Civic Theatre, New Orleans, LA
October 27, 2014
It was the perfect ending to a perfect weekend getaway. Jen and I awakened in the pre-dawn darkness on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, California. A painless shuttle ride, LAX check-in and cross-country flight later, we were tooling around New Orleans, Louisiana on a Monday afternoon, meandering through Jackson Square and stopping at Café du Monde for Jen’s favorite chicory coffee. But we weren’t making the 150-mile drive home yet. No, four days of sleep deprivation notwithstanding, we had one more trick up our sleeves before returning to our workaday, Joe Sixpack lives along the central Gulf Coast.
The Civic Theatre is a beautiful old restored theater (capacity 1,100) in the shadow of the New Orleans Superdome and the idiotically named Smoothie King Center (where the NBA’s Pelicans make their home). To the best of my knowledge, the Civic Theatre became an active concert hall around a year ago, as a slightly larger, more upscale alternative to the House of Blues in the French Quarter. Tonight marked our first visit to the Civic Theatre and we were most impressed. The stage was quite large, the spacious floor was multi-tiered to allow for excellent viewing angles all around, and there were two balconies overhead (only one of which was in use tonight). The Civic wasn’t packed for tonight’s show, nor did I expect it to be, given that (i) New Orleans is not a metal town, (ii) Amon Amarth hadn’t played here in many years, (iii) Sabaton had never been here, and (iv) dance-metal sensations Amaranthe were playing down the street at the House of Blues tonight, thereby siphoning off a portion of the potential audience. Still, a respectable crowd of 600-700 people turned out for this show on a Monday evening, which is certainly nothing to sneeze at in any market under any circumstances for this kind of predominantly Swedish heavy metal music.
First band of the night was Skeletonwitch. I wouldn’t really call myself a fan, although I do own (and, to a certain extent, enjoy) their ‘Beyond the Permafrost’ album from 2007. The Ohioans had a bit of bad luck, as their vocalist had left the tour for undisclosed “personal reasons” a few dates earlier. Rather than cancel the remaining shows, the four Skeletonwitches still on the tour made the bold and laudable decision to carry on, performing their 9-song, 30-minute set sans vocals. The audience got behind them early on, and threw the full weight of their support behind the band. For their part, the two guitarists, bassist, and drummer rocked hard, and seemed totally unfazed by the absence of a singer. I gotta be honest, though. This music doesn’t really work without vocals to tie the songs together, and a frontman to complete the live experience. After the initial holy-shit-that’s-pretty-impressive-they’re-playing-without-a-singer reaction wore off, it was mostly boring to watch these guys crank out one indistinguishable instrumental after another, all four of them looking down, standing still, hair flailing. I did pick out “Within my Blood” at the end, which is a righteous and powerful song for sure, but even it suffered from the lack of vocals to hammer it home. Nice try, guys. Next time, come back with a singer.
Technically, Sabaton were an opening band tonight, but it really felt like they could and should have been co-headlining. (Incidentally, we ran into bassist Par Sundstrom outside the venue and chatted for a few minutes. We’ve known Par since 2007 in Austria, when we were the first Americans to see and befriend the then-unknown Sabaton on tour in Europe. He’s always been kind and gracious to us, even as the band’s popularity has skyrocketed. Today, however, he seemed tired, dazed and distracted, and only spoke with us briefly before ducking inside. The touring life is hard and exhausting, and it’s hard for anyone to be at their best day in, day out. We certainly understood.) The Swedish camouflaged quintet was given ample room onstage, which they maximized by stuffing Hannes Van Dahl’s drum kit in the right rear corner of the stage, behind guitarist Chris Rorland. They had a large illuminated Sabaton backdrop behind them and were given seemingly free rein with lights and smoke. While they were on stage, it looked and felt like a Sabaton headlining gig. The difference was that they only played 9 songs and 40 minutes, which isn’t nearly enough. Still, they made the most of the time that they did have, ripping through opener “Ghost Division” (is there any better way to start a show?) before segueing into the first of only two new songs, “To Hell and Back.” The pairing of the majestic “Carolus Rex” and the high-energy “40:1” linked two of the stronger tunes in Sabaton’s discography, both of which always go down a storm live, tonight being no exception.
