January 3, 2015
To get the New Year started on the right foot, I resolved to fly to New York in early January to witness two consecutive dates for the high-octane multinational tour package featuring Night Demon, Skull Fist and Elm Street. Thanks to a colossal and inexplicable screw-up by local airport crews (loading 6,000 excess pounds of jet fuel into the aircraft so that it was overweight and could not fly), I was damn near unable to leave Alabama. Then inclement weather in Newark, NJ threatened to scuttle my rescheduled connecting flight. Fortunately, I reached Newark safely by late afternoon. After two hours of commuter trains (first on NJ Transit, then on the Long Island Rail Road), I found myself stepping onto a platform in Amityville, New York shortly after 6:00 p.m. The weather was miserable, with a steady cold rain drenching me within minutes. Even worse, no streets around the Amityville train station were marked, the lighting was nonexistent, it was dark as hell, and I had no idea where to find the venue. So I stumbled about in the rain for 10 or 15 minutes. By chance, as I was crossing a street, I glanced up at the pedestrian walking the opposite way. Thankfully, it was Night Demon guitarist Brent Woodward, who was able to navigate me the rest of the way to the venue.
The Amityville Music Hall is a small nondescript sort of place nestled in what appears to be downtown Amityville. The floor of the concert hall was so small that bands were limited as to when they could load in and out because (i) there was no place to store the gear, and (ii) placing the gear on the floor would impede concertgoers’ ability to stand in front of the stage. For all that, the place was cozy enough, with TVs showing the NFL wild card games (Carolina/Arizona and Baltimore/Pittsburgh) and a decent stage. Staff were kind of assholes though, refusing to allow me to go across the street to get a sandwich (I literally had eaten nothing all day long) until Night Demon’s Jarvis Leatherby interceded on my behalf. Not too cool on the venue’s part, but all’s well that ends well.
After four local acts who were a poor fit for an old-school heavy metal gig, Night Demon took the stage for their 30 minute set as the first band in the touring package. Now, I had just witnessed the young metal attack of Night Demon three months earlier in New Orleans when they opened for Raven, so I thought I knew what was in store. Wrong. In the intervening time period, Night Demon had overhauled their set list and augmented their stage visuals via a more powerful fog machine, killer multicolor LED floor lighting, and the physical embodiment of their mascot from the self-titled EP in the form of journalist/merch guy/tour manager Andrew Bansal. First things first, Night Demon has amazing songs, and their decision to open with a triple attack consisting of three of the strongest tunes from their forthcoming ‘Curse of the Damned’ album was nothing short of genius. “Screams in the Night” is a powerful hard’n’heavy opener. “Full Speed Ahead” is one of the greatest songs I’ve heard in recent memory. And “Curse of the Damned” is a pounding epic whose chorus is embedded in my brain for life. I honestly can’t think of a better way to start a show. The remainder of the set was devoted to three of the EP tracks (with only “Ancient Evil” getting axed from the set because of time constraints), plus “Heavy Metal Heat” off the new album. I like “Heavy Metal Heat” quite a bit, but to be fair it’s one of the more rock’n’roll tracks on ‘Curse of the Damned’ and I could feel the energy levels ebb ever so slightly during that tune. Throughout their set, the trio of Jarvis, Brent and Dustin showed themselves to be consummate performers, banging their heads, sweating their asses off, and working the crowd like seasoned pros without ever pausing for breath. In fact, Jarvis did not even stop to address the audience until right before the final song of the evening, “Night Demon.” The 30 minutes passed far too quickly, but I had a sweaty shirt, a sore neck and a hoarse voice to prove that Night Demon are on top of their game. Setlist: Screams in the Night, Full Speed Ahead, Curse of the Damned, Ritual, Heavy Metal Heat, The Chalice, Night Demon.
Next up were Elm Street, coming to us all the way from Melbourne, Australia. I enjoyed their ‘Barbed Wire Metal’ album released through Stormspell Records in 2011, as that record featured a nice blend of muscular thrash and melodic traditional metal, wrapped in some catchy songs. The Aussie quartet played just five songs and 25 minutes, featuring three tunes from ‘Barbed Wire Metal’ (the title track, “The Devils Servants” and “Heavy Metal Power”), plus two new songs (“Heart Racer” and “Face the Reaper”). I like the guys and appreciated their playing, but missed hearing my three favorite tracks from the album (“Elm Street’s Children,” “Leatherface, “and “Metal is the Way”), so the set list wasn’t the best. Plus, let’s be honest, trying to follow a band like Night Demon is an unenviable task. I couldn’t help but think Elm Street might have gone over better if their slot had been switched with Night Demon’s. All of that said, I had a fine time during their gig, and especially enjoyed banging my head and rocking out to “Barbed Wire Metal,” which is a very strong song. Setlist: Barbed Wire Metal, The Devils Servants, Heart Racer, Heavy Metal Power, Face the Reaper.
