Southport Music Hall, New Orleans, LA
March 3, 2017
Jen and I have been attending gigs in New Orleans for many years, but we’ve never had occasion to go to Southport Music Hall before. It isn’t a new place; to the contrary, it’s a century-old building that was used as a speakeasy / illegal gambling hall in its heyday. Today, Southport is used for much tamer purposes, like wedding receptions and the occasional concert. From the odd paintings on the walls to the funky lighting, chandeliers and décor, the place definitely does not feel like a metal venue. But it’s a big open room that probably holds 600 or 700 people. Sound was good, stage was at least decent. No barricade in front of the stage, no visible security presence to speak of, just a couple of detail police officers milling about outside. Location was in a strange place, on the west side of the city, a stone’s throw from a bend in the Mississippi River, and at the end of residential street filled with ramshackle houses in varying states of disrepair.
Didn’t much care for the extreme-metal local openers or the death metal stylings of Nile, so I mostly just hung around and sipped on a Newcastle until 10:45 p.m., when Overkill hit the stage. Now, I’d just seen Blitz & Co. play two one-hour sets on the 70000 Tons of Metal cruise a month ago, so I had a good idea what to expect tonight. The difference was that Overkill have played gigs almost every night since then. From the Valentine’s Day tour opener in Philadelphia until tonight’s NOLA performance, they played 17 shows in 18 days, with the lone day off being a travel day during which they drove from Denver to Seattle. Overkill have been working very hard and burning it up on the road, so I was curious as to how that would be manifested in their energy and their performance tonight. Fortunately, I was able to find a spot right up front, plastered against the stage over on stage left, in front of where I knew lead guitarist Dave Linsk would stand. Should be a great vantage point for tonight’s proceedings. Stage set up was a bit sparse: Small OVERKILL banner in the back (mostly obscured by drums and other gear), two stacks of three cabinets on both the left and the right sides of the drum riser (creating a wall-of-amps appearance, even though only the bottom cabinet on each stack was miked), and a small “Grinding Wheel” scrim on the front of the skirt of the drum riser, to match the grinding gears depicted on Eddie Garcia’s two bass drum heads. That’s it, well, other than the fog machine and strobe lights.
With a respectable crowd that looked to be 400+ amassed in Southport Music Hall, Overkill tore out of the gates with a massive one-two punch of “Mean Green Killing Machine” and “Rotten to the Core,” the latter played (as usual) at a ridiculously faster tempo than the original ‘Feel the Fire’ version. The band sounded great, and while the guys looked a bit tired, there was plenty of energy emanating from the stage, especially in the person of legendary frontman Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth. Speaking of Blitz, the mustachioed singer was in a particularly loquacious, jocular mood tonight. Isn’t he always? Well, sure, but tonight felt different. Here’s why: After “Rotten to the Core,” Blitz announced that tonight was only the second time in the 35-year history of the band that they had played in New Orleans. “Did you miss us?” he said with a sly wink. Crickets. Undeterred by the silence, Blitz continued, “The band name is Overkill. We’re your ugly cousins from New Jersey.” He promised that they were bringing the “Cajun Crunch” tonight and mused that this gig would be a clash of two cultures, “like the Sopranos meets the Bayou.” Now Blitz was on a roll. For the remainder of the night, Blitz kept the Louisiana jokes – and compliments – coming fast and furious. At one point, he said, “You smell like hot sauce, but I can’t hear you.” He had jokes about the fishermen on the Bayou, stories about decking an “ignorant cowboy” in San Antonio the night before who said that New Orleans doesn’t have any heart. Indignant at such an insult, he said, “How could he say that? There’s the weather, the football team, everything you do to live down here.” After “Armorist,” I think it was, Blitz offered his strongest compliment to New Orleans, asking if we were beaten yet, then laughing and saying, “No, I didn’t think so. That’s the thing about New Orleans, right? You never give up.” If he was looking for a way to endear himself to his audience, he really couldn’t have scripted it better.
