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Monster of rock: Down at Northern Lights. Photo by Joe Putrock.

Kill Devil Fills
By Bill Ketzer

Northern Lights, July 30

When I was a kid, I used to play a game called Dungeons & Dragons. I wasn’t smart or imaginative enough to understand it that well, much less be good at it, but there was a supplement to the game called The Monster Manual, which described in colorful detail the nature of beasts that young paladins could expect to encounter during their adventures. I haven’t picked it up in a while, but I am quite sure that Down front man Phil Anselmo is in there somewhere, maybe under the category of “horned devil.” All the attributes are there: thick hide, difficult to kill, poisonous if eaten. I can say with relative confidence that he has worn the same cutoff flannel every day on this tour. The man is awash in his own filth, but it is a virtuous filth.

“I feel fuckin’ great,” he tells the capacity crowd, with arms stretched in faux martyrdom. “Are you ready? I wanna see y’all tear this shit up.”

And, predictably, it was so. With a resounding “WHOAAAARRGGH,” this reborn heavy-metal übernaut rumbled into something so bottom-heavy, so immense and brutally corporeal (even in a stationary position, I could feel my love handles flapping) that the jock-rockers and longhairs abstained from establishing any real mosh pit, and simply began trading horrific blows. The band—culled from the cookie jars of Pantera, Corrosion of Conformity, Crowbar and Eye Hate God—are steeped in a primitive New Orleans practicality that can do that kind of thing to you. Drawing equally from 1995’s Nola and this year’s Down II: A Bustle in Your Hedgerow, the outfit ripped through uplifting gems like “Lifer,” “Beautifully Depressed” and “Ghosts Along the Mississippi,” throwing out riff upon riff of weapons-grade rock, stopping only to pick up local demos flung onto the stage by young hopefuls looking for a big break. Completely self-absorbed, unimpressed with spontaneous audience titty-flashes and armed with a musical catalogue our Allied Forces could have used at Normandy, Down are no doubt hard men for hard times. Disagree? The band recorded their first effort during a locust swarm, for cryin’ out loud. How iron is that?

For all the abuse it’s seen, Anselmo’s voice remains frighteningly bluesy, haunted and full of a sort of resigned disdain. The entire unit is as single-purposed as a panzer division, but it is clear that Anselmo’s experiences and those of COC’s Pepper Keenan are the primary inspiration behind much of the payload. Keenan’s watermark was obvious during the Iommi-goes-to-the-French-Quarter riffs of “Rehab,” “Temptations Wings,” and most of the other fare. No greenhorn himself in the vocal department, Pepper is 1,000 feet tall and rising, looking more like Thor by the day and pounding the crap out of his SG. Some guys just happen to look like they do 500 push-ups daily, even if they don’t.

Regrettably, a sloppy mix plagued much of the set, but nobody seemed to give a rat’s arse. Would you? Besides, the evening’s finest moment was soon upon them, the utterly debilitating closer “Bury Me in Smoke.” Crunchier than a wood chipper, more plodding than a woolly mammoth, and goodnight Irene. So terrific was this spiritual, emotional and physical beating administered at the hands of these good ol’ boys that they were forced to cancel their appearance at Montreal’s Parc Jean Drapeau the following day, the horned devil himself having scratched his cornea in Clifton Park, allegedly after smashing his face with the mike whilst in headbanging mode.

Tempt not a desperate man.

Freak Scene

J Mascis, Chris Brokaw
Valentine’s, Aug. 1

Despite being billed as a rare acoustic performance, J Mascis’ solo show at Valentine’s was not lacking in the sort of ear-rattling guitar freakouts that Mascis—who founded the influential indie-grunge band Dinosaur Jr.—is known for. Acoustic or not, it seems that Mascis can’t resist plugging his guitar into a bevy of effects pedals—including the kind that are capable of turning a harmless-looking acoustic guitar into an instrument of brute force.

Last Thursday’s show started out plainly enough. Wearing owlish, tortoise-rimmed glasses, his shoulder-length hair now streaked with gray, the taciturn Mascis looked more schoolmarm than alternative-rock deity. Seated and strumming an acoustic guitar, he opened with a couple of his better-known songs: “Thumb,” from Dinosaur Jr.’s Green Mind, and “What Else Is New,” a well-chosen nugget from Dinosaur Jr.’s Where You Been. Midway through the latter song, however, Mascis unleashed some foot-pedal trickery, and the dumbfounded crowd stood with jaws agape as shards of wailing electrified guitar blasted out of the speakers.

