Saturday, February 19, 2011

Concert Review: Motorhead

Concert Review: Motorhead at The Eagles Ballroom; Milwaukee, Wisconsin
w/ support acts Clutch and Valient Thorr
Wednesday; February 17, 2011
Review written by Tom Wilmeth

“Motorhead? You are going to see Motorhead?”
“Hear them, more likely.”
“I’ll regret it if I don’t.”
“What was their big hit?
“They didn’t have one.”
“‘Ace of Spades’ probably comes closest.”
“Never heard of it.”
And so the conversation was repeated with various people during the weeks before the concert.

“Who are you going with?”
“Can’t find anybody who wants to go.”
“And you’re going anyway?”
[See above . . . ]

Since starting to take really heavy metal more seriously a few years back, some bands went from being quasi-joke status to worth checking out. The single thing that had the greatest impact on my change of attitude was XM’s Liquid Metal station, and especially Ian Christie’s informative show Bloody Roots. I listen to this show and the Devil’s Dozen overview of new metal releases each week, learning quite a lot along the way.

Motorhead’s early 80’s live album No Sleep ‘til Hammersmith opened a world of rock that had largely been outside my experience. I knew some guys who were into Black Sabbath back in high school 40 years ago, but that was about it. Hearing Hammersmith – I was strangely impressed, but I certainly did not immediately embrace this genre. In fact, for a long time I thought of it in the same way I viewed the most avant-garde of jazz – as almost joke music. Not that the musicians weren’t deadly serious and dedicated to their vision, but I just found it more amusing than engaging. And preferably taken in very short doses.

I especially wanted to see Motorhead now, in part, because I knew they wouldn’t be around forever. I wanted to see this elder statesman Metal Band! This differs considerable from the elder statesman of Hard Rock. I’m not talking about the The Who or even Led Zeppelin. I’m talking about thrash metal. Clever lyrics, a la Pete Townshend? Why bother? A strong melody? What’s that? A vocalist like Robert Plant? Unimportant to this level of metal.

As I said to my wife upon returning from the concert –
“Remember Dylan’s performance at the Grammys?
Bob sounded like Jim Reeves compared to Motorhead’s Lemmy.”

Which recalls another friend’s astute summary –
“Some people can’t get past the fact that vocals can be used as a rhythm instrument.”

Good one. And he wasn’t talking about scat vocals. Lemmy was indeed singing lyrics, but I don’t think it mattered much. Still, the guy next to me apparently knew the words to every song. I think this because I could see his lips move. Lemmy introduced the various songs as being about certain things, so it’s clear they do have substance. But I don’t think many people in the large crowd were there for the lyrics, whether they could sing along or not.

But let’s start at the beginning.
I went to the 8 P.M. show quite early because it was a choice of waiting at home or waiting at the club. Limited street parking was available, so I showed-up about 45 minutes before the first band was suppose to start. I knew I had a substantial wait in front of me – rock time, after all. The venue is a beautiful old structure on Wisconsin Avenue, The Eagles Ballroom, built in 1926. Acts from Glenn Miller to Buddy Holly had played this hall in its younger days. I had been there a few times in my 20 years as a Milwaukee resident to see varying folks – Bob Dylan, Bela Fleck, Kenny Wayne Shepherd. But I hadn’t been back in several years.

Maybe it was because I scanned older than the target audience, but everybody working the place could not have been nicer. “Use the side door please, sir.” “Do you have a ticket or do you need a ticket?” Professional folks. And because I was early, there was not a mad crush to get in. I was thoroughly frisked by a large security guard at the entrance. He hit a solid mass in my coat pocket and looked at me quite surprised. “Binocs,” I said. He smiled and nodded. I was not the Droid they were after.

I wasn’t really sure how well Motorhead would draw. They are highly respected by the Metal community, but they had played Milwaukee just over a year ago, at this same venue. Part of the reason I felt comfortable in attending tonight’s show was a review of the previous appearance that stressed the aging nature of the audience. I expected a large motorcycle contingent of tough guys and lots of leather. There was some of each, but not nearly as much as I had seen at an Emerson, Lake, & Palmer concert in Milwaukee some years back. Now those boys draw a leather clad crowd!

