Palladium. The show was a sell-out, 4,000 metal-heads packed into this hall, even the balcony looked like it was busting at the seams.

Deafheaven took the stage and I had no idea what to expect. What erupted from the stage was a shocking mash-up of black metal and…The Cure??? Or maybe Tristeza. It sounded like black metal…the relentless blast beats and hellish, shrieking vocals were there. But this group of Californian short-hairs didn’t look like your typical black metallers (no sleek long black hair or corpse makeup) and what really set them apart were the frequent breakdowns and transitions into these delicate, dreamy instrumental passages that reminded me of shoe-gaze or brit pop music. It was atmospheric, reverb drenched, and dare I say lovely. Lots of eighth notes with echo and spacey sounding voicings. Those tender moments were obliterated when the songs picked up momentum again and vocalist George Clarke opened his mouth. I prefer clean vocals, but I have to give credit to Clarke for the way he shrieked without disruption, making the voice serve as an additional instrument, adding more dark coloring to Deafheaven’s palette of sound. I stood there, confused and intrigued at the same time. There were definitely some Deafheaven followers in the crowd. There was the obligatory “You guys suck!” but I think the majority of the audience was just trying to figure them out. The group performed “Brought to the Water,” “Luna,” “Come Back” and “Dream House.” The coolest moment of the set occurred during their final number. Randy Blythe, vocalist for Lamb of God, joined George Clarke for a duet on “Dream House.” To people unfamiliar with that type of ‘singing,’it may simply sound like two men screaming and growling over ambient (or wussy, depending on your taste) music. The duet was actually pretty cool. Clarke’s ghostly shrieking combined with Blythe’s fry-screaming complimented each other shockingly well. Clarke’s screams were nasally, higher in pitch and timbre. Blythe’s baritone growls were a great contrast to Clarke’s style. To a newbie it may have sounded like guttural noises but there was still a musical statement in that vocal chaos. This isn’t screaming in the basic and literal senses, there’s a technique to this kind of extreme singing, not coming from the throat or the lungs, but elsewhere, like the nasal cavity and chest. Not loving this stuff but I’ve got a newfound respect for it.

Next up was the first headliner, Anthrax, from Queens, New York. Anthrax are survivors as well as barrier breakers. They’ve weathered changing musical climates, tragedy, personnel changes and still continue to make challenging, powerful music. Four of the five members of the classic lineup remain. Their 2011 album Worship Music was considered a triumphant return to form and fans are eagerly awaiting the new 2016 album. They were one of first metal/hard rock groups to embrace hip-hop (I’m The Man, Bring Tha Noize). As one of the “Big 4,” Anthrax is arguably the most unique of the bunch, in that their music includes two key ingredients lacking in the music of Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer: Humor and melodic, acrobatic singing. They’re metal jokesters and they’ve got a singer that can soar like an eagle. Anthrax came onstage to a rousing cheer. They didn’t mess around. The group wasted no time and launched into their set, giving the crowd a pounding dose of frantic, thrash classics like “Fight ’em Till You Can’t,” “Caught in a Mosh,” “Got the Time,” and the riveting anti-greed anthem: “Antisocial.” Scott Ian strummed the intro on his Jackson Flying V, and by instinct, much of the crowd sang along: “ohh-ohhhh, ohh-ohhhh…woah-ohhhhh, woah-ohhhhhhhh.” Singer, Joey Belladonna grinned from ear to ear and said “we’ve got a lot of old-schoolers that know this sooooong!” Frank Bello and Charlie Benante began playing along and sped up the tempo, adding some thunderous low end, while Scott Ian and Jon Donais cranked out the intro on their guitars. We continued singing and Belladonna gave the signal to give it more nut, and we followed suit, the crowd singing louder and louder, building a crescendo. Anthrax’s set lasted a bit over and hour. They played 8 selections in all, rounding out the set with newer material such as “Evil Twin,” “In the End,” “Breathing Lightning,” and finally closing with the timeless “Indians.” “Indians” is something else. It’s a war-dance inducing, fist raising anthem about the wrongs experienced by our Native American brethren. The group were able to channel their inner ‘Indian brave’ with this song, Charlie pounding out a rhythm on the toms that sound like tribal war drums. It’s one of the more serious Anthrax songs: “On reservations, a hopeless situation. Respect is something that you earn, our Indian brothers getting burned. Original American, turned into second class citizen.” Joey Belladonna is half Iriquois Nation, and he looks like a native warrior up there on stage, slender frame, long wild black hair and that fierce gaze. He can also sing with an equal amount of fierceness and agility. Vocally, if Ronnie James Dio and Steve Perry had a kid, he would sound like Belladonna. That’s right. Steve Perry. Even Eddie Trunk once told Scott Ian that they have a Steve Perry in their band. Belladonna’s melodic singing voice has been preserved relatively well and there are stand out performances on the Worship Music album. Their set came to an end and the crowd went berserk. Anthrax probably could have headlined this bill.

