Arcada Theatre, St. Charles, IL
March 5, 2016
Two shows in the U.S. Two shows. That’s all Accept are playing on American soil this year. You could either sit home and whine about it, or figure out a plan to hop a plane and make it to one of those damned shows. Jen and I chose the latter approach. It really wasn’t much of a choice. Ever since Accept’s triumphant return to prominence with Mark Tornillo and ‘Blood of the Nations’ in 2010, Accept have been our favorite band. We’ve seen them in big venues and small venues, headlining European festivals and playing smoky bars in Texas, and they deliver the goods every single time in every single situation. We could not in good conscience miss the opportunity for a ‘Blind Rage’ date within three and a half hours’ air travel of our house. Like moths to the flame we were drawn.
Thus it was that we found ourselves on a chilly Saturday evening strolling through the picturesque town of St. Charles, Illinois, a western suburb around 45 miles outside of Chicago. The downtown area of St. Charles is cool because the Fox River flows through it, and the area is packed with all manner of restaurants and bars, creating an ideal environment for pregaming. We met up with some friends from Michigan at McNally’s Irish Pub for a lovely pint of Guinness or two before heading over to the venue just after 9:30 p.m. It was a strange night at the Arcada Theatre because they were double-booked, with both an early show (UFO) and a late show (Accept), involving two separate tickets and two separate (hefty) admission fees. As we walked towards the venue, we passed two guys walking the other way, one clutching a heavily taped sheet of paper (obviously a setlist) and discussing the merits of “Rock Bottom.” Okay, clearly the UFO show had let out. Then we waited outside. And waited. And waited some more. The Accept show had been billed as starting at 10:30 p.m., but the Arcada Theatre did not open its doors until 10:45 p.m. I joked with somebody that the band was probably three songs into their set playing to an empty hall.
Ingress into the venue was efficient and painless. In a very classy touch, the Arcada’s owner (a guy named Ron) was standing just inside greeting each and every patron as they entered, thanking them for coming out and apologizing for the delay. Nice. There was a small merch table set up inside with a single-sided ‘Blind Rage’ shirt offered for $30. (I already had a double-sided version acquired at last summer’s Bang Your Head Festival, so I passed.) There was also a bar area offering a nice selection of craft beer for just $5, so I did not pass. I settled on a delicious Deschutes porter, after which we proceeded to our seats. The theatre itself was lovely, a cozy historic hall that seats just under 900 altogether. Interestingly, there were assigned seats. Can’t recall the last time I attended a non-arena show that had assigned seats. Actually this worked out quite well for us because I had jumped on the tickets instantly when the show was announced, scoring a pair of tickets at the far left side of the front row. The front row of seats was pressed right up against the stage, with no photo pit, VIP area, aisle or barricade of any kind separating us from the stage. From where we stood, we were mere inches away from Uwe Lulis’s microphone stand. Cool. The room filled in well over the next 30 minutes or so, although it wasn’t packed. At around 11:15 p.m., the venue owner Ron went onstage, touted the Arcada as the #1 music venue in the Midwest, thanked us all for our patience and patronage, said he couldn’t turn down the chance to book Accept (cue mighty roar from the crowd) despite ensuing logistical difficulties, apologized for making us wait out in the cold, and assured us that he had made arrangements to extend the venue’s curfew and that Accept still planned to perform their full two-hour set (cue another massive roar of appreciation). Again, a classy move.
At 11:20 p.m., drummer Christopher Williams sprinted from the wings out to his drumkit. His Accept band mates followed. I felt my heart beating through my chest as the excitement and anticipation reached a fever pitch. There was no drawn-out taped intro, no BS, no wasted time. Bam, the band launched right into “Stampede,” flattening us all by the sound and pulverizing our bones. “Stalingrad” followed, whipping the crowd into a frenzy and displaying the majesty and might of Accept, as we all sang along with Wolf Hoffmann’s guitar melodies for the first of a great many times. I loved the look of the stage. It was very spartan. No backdrops. No arrays of fancy colorful lights. Not even the typical Accept wall of cabinets. No, the approach was quite minimalist, with a black curtain, black skirting around the rental drum kit (no giant Accept logos on the bass drum heads), an occasional waft of stage fog, and simple lighting of mostly whites and shadows. In a world where metal band gigs are often characterized by production excesses, Accept scaled it all back down to put the focus squarely where it belonged: The music. The same attitude was prevalent in the demeanor of frontman Mark Tornillo. Never the most loquacious guy on a stage, Tornillo kept the patter to an absolute minimum. The entire vibe of the night was that Accept were here to let the music do the talking. No frills, no crutches, no fat, no filler, no distractions. Just a single-minded onslaught of Teutonic classic metal perfection delivered by absolute master craftsmen. It was brilliant.
