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You Slay Me

By Bill Ketzer

Unholy Alliance Tour

Washington Avenue Armory, June 29

This one was billed as the “first and last heavy-metal show at the Armory” by detractors, and you can understand why. Every herb-encrusted dirtbag who ever drank Old Milwaukee to Artillery’s Fear of Tomorrow within a 100-mile radius of Albany was there (some with their children, no less), credentials worn on their sleeves like a gauntlet of poison-tipped arrows. But it was glorious. Stirring, even.

I walked in just in time to be placed in a headlock by 104.9 FM’s Chris Lynch as Mastodon took the stage to the roar of “Iron Tusk.” Mastodon have a penchant for endlessly interpreting 6/8 time, and this creates a roiling, oceanic effect, their heft continuously crashing to a shore of shifting tectonics. I’ve probably said this before. It forces their payload to be delivered in unpredictable patterns, which makes headbanging an almost algorithmic endeavor, so for some it’s best just to drink plenty of water and let the amplification penetrate your body as one would, say, a backhoe regrading your spiritual retaining wall. “Where Strides the Behemoth” and “Blood and Thunder” stood out as chestnuts here. Splendid.

Lamb of God were titans, but they suffered a shaky start. Their crew couldn’t seem to dial the band in, and through the blissful, impetuous violence of “Ruin,” “Hourglass” and several other tracks from 2004’s Ashes of the Wake, the band had difficulty hearing one another. Once acclimated, however, LOG commenced to waste-laying with an excellent cross-section of wares that included the diabolical “Laid to Rest,” “Vigil,” “11th Hour,” and “The Faded Line.” I watched some poor Hesh catch an unfathomably powerful forearm to the face during the latter’s particularly apocalyptic breakdown, which rendered him unconscious for a good seven minutes. Why not? We’re all dying one day at a time anyway, and what better way than this, beneath or within what could only be described as some sort of heavy-metal Joshua Light Show? I thought I was at the Fillmore; I never actually saw the band except in silhouette, the kaleidoscopic rays of color spraying geometry into my eyes, leaving me vulnerable to fists, empty bottles and hepatic encephalopathy. But no matter. These men are true champions of the sport. Frank Bello of Anthrax assured me once that with bands like Lamb of God around, the future of metal is in good hands. I agree.

And finally, Slayer. Impossible to duplicate. Nothing else on the planet sounds like it. Album-quality precision. Their ability to reproduce their umbrage and tonnage in a significant live context is the finest measure of a heavy metal band’s unifying force. It validates every aging metalhead’s dedication, that 20 years later—through four presidential administrations, two wars, terrorist attacks on American soil, the psoriasis of modern country music gaining widespread acceptance, and competitive eating now a viable sport—Slayer still offer the same punishing infernal devastation, with a predictability I find hauntingly reassuring. Lombardo is back on the kit, and an ecstatic Jay Bittner from Shadows Fall rode shotgun on his riser steps, hair blown back by the rumbling G-force sortie of double bass (“My arms hurt from air drumming!” he told me later). My objective was to enjoy the show from a compassionate distance for once. This lasted for approximately three songs, and I can name them. “South of Heaven,” the ripping “Silent Scream” and the “War Ensemble” call to ruin. Soon after, I was dragged to the front where, during a heroic “Hell Awaits,” some skinhead the size of Paul Bunyan gleefully hoisted me and an accomplice in the air, one in each hand, and shook us like a pair of favorite rag dolls, keepsakes of which he seemed to be attempting to make guitarist Kerry King aware. If he noticed, you couldn’t tell, his scowling countenance like a big scoop of angry ice cream upon a cone of banded beard that looked like some sort of smudge stick that, when burned, reeks not of Nag Champa but of rotting animal flesh, which was, of course, fine by me. Outside after the show, I was offered a sip of Jagermeister and goat’s blood from a Tupperware container. As if.

Smart Time

Robbie Fulks

Club Helsinki, July 2

I think I know why Robbie Fulks crashed and burned in Nashville in the late ’90s. He’s just too damn smart. Around the last election, plenty of polls showed that “red-staters” (of which modern country-music fans are certainly a significant subset) were mighty suspicious of “smart people,” which explains why they voted for the Moron-in-Chief in such huge numbers.

And the world of alt-country music, in which Fulks is a major bright light, is populated by people who combine Ph.D.-worthy brains with a love for traditional country music. On Sunday night at Club Helsinki, Fulks delivered a staggering show of whip-smart and achingly funny songs that were chock-full of pure classic country affectations, musical mannerisms that all but disappeared from commercial country music at least a generation ago. The intelligence Fulks brings to the table and the brand of country music he’s a master of would be as alien to country radio today as gangsta rap. Maybe more.

Fulks opened the show by saying with a big smile, “Hey, here’s a song about suicide—hope y’all like it,” and he launched into “She Took a Lot of Pills and Died,” a song that sounded like a revved-up and happy version of any one of a number of ’60s George Jones singles, except that it was about a girl offing herself on drugs. For the next two hours, Fulks and his extraordinary three-piece band just smoked through a collection of twisted tunes about things like drinkin’, lovin’, the Bangles, bein’ lonely, and Buck Owens.

One would think that after banging his head against the country music door for almost 20 years, Fulks would be a little bit bitter and jaded; if he was it sure didn’t show. He sang in his reedy Gene Pitney-on-acid tenor with passion and purpose, and flat-picked his acoustic guitar like a demon. His solo acoustic segment was devastating; cry-in-your-beer tunes like Whispering Bill Anderson’s “Cocktails” were delivered with an almost euphoric intensity. The whole show rode a majestic arc that blew into a tour de force pinned-level rendition of “Let’s Kill Saturday Night,” the country cousin of “Born to Run.”

The band was right there with him, with guitarist Grant Tye peeling off a succession of perfect and magical solos, mimicking a pedal steel on his strat, and cooking every country guitar cliché in the book.

Coming back on stage to a now-frenzied packed house, Fulks pulled off a rapid-fire freestyle rap that rhythmically reviewed the evening’s proceedings, including comments from the crowd and various scientific theories he had expounded on earlier in the show. It was as brilliant as it was unexpected. In any other era, I suspect that Fulks would be a revered superstar. But I guess these days you get these guys who are just too damn smart for country music happily jacking their wares in 100-seat clubs, while the dumbed-down plastic-hat guys play Wal-Mart music to NASCAR people in big arenas. Damn shame.

—Paul Rapp

PHOTO: Chris Shields

He’s a Blues Man

Keb’ Mo’ took the stage Friday night at the Egg. The blues artist just won a Grammy for his album, Keep It Simple. Mo’ has been touring in support of his new album, Suitcase. After this tour wraps, Mo’ will tour with Bonnie Raitt this summer and fall.





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