Finally came main headliners Lamb of God. The crowd roared for their metal heroes as they blasted their way into “Desolation.” The group employed greater production than the previous bands, complete with video screens and a bitchin lazer show. LOG’s style of music is highly technical, aggressive, yet it grooves. It’s challenging, head scratching music – as a drummer I still can’t wrap my head around most of those parts. There are abrupt time signature changes and crazy triplets on the feet, however the tempo of the music is not particularly fast. It has more in common with groove metal but with greater playing ability. That kind of technical prowess gives the music a more machine like sound, with the guitar parts supporting the drums and vice versa. There are a lot of heavy, staccato riffs which compliment the snare and double bass drumming. It’s like a wall of aggression, controlled aggression, while still laying down a muscly groove that you can bob your head to. The pummeling continued with more molten slabs of metal like “512,” “Walk With Me in Hell,” “Still Echoes” and “Ruin.” The major change up in the set occurred when “Overlord” was performed, the only selection to feature traditional, clean vocals. It was still no less brutal and powerful. LOG powered through the remainder of their set, performing 12 songs before the encore break. By that time several pits had erupted. The fans were rabid. There was also a moving tribute included during “Something To Die For,” the group honored the men and women in the armed forces during that song. “Vigil,” “Laid to Rest,” “Redneck” and a cover of “Unite Forces” completed the set. During the last number, Scott Ian, Charlie Benante and the guys from Power Trip joined LOG onstage. Bone crushing ensemble. The only way to describe this show was enjoyably exhausting. It takes stamina to perform that kind of material and to withstand it as an audience member. There was an awesome amount of diversity to this bill and I feel so fortunate that I was able to experience it. My Hearos hi-fi ear plugs were a life saver. There was no way I could get through a 4hour+ show in a smaller venue and not experience hearing loss for the next few days. By the way, those particular ear plugs are designed to allow some of the high end to filter through, so you can still enjoy much of the high frequency parts. Great product.

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Bruno Mars @ The Save Mart Center, Fresno CA 05/27/14

My lady and I actually scored some pretty good seats for this gig. At 10am on the dot, I logged onto ticketmaster the first day of the onsale and scooped up some first row Loge seats. It feels like it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a full-fledged “show,” an actual concert spectacle. There was the performance and then there was the show. The band put on an amazing performance, professional, exhilarating and super entertaining. And the pyro, video, light and lazer show were performances unto themselves. Bruno Mars and the Hooligans turned the Save Mart Center into one giant, glitzy blow-out. Even with all the flash and fancy production, the group was unbelievably loose and playful. There was plenty of room for improvisation, a playfulness with the audience, and they possessed what seemed like an endless supply of spontaneity. Those guys weren’t just working…yes they were working their asses off, but they were having FUN and one couldn’t deny the joy onstage and off.