I walked-in to a smallish bar in the building’s basement, where a quartet was playing hard. Bag of Balls was their name and I was pleased – at least there was some music from a live band to kick things off. The room was crowded and too warm, but not terrible on either front. I was, however, immediately glad that I had switched-out my heavy winter coat for my own leather jacket. After about their sixth largely interchangeable number, Bag of Balls’ singer said something about Motorhead playing in the adjacent room later in the night. That made sense – this was a pretty small stage for headliners.

I wandered over to the main room – it was the large cavernous area that made-up most of the building. This was the original, 25,000 square foot oval wooden dance floor, now a standing area for those wanting to be near the bands. Because I was there when the doors to the main room opened, I walked to the metal railing that separated the crowd from the stage. Between the two was a space for security and photographers. I was arguably too close, but at least I had a place to throw my jacket and (more importantly) I had something to lean on – both would become important as the evening progressed.

I saw that the guy next to me had his earplugs in place, so I thought I would follow suit. Mine did a fine job, but worked best if I kept my stocking cap on, to keep the plugs from expanding out of my ears. Before too long the first of the advertised groups took the stage. I was glad that they were at least pretending to be on time – with three bands, I knew this would be a long night. The group’s name was Valient Thorr. I thought at first it might be sort of a joke name, a band with a sense of humor – willing to gently mock the very genre they also embrace. After all, they seemed clueless about the correct spelling of their own name and claimed to come from Venus. Then I thought that with a name like Valient Thorr, they might be a gay metal band. That would be cool -- and something different! I’d welcome it. But I was wrong on that front, too. Everybody was very serious and starkly hetero about this music, Venusian or not.

These guys had the most stereotypical metal look of the night – very long, very greasy hair, prominent tattoos, and a flying V guitar! The standard line-up of two guitars, bass, drums, and vocalist. Valient Thorr looked the part of a metal band and sounded it, too. I was right in front of the lead guitarist, but the other guitar at the far end of the stage seemed to also be constantly soloing. The sound was loud, of course, but I was unable to distinguish what each instrument was doing. Lyrics were largely unintelligible, but before the last song, the band’s vocalist directed the audience’s attention to the banner hanging behind the stage. “That’s not just some band logo,” he shouted. “That design symbolizes ‘Peace through Rock & Roll’!” OK – his heart was in the right place, it seemed. This impressed me much more than the tough-guy Satan worshipping attitude that some metal bands claim to promote. I don’t know – will these bands be playing long sets in Hell some day? I can’t think that most of them really believe the Satanic crap that is often spewed forth in this genre. Copping an attitude, as we used to say. And maybe this is where a lack of intelligibility in the lyrics is an asset to the music.

As to musical genres and sub-genres, even the most popular of the so-called Alternative Country acts recently admitted that labels were immaterial – they were struggling bands just trying to get their music heard. Jeff Tweedy, now of Wilco, said that his seminal band Uncle Tupelo never billed itself as Alt Country, but they weren’t going to argue if this tag helped sell records and get people to their concerts. Ralph Stanley didn’t cal his own music bluegrass, but if you bought a ticket he wouldn’t dispute the point. Perhaps the same is true of some metal – if a band can sell records by implicitly riding the tail of Satan, what the hell (literally). Having said this, none of the three bands on this bill seemed especially interested in overtly promoting Satanic rituals to the crowd.

Valient Thorr’s front man seemed very appreciative of having the opening spot on this leg of the tour. More than once he said how nice it was to “play the big stage” and to be opening for Motorhead. He told us to hold tight for Clutch and then left to the same great enthusiasm which the crowd showed for their entire set. Even so, no chance of an encore with a tightly packed night such as this. That’s fine – I’d heard what they could do. The roadies were efficient – monitors and drums sets switched-out, the banner replaced at the rear of the stage. Mikes checked, and here we go!