The rest of the set proceeded in similar fashion, with Mascis veering unexpectedly from acoustic balladeer to heavy-metal god of thunder, and back again, within the same song. On “Everybody Lets Me Down,” a new song from the forthcoming J Mascis and the Fog album, Free So Free, Mascis punctuated the plaintive quiet moments with jarring bursts of his fuzzed-out guitar shredding. The overall effect was somewhat akin to watching a black-and-white film that suddenly explodes into Technicolor.

Admittedly, the novelty of Mascis’ nifty pedal effects eventually wore off toward the end of the set, and they couldn’t totally compensate for the overall sameness that pervaded much of his material. Still, Mascis closed with a couple of Dinosaur Jr. classics (“Repulsion,” “The Wagon”), his prickly voice cracking and warbling in the usual, familiar places.

Opener Chris Brokaw earned his musical pedigree in a pair of well-respected 1990s indie-rock bands. Following his tenure as a drummer in the New York City band Codeine, who released two albums on Sub Pop, Brokaw joined the Boston-based Come in the early 1990s as a guitarist and occasional singer-songwriter. The critically lauded Come tended to explore harrowing blues-grunge territory, and Brokaw’s Valentine’s set found him painting in broad strokes with a similarly dark palette. Tapping out the beat on a tambourine strapped to his foot, Brokaw performed melancholic songs driven not so much by lyrics or vocals (in fact, about half of his songs were instrumentals). Rather, much like J Mascis, Brokaw conveyed emotion through the expressiveness of his richly textured guitar playing.

—Kirsten Ferguson

Death Becomes Them

Nile, Arch Enemy, Hate Eternal
Saratoga Winners, Aug. 1

The roar. That’s how you know you’re at a death-metal show, even before walking into the club: It pours through the door jambs as you’re buying a ticket or showing ID. The roar sounds like magma as it rockets from the earth’s molten center with enough velocity to burst through the tectonic crust, mixed in with the wails of the damned and the groans of the oppressed.

Hate Eternal have the roar. And the attitude: Sheer malevolence freshly unleashed. And the chops, courtesy of Erik Rutan, formerly of Morbid Angel. And He must also have been some unseen, unholy force behind them, because there’s just no way three guys—even three large, road-hardened guys—could produce the tidal waves of momentous noise that rolled over Saratoga Winners last Thursday like the soundtrack to the end of the world. Songs as black and steaming as fresh-poured tar from the band’s new King of All Kings release showed a huge improvement over their grindcore debut (and a wash of Nile influence), and were scarifying enough to propel the band onto a higher plane of sonic demonology.

Rutan has an inhumanly high forehead and hip-length hair, making his neck- cracking hairwhips that much more entertaining. His ripped-from-the-bowels-of-hell vocals were augmented by the bassist’s creepily high-pitched caterwaul; the effect of their harmonizing was striking, to say the least, especially considering Rutan’s shrieky, amelodic guitar riffs. During between-song guitar changes, the air was rent by recorded snippets of tolling bells and Gregorian chants, keeping the fiendish mood intact instead of breaking it with stage patter. And really, what was there to be said in the face of music that monstrous?

Sweden’s Arch Enemy bounced onstage like rock stars of old, which some of them are: The band’s résumé includes Carcass and Candlemass. While crisscrossing from side to side with an embarrassing amount of enthusiasm and self-approval, they were rewarded with the strongest round of applause of the evening, a racket that increased geometrically with the appearance of the new lead Enemy, Angela Gassow from Germany. The rowdy strawberry blonde vocalized in the standard howling-windstorm style, while her confrontational attitude was best described by the patron who shouted out, “I am Iron Bitch!” Gassow may be the only front woman in the entire deathly realm, but if she really wanted to be shocking, she could’ve sung the songs (then again, there is only one Karyn Crisis). The band started out with some “old-school,” meaning basic, riff-laden American (not Swedish) heavy metal; however, as the set wore on they moved from the ancient history of the mid-1980s to about the year 2000, and the last two or three tunes were acceptably charred and churning.

