Reggies, Chicago, IL
May 18-19, 2018
Legions of Metal has justifiably earned its reputation as one of the finest traditional metal festivals in the USA. However, the ride has been anything but smooth. Rising from the ashes of the Ragnarokkr Metal Apocalypse’s sudden, spectacular implosion in early 2017, Legions was unfairly stigmatized from the outset by association with its failed predecessor. A tremendous inaugural fest in May 2017 (headlined by Armored Saint, Diamond Head, and Ross the Boss) should have silenced all naysayers. Unfortunately, we live in a time where the underground true metal consumer base is a fickle bunch. They’re spoiled, they have unreasonable expectations, and (as a prominent Euro fest organizer lamented to me a few weeks ago) they lack loyalty. Rather than queuing up to buy tickets for Legions of Metal II on the strength of its sterling track record, some chose to whine about the roster and stay home. Their loss. Organizer Bob Byrne’s concept this year was to have a diverse and varied lineup of U.S. bands from different time periods and stylistic niches in the trad metal / hard rock spectrum, with a focus on acts not showing up on every other festival flyer around the world. They may not be the biggest, trendiest names, but many of these bands you could realistically see only on the Legions stage and no other festival. There was a method to the madness in avoiding the usual suspects, which made for a unique experience in Chicago this year.
Friday, May 18, 2018
Ideally, I would have arrived in the Windy City on Thursday for the warmup show at Reggies, featuring four tribute bands (Scorpions, Thin Lizzy, Motorhead, and Iron Maiden) for $8. This year, however, unavoidable work commitments (yes, I do have to go to work occasionally to finance my live music addiction) delayed my arrival until late Friday afternoon. Thankfully, the airlines did their job in getting us to O’Hare in a timely manner, and Jen and I disembarked from the L at the Cermak/Chinatown stop shortly after 5:00 p.m. We checked into our room at the Chinatown Hotel (basically the only reasonably priced lodging option within walking distance of the venue), and took comfort in finding it as dingy, rundown, spartan and dilapidated as we remembered from the last three years. Hey, at least they’re consistent. Thus we arrived at the venue with time to spare. We greeted friends, then made our way upstairs to the second floor lounge (where the record store used to be) to chow down on the VIP buffet of sliders, mac and cheese, fries and salad. (To be clear, I’m no schmoozy VIP. We and a number of other patrons paid a modest premium for the VIP wristbands, which gave us unlimited access to the lounge and the buffet. This perk was well worth the marginal cost. Jen, especially, enjoyed having a quiet place to hang out, talk and nap when she needed a break from wall-to-wall amplified music downstairs. And it was good for me to be able to run upstairs, fix a plate, grab a bottle of water, then resume headbanging duties downstairs.)
All the set times had been pushed back because of the abrupt loss (in the 48 hours leading up to the event) of both the main stage headliner (Toxik) and the second stage headliner (Unity) for tonight. As a result, tonight’s schedule felt relaxed, almost leisurely, more akin to a preparty than a proper festival day. That was actually fine by me, and a sensible way of structuring things in the wake of those two key last-minute cancellations. My only objection was that the festival organizers could have done a better job of communicating the new set times. The chosen scheduling modifications were fairly predictable on the main stage tonight, but not so on the second stage, where the band times were delayed by a couple of hours, with no corresponding announcements. Periodically, I’d check the Music Joint (i.e., the room where the second stage was located) for signs of life, only to be greeted by obnoxious rap music being played over the PA. Yet somehow, despite my efforts to be diligent, I totally missed the first band to play the second stage tonight (Ancient Seance). Bummer. Posting a few signs around the venue with the correct set times might have alleviated or at least mitigated the confusion.
The first band to play tonight was WEAPONLORD, a quartet from Seattle, Washington that was previously unknown to me. They were an ideal band to kick off the festival, with a thrashy, wild take on the classic metal sound and a high-octane, devil-may-care stage presence. The flashy leads and the high-velocity tempos combined to get those heads a-banging. At one point, the lead guitarist and bassist even played the necks of each other’s guitars. Gimmicky or not, I love it when bands do stuff like that. It’s fun and it’s reckless, just how heavy metal should be. Songs sounded strong, and I look forward to checking out the band’s debut album, Hail the Victorious, in the near future. Only point of constructive criticism was that the singer seemed really nervous when addressing the crowd between songs (even to the point of admitting the band was going to play a short set because they hadn’t really rehearsed much for this gig – ouch!), but I suppose that’s understandable for a young band that’s driven 2,200 miles to play a prestigious festival. Overall, I came away impressed and eager to investigate Weaponlord further.