Clutch sauntered into view looking more like well groomed construction workers than a metal band. Short hair, black t-shirts and black baseball caps, both without logos or demarcation -- normal attire that would have been considered conservative in its own audience that night. These guys came to play and they too were deadly serious about it. A quartet, Clutch ripped in to a 45 minute set that I enjoyed greatly. These guys were . . . well, if a metal band can be subtle, they sometimes were. Still positioned at the front of the stage, I noticed that this guitarist took interesting, even thoughtful solos on his Les Paul. That, and he was dripping sweat from beneath his baseball cap from song one.

Unlike most of his metal guitar contemporaries, Clutch’s Tim Sult had a very dark tone. Not dark like a Kenny Burrell fat-note jazz sound, but Sult played almost all of his solos down on the low E and A strings. This is very different from most guitarists who go screaming up past the high octave range on the B and high E strings. Refreshing. Restrained. Also, Sult was not speedily trying to play every note or every lick he knew on each solo – they were well paced, and I could actually hear what he was doing.

Clutch had a better mix than the first band. At least, it sounded better to me through my ear plugs and a wool cap. What an odd way to experience music. I felt badly for some of the folks around me who had no ear protection – live and learn. It took me a few days of ringing ears after several concerts in my youth to become convinced that ear safeguards might be worth the effort.

Speaking of which -- This concert was certainly among the loudest shows I have attended, but maybe not THE loudest. The top three on that front would belong to Grand Funk Railroad – Des Moines, Iowa; December 31, 1970. The Doobie Brothers in St. Paul, ca. 1982 in the first of their alleged Farewell Tours was pretty painful on the ears. But the dubious winner (surprisingly) must go to Earth, Wind, and Fire in Ames, Iowa, about 1977. That was a true soul review -- with The Emotions, The Brothers Johnson, and then Earth, Wind & Fire. I wanted to enjoy it, but my recollection equates that concert to ice picks being stabbed into my ears.

I was a little concerned that if Clutch and Valient Thorr were this loud, then they may save the really high wattage for headlining Motorhead. And Lemmy’s band WAS loud, but they didn’t seem that much louder than the others. Of course maybe my ears were already numb. At one or two points I briefly removed an ear plug. Wow. The high end of the sound spectrum returned, but at what cost! So I lived with a muffled but tolerable sound level. I do wonder what the decibel level measurement would have been. Just as I wonder what the size of the crowd was – certainly a couple of thousand enthusiasts. At least. The place was packed.

Both of these opening bands were absolutely traditional in gear: Fender basses with 4 (not 5) strings, all cords plugged-in to amplifiers (no wireless connections), drum sets with a single bass drum, and the requisite Gibson Les Pauls. Yep – no doubting the pedigree of the equipment! The other thing that I liked was that the guitarists stayed on one instrument all night. They had racks of other axes sitting near-by, but each guy had a guitar he liked and played it throughout the set. No switching around for special sounds or alternate tunings. No need. I interpreted that (rightly or wrongly) as having few pretensions. Just play the damn thing. And while Les Paul guitars are a gold standard for many players, Marshall Amplifiers are the long-favored weapons of choice for assaulting a crowd with loud music. And this stage had stacks galore of Marshall amps. In fact, it seemed that each player in every band had his own double stack of Marshalls. Visually impressive. Aurally frightening.

The other, more important similarity between Valient Thorr and Clutch was that each group did hit some grooves at various points of their sets. They straddled the fence between Valient Thorr’s competence and some pretty accomplished musicianship, as exemplified by Clutch’s Tim Sult. Clutch was not a newcomer to the field, as I had supposed – they were on tour supporting their 9th studio release! Although quite stable in personnel make-up since 1991, they had just dropped their organist, returning to a 4-piece band and to their original guitar dominated sound. That was OK, really. The presence of keyboards at this show would likely have been too exotic for most of the crowd. Sort of like adding Steve Vai to a wind ensemble. (Although I’d listen to that.)