The band seemed in good spirits, working the stage like true professionals even as they goofed off by such hijinx as kicking each other in the rear, making ridiculous faces at each other, chasing each other around the stage and so on. Mohawked, mirror-shades clad frontman Joakim Broden remarked early on that all these Viking metal fans must not know what to make of seeing the Village People onstage, before the band teased with a few bars of “Y.M.C.A.” Broden then said how thankful they were for getting such a good crowd response here, especially given that they’d never played New Orleans before and repeatedly commenting that this was a Sunday night. Somebody finally corrected him and told him it was Monday night, prompting Broden to suggest, “Maybe I should just shut the fuck up and play more songs for you.” “Swedish Pagans” is not one of my favorite tunes in the Sabaton arsenal, and I could have lived without hearing it tonight, but that’s okay. It goes over well live because of the singalong bit. Next up was the other new song, “Resist and Bite,” with Broden strapping on a guitar to produce a cool (but unnecessary) three-axe attack. His shouldering a guitar prompted a quick shred-off competition between Rorback and blond-maned guitarist Thobbe Englund, with Broden jokingly starting into “Smoke on the Water” before ripping into the “Master of Puppets” riff. He even sang the first line, turning the mike around in time for audience to sing, “I’m your source of self-destruction.” Hah.
By now, the Sabaton set was almost over. They ended the night on a high note by stringing together three magnificent songs back to back, going from “Art of War” to “Primo Victoria” (the whole crowd pogoing up and down along with band on this one) to traditional fun closer “Metal Crue.” “Art of War” was especially memorable for me personally because, during the song, Englund walked over to the drumkit and grabbed a stick, “playing” guitar with the drumstick for a little while before tossing the stick into the crowd. I caught the stick from my vantage point in the second row on the left side of the stage. Woohoo, concert souvenir! I didn’t even get mauled by anyone for catching it. Anyway, Sabaton’s set was over in a blink of an eye, with only big smiles and happy memories and sweaty punters remaining. Let’s get these guys back on U.S. shores for a proper headlining tour in 2015, shall we? Setlist: Ghost Division, To Hell and Back, Carolus Rex, 40:1, Swedish Pagans, Resist and Bite, Art of War, Primo Victoria, Metal Crue.
I’ve never been the world’s biggest Amon Amarth fan. Sure, I own most of their CDs and I appreciate them just fine when I’m listening to them. But the material tends to run together in my mind and, try as I might, the death vocals (even from a charismatic frontman like Johan Hegg) just don’t do terribly much for me. Still, I was looking forward to seeing them tonight for the first time since 2005. At this point, Amon Amarth are a bona fide headlining act on both sides of the Atlantic, and they’ve been doing it for so many years that they’ve got it down to a science now. Guitarists Olavi Mikkonen and Johan Soderberg mesmerize with their pummeling riffs and occasional melodic flourishes. Barechested bassist Ted Lundstrom stalks the stage amiably. And in the middle of everything, always, is Hegg, everyone’s favorite larger-than-life Viking, a drinking horn on his hip, a smile on his face, and an insatiable roar in his vocal cords. The band make effective use of dramatic lighting (often in monochrome for entire songs, such that “Death in Fire” was bathed in red and “Runes to my Memory” was illuminated in green, for example) and copious stage fog to enhance the visual presentation. But mostly the band just hammered away relentlessly for 17 songs and 90 minutes. Whew, that’s a lot of Amon Amarth, and yeah, there were times my interest trailed off slightly (perhaps it was just exhaustion from lack of sleep and this morning’s cross-country flight). But Amon Amarth are an impressive, potent, powerful live act. The band (and especially Hegg) held the crowd in the palm of their hands all night long. And they got a great, enthusiastic reaction from the state of Louisiana, never more so than when Hegg praised their beautiful city and amazing food before launching into what he called Amon Amarth’s biggest party song, “Guardians of Asgaard.” Another highlight was the encore of “Twilight of the Thundergod” (Hegg sporting a massive Thor hammer) and “Pursuit of Vikings” (complete with a singalong in which Hegg said, “You can sing with us even if you don’t know the lyrics. Remember, this is death metal – it doesn’t make any difference.”). By the time the end arrived, the crowd seemed absolutely spent, but happy. Yeah, that’s kind of how I felt too, as Jen and I got back in the car, pointed it East, and headed for home. Rocktober, indeed.
Setlist: Deceiver of the Gods, Runes to my Memory, Death in Fire, Free Will Sacrifice, As Loke Falls, We Shall Destroy, For Victory or Death, Varygs of Miklagard, Fate of Norns, Father of the Wolf, Guardians of Asgaard, Warriors of the North, Destroyer of the Universe, Cry of the Blackbirds, War of the Gods. Encore: Twilight of the Thundergod, Pursuit of Vikings.
-- Kit Ekman