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Like a Viking: Opeth at Saratoga Winners.

Demons of the Fall
By Ann Morrow

Opeth, Devil Driver, Moonspell
Saratoga Winners, Feb. 21

‘For the next 30 seconds, I want to see everyone go insane,” said Michael Akerfeldt, leader of Stockholm’s Opeth. The command was unnecessary, since the staccato guitar-drum intro to “Deliverance” alone would’ve done the trick. A heartbreaking work of staggering compositional genius, the song was instantly recognized by several hundred fans, who went appreciatively insane for its entire 13 minutes. An epic mosaic of serpentine leads, exotic rhythms, cataclysmic percussion and dramatic shifts ranging from hauntingly sinister bridges (“Tell me how your heart’s in need/As I drown you in the sea”) to raging, contrapuntal choruses, “Deliverance” was arguably the high point in a 90-minute set of genre-exploding power and virtuosity.

As anyone who has explored the dark fringes beyond the corporate-rock feed loop knows, Akerfeldt is God. The unassuming vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter has steered the quartet from their early days in the early ’90s as a Death- influenced death-metal band to a creative juggernaut who’ve pushed extreme metal into uncharted realms (and unprecedented critical acclaim). One of those realms is the acoustic, and at Saratoga Winners on Saturday, the band fearlessly tossed several shiveringly gloomy ballads in with their intricately brutal opuses. The most well-received was “A Fair Judgment,” a delicate lament that showcased Akerfeldt’s plangent guitar plucking and startlingly pretty singing voice. The ease with which he switched from a troubadour croon to an expressive but seriously menacing growl was one of the evening’s many astonishments. Another was the stark force of drummer Martin Lopez (once of Amon Amarth), whose precision aggression left many with their jaws dropped all the way to the floor. The recent addition of a touring keyboardist added crystalline piano passages and subtle backing vocals to the band’s atmospheric textures.

Apparently in appreciation for the size and enthusiasm of the turnout, Opeth unearthed some songs from the past, including a hellishly gnashing “Demon of the Fall” and a rarely played track from Still Life that marked their embrace of ’70s prog rock. But it was selections from 2001’s Blackwater Park, the disc that catapulted the band to international attention, and its equally masterful follow-up, Deliverance, that made good on the quartet’s impressive reputation. With the barest echoes of the old deities (namely Iron Maiden and King Crimson), these “movements” (as Akerfeldt calls them) smoldered, stormed, and hypnotized in avalanching sequences. Mostly, the set expanded upon Opeth’s appearance at Valentine’s three years ago during their first U.S. tour, when they entranced a reverential crowd of about 40 headbangers—many of them from out of town.

On Saturday, the usually enigmatic Akerfeldt was relaxed and open, even singing a snippet of “Happy Birthday” in Swedish for an audience member. The stage design was effectively simple, consisting of roving spotlights; flying, waist-length hair; and the bobbing of a bass neck larger than the prow of a Viking ship. Apparently, Opeth apply their tour budget to where it really counts: The sound mix was stellar, with superb miking. And that’s as it should be for a band who can astound with a chord change.

One of the best bands to follow in Opeth’s furiously churning wake is Portugal’s Moonspell, who have a similar, although more melancholy and rhythmic, approach to blending melodicism with brutality—or as the band put it, “The horror of beauty, and the beauty of horror.” Moonspell are also the only black-metal band to rival Opeth for lyric writing, a talent that was showcased during their opening set. Concentrating on early releases such as Irreligious instead of last year’s Antidote (which the band played almost in its entirety three months ago when they opened for Cradle of Filth), the set prominently featured vocalist Fernando Ribeiro, who tamed his groaning basso profundo (the most powerful bellowing instrument this side of Type O Negative’s Pete Steel) to sing-song his bleakly poetic imaginings.

In between were Devil Driver, a West Coast thrash band who espouse a blue-collar ethos, and who seemed be the draw for the audience’s skinhead contingent. Recently formed by vocalist Dez Fafara (ex-Coal Chamber), the quintet incorporated a catchy array of the newest (and not-so-new) fashions in metal, from swing-core rhythms to Middle Eastern vamps. Thanks to the savage chops of the two guitarists, they pulled it off without sounding trendy.

Pour Some Sugar on Me

Nanci Griffith, Ollabelle
The Egg, Feb. 22

Nanci Griffith has that rare ability to pull you into her world nearly the minute she hits the stage. In fact, the moment she glided out into the spotlit area with her acoustic guitar, the very dimensions of the crowd and theater seemed to shrink, gathering themselves up in intimate half-lives until we all seemed at her feet, basking in her homespun glow. And whatever hard, cynical place in me had resisted Nanci Griffith in the past—which had cast a withering gaze on her folksy demeanor, plaintive vocal timbre and, well, overall niceness—immediately melted away in the charming, graceful presence of the genuine article.

Judging by her girlish vocal tones, one wouldn’t expect that she’s such a tall woman, a starkly thin wisp with her hair dusted gray. Upon reaching the mike, she immediately pointed out that she was up against the zeitgeist-shaking final episode of Sex and the City, professing that she was a fan. It was as if she were picking up an ongoing thread of conversation with an old friend that she’d been having for years. She also spoke frequently during the evening of her work with the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation’s campaign against land mines and even showed off a large antique Nixon-Agnew lapel button (“There’ll never be another election year where it’s appropriate,” she wryly noted of our current race.)

And then there was the easy flow of her songs. She kicked things off with a solo acoustic version of her classic “There’s a Light Beyond These Woods (Mary Margaret),” then introduced her three-piece veteran band (a pared-down version of her renowned Full Moon Orchestra). Together, the group hit their stride immediately with “These Days in an Open Book,” a slap-down gorgeous take on John Prine’s “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” and later a spirited version of the Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations.” (And let’s face it: The Stones’ occasionally country period, 1968-72, gave them their best stuff.)

Sure there’s a little syrup in what Griffith does—her take on “From a Distance,” for example, and her trotting out of “If I Had a Hammer” by way of encore—but she’s also casually elegant and, most importantly, a remarkable songwriter and performer. She’s also a bit of a goofball (in the best sense of that word), spilling bottled water on herself, making squeaky “help me!” character voices for a piece of paper she couldn’t find on her music stand. But we all were a little in love with her. It’s fitting that she was once a kindergarten teacher—she comes off like the lovely, kind teacher you never forget (or that some of us have seen only in movies).

She’s also one of the greatest songwriters to have dwelled in that less- commercial Nashville twilight between folk and country—a region far from the outsized, cornball theatrics of lumpen, jingoistic doofuses like Toby Keith, who have maligned country music with overt tributes to bad taste. But the Egg show was a firm reminder that Griffith’s work, along with that of fellow artists like John Prine and Townes Van Zandt, will withstand the historical tides.

As for the opener: Ollabelle were so good that, frankly, one worried for the headliner. (Fortunately it was Nanci Griffith.) The hip New York City Americana combo offered soul-shaking (even, uh, sultry) gospel and swamped-out Gulf Coast blues, underpinned by top-notch musicianship, glowing multipart harmonies and the yin-yang of vocalists Amy Helm (dark-haired brassy belter, daughter of the Band’s Levon) and Fiona McBain (angelic, blonde folkster with rounded Linda Thompson tones). This is the second time I’ve seen them in a year, and they keep getting better and better. They are a group to watch; it’s no wonder O, Brother visionary T-Bone Burnett signed the group, who are named after ancient Appalachian banjo woman Ola Belle Reed, to his DMZ label.

—Erik Hage

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