In keeping with the organizers’ diversity theme, we went from near-thrash intensity to laidback rock with the next band, FREEWAYS. They seemed to be trying for an Ashbury kind of vibe, but it’s really difficult to pull off that sound in a way that appeals to a room full of metalheads. It seemed clear that Freeways were a bit uneasy with their place on this billing, as the singer joked between songs that the festival had become the “Legions of Rock’n’Roll.” Ultimately, Freeways’ set was a case of skilled players and earnest performances, but an approach that was altogether too mellow for my tastes.
I have a long history with the band WIDOW. They were the first band I ever went on tour with. I flew to Europe with them several times for festival appearances. We’ve been with each other for some of the highest highs and lowest lows in our lives. I don’t see Chris Bennett and John E. Wooten as friends. I see them as brothers, and not in that clichéd Joey DeMaio “brothers of metal” kind of way, but in the real family, sit-around-the-table-at-dinnertime-and-pass-the-mashed-potatoes kind of way. Hell, I’m much closer to them than I am to my own brother. For a variety of reasons, the band is not as active today as they once were. But they’re still a killer live act, in addition to being among my favorite human beings on this planet. I would have flown to Chicago just for them. With that as background, it should come as no surprise that I thought Widow were fantastic tonight at Legions of Metal. Yeah, there were a few rust spots visible here and there, but Chris and John E. have a certain magic, a certain chemistry, every time they step on a stage together. Combine great songs, superb guitar playing, charismatic vocals, and a fun-loving attitude, and you’ll get a winner every time. That’s what Widow does. It was a special night for Widow drummer Robbie Mercer too, as he and his lovely wife Ella returned to Reggies, where they first met two years ago at the final installment of Ragnarokkr. By now, the Rock Club (the main room at Reggies) was filling in nicely, so a sizeable and enthusiastic crowd was on hand to see Widow strut their stuff, in the form of a nine-song set that touched on all five of the band’s studio albums and hit on many of their career highlights spanning nearly two decades. “Burning Star,” “Lady Twilight,” “American Werewolf in Raleigh” … damn, these are all bona fide classics. I was surprised as hell to hear them play “Beware the Night” off the Nightlife album, as that killer tune’s been MIA from the set for some time. And of course things closed out on a high note with “Take Hold of the Night,” Widow’s signature track and one of the best metal songs written by anybody in the last decade. There was a funny moment during “Take Hold …” At the beginning of the second verse, John E. had a brainfreeze on the lyrics. Thankfully I was standing nearby, singing along at full volume (as one does …), so he looked to me for impromptu coaching through the verse, haha. He was in good hands. Afterwards he came up to me and said, “Dude, you saved the show.” I don’t know about that, but it makes for a funny story. All hail Widow. If for any reason, you’re not familiar with the band, you owe it to yourself to give their most recent albums, Carved in Stone and Life’s Blood, a listen. Absolutely superb veteran band flying under the radar for far too many people. Setlist: Burning Star, Carved in Stone, American Werewolf in Raleigh, Nightlife, Of the Blood We Bind, Lady Twilight, Beware the Night, Pleasure of Exorcism, Take Hold of the Night.
By now, the Music Joint room (where the second stage is located) was up and running. I got there in time to catch most of SIRENHEX’s performance. I was totally unfamiliar with this Los Angeles band. The first thing I noticed was their image, which definitely set them apart from the pack. With the exception of the male lead guitarist, the other four members were Latinas dressed to the hilt with leather and studs and fishnet. You get the idea. It’s the sort of look that definitely gets one’s attention, which I applaud. But an image means nothing without music. Fortunately, SirenHex were well-equipped in this category too, sporting catchy Maidenish songs like “Siren’s Cry” and set closer “Hexed,” the latter of which was perfectly suited for audience participation belting out the line “You’ve been hexed!” SirenHex were a veritable firestorm of energy, owning the second stage, attacking their set, and seemingly having the time of their lives. It was great to see. I love it when a new band gets up on stage in front of an audience that doesn’t know them at all, and just swings for the fences. That’s exactly what SirenHex did. One of the most fun and entertaining sets of the weekend, hands down. Only point to criticize was there were a few too many “filler” moments where it seemed the band were just killing time (bass/drum instrumental, spoken-word sections, etc.), but that’s just quibbling.