The start time was scheduled for 8pm. Opener Aloe Blacc promptly began his set and he did a great job of setting the stage for Bruno. Aloe Blacc did an impressive job of engaging the audience and keeping the arena captivated. He’s a natural performer and he’s a great mixture of soul, funk, r&b and hip hop. The arena was mostly full by the time Blacc’s set began. He played to a welcoming and appreciative crowd. The rhythm section laid down a fat beat and what I found really interesting is that his drummer used a low tuned snare, making for a warm, thuddy sound reminiscent of 70s soul recordings. Think of the snare drum sound on Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” In fact Stevie Wonder played the drums on that recording and he had a tshirt draped over the drum itself, giving it that low-fi, low pitched sound. In fact during his set, Blacc reminisced about soul and r&b artists from generations ago, particularly Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Bill Withers. Blacc is the perfect successor to artists like that. He had the look and he definitely had the sound. Highlights for me included a rousing performance of Avicii’s “Wake Me Up.” Wow, that track came alive and I could see the smiling faces on the floor. It was like a wave, the crowd was being won over row by row. I didn’t realize this but Mike Enzinger, guitarist for INCUBUS plays the acoustic guitar parts on this song. Other songs included “I Need a Dollar,” Loving You is Killing Me” and of course the other stand out gem, “The Man.” First time I saw that music video I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Blacc’s set ended triumphantly, I’m sure he gained a ton of new fans that night. After what seemed like an extra long wait (45 minutes actually), Bruno Mars and The Hooligans took the stage to rabid applause.

Bruno easily channeled the spirit of Motown in his performance, without looking like some kind of wannabe. It was like watching a modern version of The Temptations or the Jackson 5. From the smooth and soulful vocals to the choreographed foot work, the entire group grooved, boogied and danced for 100 minutes or so. Join The Hooligans and you’ll probably lose weight and come out looking like an athlete. It was a controlled energy. I can only compare it to the onstage energy of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, only with greater style and less manic lol. Bruno Mars is an insanely talented multi-instrumentalist, playing piano, acoustic and electric guitar and even taking over some lead work during a few songs. He’s also a sick drummer, laying down an entertaining mini-solo leading into “Locked Out of Heaven.” His vocal delivery was so sweet and smooth, not a single mess-up and he made it all seem so easy, just pure fun and joy. The Hooligans are a 9 piece group including Bruno, complete with the usually combo of drums, bass, keys, guitar, as well as trumpet, trombone and what looked like a baritone sax player. Phil Lawrence served as back-up vox, trading leads with Bruno on several songs. John Fossit wowed me with a very impressive piano solo, showing off his technical wizardry and classical training. Eric Hernandez on drums provided an astonishing foundation. That back beat was perfect. The boom-cha of the bass drum and snare were so beefy, cutting and commanding. I love it when a rhythm section can shake the venue and make you feel the grooves in your chest. And honestly, a live band with a wimpy rhythm section will quickly kill the mood and the vibe. Not these guys.

It was definitely a show for the ladies.  They swooned while he crooned. The group even serenaded “Danielle” in the front row, each of the group members taking turns with the mic, laying down their own version of a heart stopping R&B breakdown complete with the famous ‘slide-in’, finally ending with their patented “thug R&B breakdown” which probably melted the entire pit section of the audience. Girls were fanning themselves and squealing. It was a pop and R&B audience with fans of all ages, including young kids and some older folks. The house was definitely full. I surveyed the nosebleeds and couldn’t find an empty seat in the place. The audience was captivated and filled in nicely on the sing-along sections, especially to songs like “When I Was Your Man,” “Just the Way You Are,” “Nothin On You” and “Grenade.” I don’t know if many people caught this, but the group included a section of “It Will Rain” from the Twilight Saga (shudder), attached to “If I Knew.” What tripped me out were the surprise interpolations of R. Kelly’s “Ignition,” 2Pac and Dre’s “California Love.” Very sneaky, very cool. During the extended outro to “Just the Way You Are,” I swear I could hear Phredley Brown playing the guitar riff to The Cure’s “Push,” most likely just a happy accident, but it would be bitchin’ if the part was actually inspired by Robert Smith.

Aside from the tall lanky white guy that “surfed” to the music and his ex-stripper girlfriend (she moved like a stripper anyways), it was a pretty damn good show and well worth the money. At this point Bruno only has a couple albums worth of material, and the most recent release, Unorthadox Jukebox is less than 40 minutes in length! But the group was still able to stretch out their stage time, play a great variety of songs plus some covers and it was still a generous set.

Moonshine
Natalie
Treasure
Money (That’s What I Want) / Billionaire / I Need a Dollar
Show Me / Our First Time /California Love/ Pony /Ignition
Marry You
If I Knew / It Will Rain
Runaway Baby
Nothin’ on You
When I Was Your Man
Grenade
Just the Way You Are
___________________________
Drum Solo / Locked Out of Heaven
Gorilla

 

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