Canada’s Skull Fist were late arrivals tonight The band had actually missed the opening show of the tour the previous night in Albany, New York, because of difficulty at the border crossing, and they were so tardy arriving at Amityville Music Hall that I worried they might be AWOL tonight as well. They took the stage at 11:30 p.m. to a greatly diminished crowd consisting of no more than a couple dozen unenthusiastic punters. The small, lifeless audience appeared to sap the band’s energy as well, and Skull Fist turned in what can only be characterized as a by-the-numbers performance. Don’t get me wrong: I love Skull Fist’s faster songs, and tunes like “Hour to Live,” “Sign of the Warrior,” “Heavier than Metal” and especially “Head of the Pack” just ripped in the live setting. The guitar tandem of Jonny Nesta and southpaw Jackie Slaughter (why was he introducing himself to people as “Zach” tonight? Canadian humor? Name change? I dunno) shreds mightily, and Slaughter’s distinctive high-pitched helium vocals were fully intact and effective. Bare-chested new drummer JJ Tartaglia put on a clinic, reaching up high to hit those cymbals (all connected by a giant metal frame) and generally attacking his drum kit for the duration of the set. Somehow, though, things just weren’t clicking for Skull Fist tonight, even when Slaughter hoisted Nesta onto his shoulders during “Head of the Pack” with neither guitarist missing a beat. Slaughter’s other trick – ditching his lefthanded Japan sunburst guitar during “Heavier than Metal” and jumping off stage into the audience with his microphone for one-on-one interaction, including playfully tousling my hair) – was cool, but fell flat in this room too. The “oh well” vibe was completed when Skull Fist elected not to play their signature “No False Metal” closer, instead replacing it with a mundane rendition of Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care of Business” (Slaughter, Nesta and bassist Casey Guest all trading off the lead vocals) to close out their 50-minute gig. Not a bad show, but definitely not what I would have hoped for. Fortunately, it would be a much different story tomorrow in NYC. Approximate Setlist: Ride the Beast, Hour to Live, Sign of the Warrior, Commit to Rock, Heavier than Metal, Get Fisted, Bad for Good, Ride On, You’re Gonna Pay, Head of the Pack, Taking Care of Business.
Funny postscript: After the show, I was talking with Slaughter and he thanked me for being upfront rocking out during the Skull Fist set (of course, where else would I be?). Then, a propos of nothing, he says, “Hey man, wanna have a thumb war?” He pulls a little green plastic device out of their merch box and proceeds to explain how I should position my hand so that the two of us could have a thumb war. Kind of random, goofy, quirky Canadian humor. For the record, though, I kicked Jackie Slaughter’s ass at the thumb war. So there. After that, I helped load out Night Demon’s gear in what was still a nasty cold rain outside. The band had graciously allowed me to ride with them in their van after the gig tonight (otherwise I never could have found my way back to the LIRR and, even if I had, trains probably weren’t running at this hour of the night, so I’d have been stranded in the middle of nowhere, Long Island). We proceeded to a 7-11 somewhere on Long Island for late-night sustenance and hydration, then off to Dustin’s dad’s house for a few hours of shuteye before the next day’s adventures began. The Night Demon guys treated me like a king, insisting that I take the only couch in the living room while they all slept on the floor. It warmed my heart, I tell you, it really did. And Dustin’s dad is awesome.
January 4, 2015
After a quiet morning drinking coffee and hanging out at Dustin’s dad’s house, the Night Demon van departed for the Big Apple in the early afternoon. Tonight’s gig was at Webster Hall, formerly known as The Ritz, in lower Manhattan. I had been to this venue last March with Widow on the Destruction tour, and found it to be a totally pro first-class venue with great staff, awesome sound, and big stage. The difference was that instead of playing the larger Marlin Room (where the Destruction show happened), tonight’s gig was downstairs in the cozier Studio (capacity 320). For a special treat, the boys in Widow drove up from Raleigh, NC to play this gig, so it made for a great day of reuniting with friends.