I continued to hang out in the Music Joint to see RECKLESS FORCE take the second stage. Reckless Force is a name I keep hearing about over the last couple years, a New England band that’s turning some heads and making some waves. As is the case with so many other acts on the Legions lineup this year, I was not acquainted with Reckless Force’s music before tonight. And once again, I came away impressed. The four-piece band is definitely steeped in the ways of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, from the songs to the vocals (split by one of the guitarists and the drummer) to the guitar harmonies to the horizontal striped shirts and early 80s haircuts. Unfortunately, Reckless Force was one of the only bands all weekend who had a poor mix, with buried vocals making it that much tougher to follow the material. Still, the band attracted a solid crowd and earned a strong response. I look forward to hearing more from this rising force from New Hampshire in the near future.
What do you do when your headliner cancels at the eleventh hour and you’re unable to secure a replacement? You hope that one of your existing bands steps up to fill the void. Well, that’s precisely what happened at Legions of Metal tonight. I can imagine the conversation going something like this. Bob Byrne (sweating profusely): “Guys, Toxik can’t be here. I can’t find another headlining-caliber act on such short notice. I’m freaking out.” Q5: “Relax. Hold our beer. We got this.” Forced into de facto headliner status, Q5 delivered bigtime. The funny thing is I was never really a Q5 fan before. I mean, I love the song “Steel the Light,” of course, because (i) who doesn’t and (ii) it rules. But a lot of Q5’s material always struck me as kind of paint-by-numbers bluesy hard rock, so not to my taste. Not tonight. Great crowd, great performances, fun rockin’ songs made for an intensely memorable gig. Q5 convinced the hell out of me, and sent everyone home happy. That’s what a headliner does. Hats off and massive respect to Q5 for coming through in the clutch. Setlist: Let Go, Lonely Lady, Pull the Trigger, Rock On, Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady, Missing in Action, In the Night, Come and Gone, When the Mirror Cracks, One Night in Hellas, New World Order, Teenage Runaway, Steel the Light.
Saturday, May 19, 2018
We awakened relatively early on Saturday morning and made a beeline out of the grimy Chinatown Hotel to explore Chicago. It was a chilly and gray day, just like every day on this visit. In fact, I’m not sure I saw the sun at all during the three days I was in town. Dammit Bob, you promised you were going to fix the weather this year, but instead you just made it worse. At any rate, our first stop this morning was at our favorite local coffee shop, Akhirah’s on State Street, for our java fix. Akhirah’s is a New Orleans style coffee house that always puts us in mind of home, and everyone there is super friendly, so we make a point of dropping by whenever we’re in town. Delicious. Then it was time for breakfast. Stan’s Donuts for the win! Their blueberry fritter may be one of my favorite donuts ever in the history of donuts. Holy crap! We spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon exploring downtown Chicago. Of course, we’ve been there many times before, so it’s all familiar and comfortable now. But it never gets old, from the park to the fountain to the bean to the river to the architecture. Chicago rocks!
By 2:30 p.m. or so, we were back at Reggies for the start of a long festival day. Enjoyed the day’s first beer in the Music Joint while we waited for the doors to open, and had a lovely chat with Stacey from Savage Master, amongst other friends. In strategizing my fest plan, I decided to do things a little differently today. Bob knows how I feel about the two-stage, overlapping-sets format of Legions of Metal. I understand the business reasons for it, but it bums me out to be running back and forth between the two stages, catching partial (not full) sets of every band, and never having a chance to visit properly with the myriad wonderful friends from around the country who are in attendance. So for today, I decided to focus all my energy on the Main Stage bands, as well as Bewitcher (who were headlining the second stage), so as to leave time to hang out with friends between sets. I also made a point of checking out Blood Curse for a while on the second stage because the singer/guitarist of that band is a Facebook friend of mine. As for the other second stage bands, I caught bits and pieces of some of them, but not enough to inform any kind of definitive, formal review. Apologies to each of them for the omission.