Speaking of ancient history, the headliners, Nile, have that territory staked out—you know something especially wicked is afoot when the crowd of black T-shirts is sporting slogans like “The scourge of Amalek is upon you.” Nile may be from South Carolina, but their phenomenally dense, fast, and convoluted reincarnation of primeval Middle Eastern music comes from deep within the catacombs—via the very latest in axes and amps. But even without the programmed coloration of ram’s horn, temple gong and sitar, Nile still would’ve invoked the clash of great armies: Revered for their epic dynamics, the band’s lengthy set veered between cataclysmic battle marches and relentless laments for the fallen.

Chief Spires is the band’s glowering showman, a position probably determined by physiognomy: The bassist’s gargantuan muscles and deep-set eyes can be compared only to those of a wild boar. Nile’s netherworldly bellow, however, erupted from the larynx of the unassuming guitarist, whose undulating and wildly keening leads were as inescapable as a mummy’s curse. Yet in lesser company, drummer Pete Hammoura would’ve been the star of the endless night for his sizzling rolls and monolithic crescendos. Pulverizing the rafters like a well-oiled catapult, Nile finished the set with a jaw-dropping, sustained assault composed of “Black Seeds of Vengeance” (from their 2000 breakthrough disc) and the mesmerizing “Unas Slayer of the Gods” from an upcoming release. But for some inexplicable reason, most of the crowd had drifted out after Arch Enemy, passing on one of the most creative and talented bands in all of metaldom. Blame it on Amalek.

Ann Morrow

Do Right Woman, Do Right Man

Bonnie Raitt, Lyle Lovett
Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 4

As Bonnie Raitt herself said during her set at SPAC on Sunday, this is the best double bill of the summer. She and Lyle Lovett made for a nicely matched co-bill: While contrasting in most regards, they both evoke, honor, explore and advance a range of fertile traditions. Neither one of them falls squarely into neat categories, straddling genres with an ease that was apparent from the time of their respective debuts.

Lovett opened the show, hobbling out to center stage and taking a seat, surrounded by his 16-piece Large Band. (In March his right leg was seriously fractured by a bull on his farm; the 20 pieces are being held together by an apparatus around his lower leg, which exerts pressure via a series of wires in a sort of portable traction unit.) With a quartet of backup singers (including the amazing Francine Reid, who took a solo turn midset), the four-piece Muscle Shoals Horns, piano, two drummers, steel, guitar, bass, cello and violin, the settings varied from small combo to the full ensemble, from celebratory gospel to Texas swing. The stage was a regal panorama in black and white, with the assembled players semi-formally attired in front of the simple elegance of a black curtain. The show was a well-paced and -chosen overview of Lovett’s output. For the encores, Raitt joined him, first to duet on the stirringly beautiful “North Dakota,” and then strapping on her Stratocaster to play slide guitar and sing along on “You’ve Been So Good up to Now” (which also sported a surprise instrumental middle section, during which all instruments dropped out except the maniacally soloing cellist over a simple pulse beat of a bass drum).

Raitt’s and her quartet’s 90-minute set was a more earthy affair. With the backdrop a strikingly regal display of modulating color, she offered up songs primarily from her career-rejuvenating 1989 album Nick of Time and beyond. Her recent Silver Lining was showcased as well, with the new and the familiar blending together seamlessly as the tight little band gave them powerful punch and heft. With the sound anchored by the rhythm section of bass player Hutch Hutchinson and drummer Ricky Fataar (who’s been playing with Raitt off-and-on since her overlooked 1982 album Green Light), there was subtlety and space for a number like “Have a Heart,” and then funky swagger for the John Hiatt-penned “Thing Called Love.” Two of Lovett’s backup singers, Arnold McCuller and Sweet Pea Atkinson, have sung with Raitt on record over the years, and they joined her for “Nick of Time.” Lovett slowly made his way back onstage for a duet on the Dan Penn chestnut “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” additionally bolstered by the horn section.

The excessive heat of the day never really dissipated, and in both sets the full amphitheater and surrounding grounds felt momentarily lifted from the blanket of humidity each time a ballad was offered up—among them Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and Lovett’s “Flyswatter/Ice Water Blues.” Perfectly magical relief on a hot night.

—David Greenberge

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