Here’s the funny part: The crowd wasn’t that good, at least, as far as Overkill crowds go. Sure, they appeared to dig the tunes, and a good percentage of folks were headbanging and singing along. But there was never much of a mosh pit. Nobody around me seemed to be going nuts, although I was my usual idiot self, jumping up and down, singing at the top of my lungs, throwing horns and fists, and playing a badass air guitar for the entire gig. You know what? Even though I was right up against the stage, I never got kicked in the head, pushed, jostled or even mildly bumped into the entire night. There wasn’t a single crowd surfer or stage diver. It was a very reserved crowd. I daresay that in most cities around the globe, Blitz would have been in the crowd’s faces after every song, egging ‘em on, calling ‘em pussies, and so on. Not tonight. Tonight Blitz was all lollipops and sugarplums. He said how good it felt to have so many friends in New Orleans, even though they don’t play here very often. He thanked us for the warm reception. He complimented us on our toughness and heart, and defended our virtue. Jen said it best when she remarked that it was like seeing “charming Blitz” for the first time. Underneath that gruff Jersey exterior, the guy’s all heart and a perfect gentleman. Even at the end of the gig, right before “Fuck You,” he told us that if we ever got to where we missed Overkill, we should go stand on an overpass, late at night when it’s really quiet, and turn our heads to the northeast, where we’ll hear five old bastards from Jersey shouting, “We don’t care what you say,” then “Don’t be a pussy.” After the latter, Blitz hastened to add almost apologetically that they didn’t mean anything by that last bit, “it’s just our way.” It was the most charming, endearing set of stage raps by Blitz I ever could have imagined. Fascinating.
What about the music? Well, Overkill are fine-tuned precision killing machine on this run of tour dates. They take no prisoners. Their 15-song setlist is a perfect balance of early classics, recent material (which is very strong) and even a couple of surprises (I wouldn’t have expected the mid-set couplet of “Nice Day for a Funeral” and “Infectious”). You want highlights? Of the newer songs, “Goddamn Trouble” ripped, “Our Finest Hour” just may be an instant classic, and “Armorist” and “Ironbound” are as strong as anything they’ve ever done. But my favorite, favorite moments were “Feel the Fire” and “Hammerhead,” two quivering classics from the debut delivered to absolute perfection (though, again, faster than album versions). The rhythm section of DD Verni (whom Blitz introduced as “The Governor of New Jersey”) and Eddie Garcia (“The Mexecutioner,” says Blitz) was a locked-in, unstoppable force. And I was super-impressed by Dave Linsk’s guitar playing. I was standing right in front of him the whole night, and there were multiple times I quit rocking out during the solo sections and just watched the man play. I know he gets overlooked sometimes with his cap, shorts, and mild demeanor, but man, there’s some fire and oomph in those leads. I don’t know that I ever really noticed before because there are always so many distractions at an Overkill gig. Oh, and the dazzling harmony stuff that Linsk and his guitar partner Derek Tailer pulled off during the Thin Lizzy cover “Emerald” was simply beautiful to behold. As if all that’s not enough, at the end of the “Fuck You” finale, Linsk reached out and handed me his purple pick that he’d been playing during the gig. Cool.
At the end of the day, 35 years down the line and 18 records from the starting line, Overkill are still on top of their game. As Blitz commented late in the set, “We’ve still got something left in the tank, if you know what I mean.” And they do. There’s a real fire in their bellies, a passion for their art, and an unrelenting, blue-collar dedication to their craft that makes Overkill, in my mind, stand out head and shoulders in the world of legacy thrash bands circa 2017. Their last four records are some of the strongest they’ve ever done. As a live act, they absolutely smoke, even on a grueling tour itinerary like this one. And through it all, they’ve kept their decency, they’ve kept their heart, and they know how to make a lukewarm Bayou crowd feel genuinely loved and appreciated by their ugly cousins from Jersey. What a night!
Setlist: Mean Green Killing Machine, Rotten to the Core, Electric Rattlesnake, Hello from the Gutter, Goddamn Trouble, Feel the Fire, Nice Day for a Funeral, Infectious, Our Finest Hour, Hammerhead, Armorist, Emerald. Encores: Ironbound, Elimination, Fuck You.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~