As with Valient Thorr, Clutch’s front man Neil Fallon indicated the group’s great pleasure in being on this tour. “When you wake-up every morning and realize that your band is going to play with Motorhead that night . . . it’s amazing!!” He may have dropped an F-bomb or two in there along the way – I just can’t recall. Clutch played its last song and were gone. Their set had actually sped-by for me.

The roadies again took the stage. This break was quite a bit longer and the crowd grew somewhat restless, but not terribly so. When I had initially entered the hall, I grabbed a place on the far side of the stage. This was unintentional but turned out to be fortuitous, as the center section had become a mosh pit of sorts, with some pretty fierce dancing / slamming starting to take place during Clutch’s set. Now between bands, with the recorded music on the sound system, the frenetic dancing continued. I didn’t mind watching it, but had no desire to participate.

One thing that was good about being so close to the stage was the lack of beer in my area of the hall. It was a long haul back to the bars, especially through the densely packed crowd. As such, drunks seemed few and nobody was spilling drinks on each other. That is, on me. There were photographers taking pictures of the excited and happy crowd. It was still a good, if intense vibe.

Huge security men positioned themselves in front of the stage – not so muscular as just plain large. Lights dimmed and Motorhead hit the stage. Yep – this was different. The cords were gone – this was a wireless outing all the way. The drums were on a highly raised pedestal – and this time it was a double bass drum set-up. Loud? Yes, but not that much different from the other bands. I was glad – it had been a loud enough night for me from note one. I don’t want to downplay the volume. Even though I became resigned to the expected stunning sound levels, I still couldn’t help but notice that my blue jeans felt at times as if they were being blown by a pretty stiff breeze around my ankles. Sounds waves & shock waves. Too damn much. Just as I had expected.

Lemmy’s bass guitar looked to be a modified Rickenbacker – a large, beautiful instrument that seemed to be wrapped in tooled cowhide – somewhat like country artist Hank Snow’s acoustic guitar. Very cool. Lemmy came to the microphone and announced, “We are Motorhead! And we play Rock & Roll!” The crowd screamed approval, and with that the trio roared into the anthem “We Are Motorhead!”

The thing that immediately stuck me was how healthy Lemmy appeared. I was expecting a road weary, bedraggled presence. But Lemmy looked great and was absolutely running the show with strength. The huge, thick sound of his bass carried the songs. The rest of the band also made their presence known, however. Unlike Clutch’s Sult, who stood still and played guitar with head bowed beneath his cap – Motohead’s guitarist Phil Campbell was a showman, striding the boards and repeatedly coming to the very lip of the stage to engage the crowd. In fact, I could have reached him if he and I had both stretched our hands toward each other. But I had no desire to touch him, and I’m also sure that the security guards would have taken exception to this. Campbell had the more traditional style of fast licks played high on the fret board. It wasn’t a Les Paul, but the design of this white guitar was similar. And, as with all of the guitars that night – the strings’ tuning pegs were where they were supposed to be – that is, at the visible end of the fret board. No weird, modern empty sticks for guitars. Not in the world of Metal, which is traditionally conservative in its own way – but they would cut me for saying that.

I didn’t recognize the types of drums that Mikkey Dee played – probably custom jobs. Dee was an energetic drummer who would have been more of a positive presence if we could have actually seen him play. But with such a huge drum set, he was largely hidden from view -- although the few glimpses I got of his face indicated that he was having a great time. A drummer who kept things surprisingly interesting and a hot guitarist who added energy and color to the set were both indispensable, but this was Lemmy’s band and Lemmy’s show all the way. He retained the crowd’s attention all night – the undeniable focal point of the stage.

I did not know any of the songs after the first one, but I assume that many were from the new CD that the band had released that very week, The World is Yours. Earlier in the night, I heard two guys quoting a recent interview with Lemmy about the new release: “Lemmy, why do all of Motorhead’s albums sound alike?” To which Lemmy answered, “It’s the same band.” Those two guys loved that response, as did I when they related the story. And this comment summed-up the evening. The songs were very similar, but also exciting and well executed.