This was only Accept’s second show of the year, their first having happened two nights earlier in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, at Ron Keel’s Badlands Pawnshop. But there were no signs of rust. Accept were a well-oiled machine, a precision-tuned juggernaut tonight. At this point, I think Wolf Hoffmann and Peter Baltes have been playing together for so long that they’re in perfect synchronicity with each other always. To digress for just a moment, I cannot overstate what a joy it is to watch these two men perform. Each one commands a stage, commands an audience, harnessing intensity and exuberance in the same breath. Wolf’s eyes are a study of focus and concentration as he wields his shiny eyecatching Framus guitars like a surgeon’s scalpel, yet he smiles easily and often, makes eye contact with the fans and moves around the stage with grace, only occasionally giving in to the adrenaline rush of the moment by thrusting his fists skyward or hoisting his Framus aloft. By contrast, Peter is an uncontrolled fireball of energy, a moptopped headbanging maniac. He never stops moving and he never stops banging. Through all the sweaty energy of it all, though, Peter is constantly smiling and interacting with the crowd, as well. At one point, he noticed some guy two or three rows back texting, midsong. Smiling, Peter made a texting gesture with his hands to call the guy out. He didn’t notice. So Peter whizzed a pick at him, still smiling, and said, “Get off your phone.” Haha. More times than I can count, Peter came to the front of the stage, locked eyes with me standing inches away from him, and sang the lyrics along with me. This was unbelievably cool for a lifelong Accept maniac like me. If Wolf and Peter are devastating stage weapons individually, imagine the combined firepower when you put them together. And they often do, meeting together at the front and center of the stage to rock out in unison during the solos and instrumental bits. My favorite moment like this was during “No Shelter.” Just before the lead break, Peter said into the microphone, “This is the fun part.” He and Wolf met at the center of the stage and did an extended jam, each trying to outdo the other on his respective instrument, smiling all the time, with Peter resorting to slapping his bass wildly with both hands in the end. You know what, you have your famous music tandems like Paul Stanley / Gene Simmons, Steve Harris / Dave Murray, Glenn Tipton / KK Downing, hell even Geezer Butler / Tony Iommi. No disrespect, but you can keep ‘em all. Just give me Wolf and Peter and I’ll be happy.
That’s not to say that their brethren in Accept are slouches. Far from it. Second guitarist Uwe Lulis (Grave Digger, Rebellion, and a lengthy producer resume) and drummer Christopher Williams have clearly settled into their respective roles now that they’ve had a full year of service in Accept’s ranks since the sudden departures of Herman Frank and Stefan Schwarzmann. The long-haired Lulis mostly stands off to the side, avoiding the spotlight except for an occasional foray to center stage to pick up a solo, or the times when Wolf comes over to join him for a dual-axe attack or a bit of synchronized guitar moves. As a player, Lulis is solid as a rock, and his calm smiling demeanor suits his bandmates well. As for Williams (whose mother was in the audience, just a few feet from where Jen and I were standing), the bearded drummer is a great addition to Accept. He doesn’t play his drums as much as he attacks them, just a very physical player. What’s more, Williams is a natural showman, whether he’s twirling his sticks, standing atop his bass drums and waving his sticks with outstretched arms to get the crowd’s attention and participation, or just thrashing out like a madman. Williams even contributes backing vocals through a stationary mike. He’s a lot of fun to watch. Finally, there’s singer Mark Tornillo. Was there ever another voice more perfect for Accept than his? Not to me. What’s more, I love the guy’s blue-collar attitude. He stands out there with his ballcap pulled over his eyes and his Harley Davidson t-shirt, belts out his vocal lines with full power and emotion, then gets out of the way for the Wolf and Peter show. He doesn’t clamor for the spotlight or try to draw attention to himself. Nor does he run off the stage like a diva when it’s time for a guitar solo. No, during the instrumental parts, Tornillo typically retreats to the right rear corner of the stage and rocks out in peace until it’s time for him to come back in with the vocals. I can’t think of a more unassuming frontman with a more powerful voice. Tornillo is simply the ideal fit for this band, and it was a stroke of inspired genius or cosmic luck for Wolf and Peter to bring him into the fold six years ago.