There was a local opener on the bill tonight; however, because of politics or side deals cut by the promoter, Widow was forced to play first, before the local opener. I had been concerned that this might result in a small audience for Widow. Not so. Widow took the stage at 7:30 p.m. to a large, enthusiastic crowd that must have numbered over 100 people. Now, I’ve seen Widow literally dozens of times over the last few years, but there was something special in their performance tonight. Maybe they’d helped themselves to an extra serving of Wheaties at the breakfast table this morning. Maybe they were just jazzed to be back in New York City. Maybe their competitive juices were flowing because of the solid top-to-bottom bill (featuring three bands that are friends of theirs). Whatever the reason, Chris, John E. and Jason definitely brought their A game to Webster Hall, playing a 7-song high energy set consisting of killer renditions of some of their best-loved tunes, from “American Werewolf in Raleigh” to “Nightlife” to “Take Hold of the Night” to “Pleasure of Exorcism.” The crowd definitely sensed they were witnessing something special too, as they launched into “Wi-Dow, Wi-Dow” chants very early in the set, which only caused the band members’ smiles to get bigger. In fact, they were so appreciative that at one point, Chris said to the crowd, “Being a touring band is really hard work, but nights like this make it all worthwhile,” or words to that effect. One humorous moment was when the sound guy told Widow they could only play one more song, but they had two more songs on their setlist. Widow solved the problem by playing “Angel Sin” and “Pleasure of Exorcism” back to back, kind of cramming them together into one undifferentiated song. If the sound guy noticed, he never said a word. Anyway, after Widow finished playing, I overheard one guy in the audience saying to his buddy how blown away he was and how unbelievable Widow were. It made me proud, I’ll tell you. Setlist: American Werewolf in Raleigh, Nightlife, Lady Twilight, Take Hold of the Night, Reanimate Her, Angel Sin, Pleasure of Exorcism.
After the local opener (kids playing Priest covers “The Sentinel” and “Jawbreaker,” plus a Maiden cover “The Evil that Men Do”), it was time for the touring package. First up once again was Night Demon. Everything I said about their performance in Amityville applied to their gig in New York City. If anything, the band’s energy levels were higher and their gig was better tonight, because they substituted their awesome Riot “Road Racin’” cover in place of “Heavy Metal Heat,” thereby assuring a constant, uninterrupted rush of energy for the duration of the 30 minute set. Night Demon truly are firing on all cylinders, and to watch them from the front row for a second night in a row was simply an awesome experience. The crowd went ballistic during their set, and gave Night Demon a positively huge reaction. Go see this band if you can, and whatever you do, make sure you check out the ‘Curse of the Damned’ opus when it hits the shops on January 27, 2015.
Elm Street also benefited from the much larger, more enthusiastic audience in New York City, as compared to Amityville. Before they were even halfway through “Barbed Wire Metal,” the moshpit had begun in earnest, and the crowd definitely responded favorably to the thrashier, punchier vibe of Elm Street. Set list was exactly the same as in Amityville, but the New York show was definitely a better gig for Elm Street, and their big smiles during the gig confirmed that fact. I still say they’d do better on this tour if they switched places with Night Demon, but that’s just me.
Whatever quibbles I had about Skull Fist’s performance in Amityville were emphatically erased in New York City. The crowd had been very supportive of all bands, but it definitely seemed like a predominantly Skull Fist audience (judging by merch sales and audience volume/proximity to the stage). Jackie Slaughter (decked out in a white Split Heaven t-shirt tonight) and the boys rose to the occasion, playing with much more fire and intensity than they did last night. The band had the audience in the palm of their hands almost immediately, and everything just seemed snappier and stronger with their performance tonight. It was definitely the kind of situation where the crowd was obviously feeding off the band’s energy, and vice versa. As far as I can remember, the set list was almost exactly the same as in Amityville, except that they added a short drum solo from JJ and restored “No False Metal” to its rightful place as the closing song of the evening, jettisoning the rather dire “Taking Care of Business” along the way. After witnessing Skull Fist light up Webster Hall tonight, I can say that their reputation as a killer live act is well-deserved. All hail the Fist!
So it comes down to this: Night Demon, Elm Street and Skull Fist are working their way across the USA in this cold-ass January, hitting both major markets and secondary targets (albeit skipping huge swaths of the country such as, most notably, the entire South). You’ll be hard-pressed to find a stronger pound-for-pound package than this. Each band is bringing something slightly different to the table, yet each also complements the others perfectly. It’s an underground old-school metalhead’s dream billing, so by all means catch this tour if you can.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~