At one point Lemmy announced, “Here is an old one. It’s from 1983 – before you were born!” A girl’s voice behind me protested that this did not apply to her. They played a tune I didn’t know, but I thought it was good that the back catalogue was being acknowledged. I took a pen with me and was planning to take a note or two, but there was no chance of having enough room to do this. I was pretty packed-in, increasingly pushed into the unyielding steel mesh fence. At one point I moved sideways from the fence so a young girl could throw her room key at Lemmy -- in hopes of a post show rendezvous. Witnessing that act was by far the creepiest part of the evening.

The crowd was changing. The mosh pit was expanding. I felt two hard blows. These were not accidental shoves, but some of the folks a few people away were starting to flail themselves recklessly into others. I was the indirect recipient of what was passing for dancing. I had already checked the exits, and it looked like it would be a slow road out of the hall. Having experienced uneasiness at the size of the departing crowds during last year’s Summerfest late one night, I had planned to make my exit before the encore. But now I thought that maybe 45 minutes of Lemmy would suffice for the evening. A couple more strong body blows and I was convinced – time to leave. I started to progress down the metal fence to the side of the crowd. There was a green Exit sign close to the edge of the stage. The crew behind the fence, although still very polite, pointed me away from this exit, around the periphery of the crowd to the far exits. OK -- Probably illegal and undoubtedly a fire department violation, but OK.

In fact, that exit strategy was fine. Being stage side for the whole night, I hadn’t the opportunity to do any people watching. So I slowly wound my way around the outer edge of the crowded, but not impassible ballroom. I was amazed that there was a coat check room in operation. I stopped at the merchandise alcoves for all 3 bands, but didn’t really see anything I wanted. I almost bought a Clutch CD, but they all looked pretty beat-up and road weary for being new copies. As is true at all such gatherings, there were quite a few people there just for the event and not to hear the band. I looked a little more in line with the age of some of these back-of-the-room folks at the bar and those just hanging around.

I wanted to get out before the set ended, so I kept moving. I knew I would miss “Ace of Spades,” which I did want to hear, but that would be near the very end of the show. And I was ready to go. I walked back to the side door where the same people who had initially welcomed me were still there. I told the woman that I had a fine time, but it was getting just a wee bit violent near the stage. She didn’t seem especially shocked at this, but was glad I had a good time, thanked me for coming to the show, and I was out the door. One thing that surprised me on the street was how little of the band sound leaked out of the hall. That was one solid building, now on the National Record of Historic Places. And that seemed appropriate to me as I drove home – after all, it was the historic nature of Motorhead that got me to come to this very “unWilmeth” type of gig, as good friend Pete proclaimed it.

I enjoyed the night; I was not above it; I wanted to be there. I was guilty of raising a fist in the air once or twice in pure excited metal joy and of occasionally pointing at the guitarists in admiration. As Motorhead’s set progressed I saw body surfing up-close and I almost became an unwilling member in a mosh pit. And I escaped unscathed. Who could ask for more?

The next morning, I woke-up feeling like I had been in a minor car wreck. My body ached. My head throbbed; I felt pretty hung over. What the hell? I knew that I had absolutely nothing to drink the previous evening. Ah yes – the Motorhead concert! Of course. My ears rang a bit, especially the left, but not terribly – similar to the aural after effects of a rough plane ride. I went to school to teach my classes. The few colleagues who knew of my plans were intrigued as to whether I really, actually went. I showed tangible evidence by taping the ticket stub to my office door.

“So how was it?”
“Oh. It was great – had a good time. Glad I went.”
“Do you plan to write something about it?”
“Probably not.”

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Tom Wilmeth

(262) 243-4218

1 comment:

  1. Tom, you had me there in the room. I could almost smell the spilled beer. And only you would know enough about music to compare Dylan with Jim Reeves.