You’ll notice I haven’t said much about the songs to this point. What can I say? The band treated us to a sprawling 21-song performance that clocked just a couple minutes shy of two hours. There were no drawn-out solos or time-wasting singalongs. It was just one monster song after another, nearly evenly split from the Udo era (11 songs) and the Tornillo period (10 songs). Of the major Accept releases, only ‘Russian Roulette’ was skipped, with most of the others receiving two or three songs apiece (‘Blind Rage’ tallied four). The set was littered with magnificence, whether it was newer stuff like “Dying Breed” (which Tornillo dedicated to Lemmy), “Final Journey,” “Shadow Soldiers” or the crushing “Teutonic Terror,” or older classics like “Restless and Wild,” “Midnight Mover,” “Living for Tonight” (a surprise inclusion) or the mighty “Starlight.” Of course you can’t have an Accept gig without peerless legendary songs like “Princess of the Dawn,” “Metal Heart,” “Fast as a Shark,” and “Balls to the Wall,” all of which indeed made appearances. I was definitely caught offguard by “Son of a Bitch”’s appearance in the encore, but that tune’s a hell of a lot of fun. Not sure I’ve ever seen them play it before. I was a touch disappointed that “Losers and Winners” (a staple in the Accept live cannon for the last few years) was nowhere to be seen tonight, but what the hell, they played 21 songs and so nobody has the right to bitch about what they didn’t play. The overarching lesson that I keep coming back to – and what ultimately makes the Accept story so remarkable – is that Accept’s Tornillo-era songs are every bit as awesome as the Dirkschneider-era songs. I love them equally, and they all fit together seamlessly in the live set. Find me another 30+ year old band for which that is the case. Just try. I guarantee you can’t. Accept are an anomaly, but more than that, a freaking treasure.
Alas, all good things must come to an end. The Arcada Theatre was rocking from beginning to end with an enthusiastic, loud, receptive crowd (it was also, by the way, an older crowd, nearly devoid of the 20-somethings in patch jackets and skinny jeans that attend most true metal gigs – where the hell were you people tonight?). But at 1:20 a.m., it was time to call it a night. The band said their goodnights, tossed a few picks and sticks into the audience, and left the stage triumphant and smiling. Me, I walked out of the Arcada Theatre with a sore neck, a hoarse throat, a Christopher Williams drumstick in my hand, a Peter Baltes pick in my pocket, and a shellshocked mind struggling to process the majesty and might of what I had just witnessed. Listen, I know that people have their favorite bands. No disrespect to Iron Maiden or anyone else, but to me, Accept are the greatest heavy metal band on the planet right now. They are still in their prime, still inspired, and still a unique and unstoppable force delivering at the very highest level for all the right reasons. Long may they reign!
Setlist: Stampede, Stalingrad, Hellfire, London Leatherboys, Living for Tonight, Restless and Wild, Midnight Mover, Dying Breed, Final Journey, Shadow Soldiers, Starlight, Bulletproof, No Shelter, Princess of the Dawn, Dark Side of My Heart, Pandemic, Fast as a Shark. Encores: Metal Heart, Teutonic Terror, Son of a Bitch, Balls to the Wall. (Some reports on the Internet include “Fall of the Empire” in the set. They are wrong. The tune was not played in St. Charles, having been blacked out on the printed setlist.)
Postscript: Fast forward to the following afternoon. It was around 2:00 p.m. and Jen and I were sitting quietly at our gate at Midway Airport waiting to catch our flight home. We looked up and there, on the moving walkway in the concourse, were Mark Tornillo (wearing a Mets cap) and his wife. Instinctively, I got up, ran over to him, shook his hand and thanked him for the incredible show last night. Mark was gracious and kind, smiling and saying he was glad I enjoyed it. I didn’t pester him for an autograph or a photo or anything else. Screw that. I just wanted to say thank you. It was the perfect ending for a perfect story.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~