Actually, on second thought, fuck that. For once, I’m not going to be diplomatic. I may regret this, but I have to get something off my chest. There was a band on the second stage on Saturday that I genuinely enjoyed. I caught roughly half their set, and was sufficiently impressed that I was prepared to praise them in this narrative as one of my favorite discoveries of the festival. Then one of the band members went out of his way to be a dick to me (a complete and total stranger) later that night. Anonymous band member, you were probably too wasted to remember, so let me refresh your recollection because I was stone-cold sober and I remember everything. You deliberately, repeatedly messed with me while I was minding my own business watching TKO’s set. I’m sure you thought it was hilarious. I did not. That’s fine. I can take it. You see, I was here long before you got here, and I’ll still be here long after you’re gone. But actions do have consequences. By your actions, you forfeited the right to have me say anything nice about your band, or even to acknowledge your band’s existence anywhere outside of this single paragraph. My review, my rules. Next time, follow the golden rule and #dontbeadick, and we’ll get on just fine.
The Main Stage fired up at 3:30 p.m. with RAVAGE from Massachusetts. Y’know, there was a time, a dozen years or so ago (around the time of the Freedom Fighter EP), when I really thought Ravage were poised to emerge as saviors of traditional heavy metal in the USA. That prediction hasn’t panned out, but it’s good to see the band still active, supporting their Return of the Spectral Rider re-recordings album, which slaps a fresh coat of paint on some truly excellent songs that never received their due back in 2005. Tonight marked only my second time witnessing Ravage, with the other occasion being at Warriors of Metal a few years back. Despite the early start time, the small audience, and a few technical problems at the outset, I thought Ravage did an excellent job today. The Eli Firicano / Nick Izzo guitar tandem delivered the ripping leads and riffs that sometime approached thrash. Vocalist Al Ravage is a laid back presence onstage, strolling around and chewing his gum, but he has a fine, instantly recognizable voice. Best of all, Ravage had the good sense to play what amounts to a greatest hits set in Chicago today: “Freedom Fighter” (my favorite), “Turn the Screw,” “The Shredder” and so on. Man, it did my heart good to hear these songs played live again. Don’t look now, but Ravage is heading to Europe this summer to play some shows, including an appearance at the prestigious Headbangers Open Air Festival in northern Germany in July. Go see them if you can, European friends. Ravage are a diamond in the rough that should be much better known than they are. Setlist: Reign Fall, The Wicked Way, Freedom Fighter, Turn the Screw, Spectral Rider, The Shredder, Grapes of Wrath, Ravage Part 1: Damage.
Next up on the Main Stage was North Carolina’s own MEGA COLOSSUS, an oft-touted band whose music I have long enjoyed but whom I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing live before. As an added bonus, the band now features my friend Anthony Micale (who also plays in Knightmare, among others) on bass guitar. Honestly, the guys looked a little rough today, but it all made sense when Anthony told me they’d had a show in Detroit the night before, stayed up drinking until after 5 a.m., slept a couple of hours, then hauled ass to Chicago. I would’ve done the same thing, boys. The key point, however, is that these circumstances in no way dampened or diminished their performance at Legions of Metal. When the time came, Mega Colossus answered the bell with a monstrous gig that surely converted the uninitiated in the audience. The well-chosen setlist was a perfect balance of material from all their recordings. The awesome “Sea of Stars” was aired early, followed shortly thereafter by “The Mountain That Rides,” with vocalist Sean Buchanan offering a free high five to the first person who could identify what the song was about (Ser Gregor Clegane from Game of Thrones), and yes there was a winner. The songs are fairly lengthy and quirky, with many twists and turns, so they’re not necessarily easy to latch onto or digest for people who weren’t already familiar with them, but the magnificent Maidenish twin-guitar melodies definitely perked people’s ears up. My favorite parts were when the two guitarists and Micale joined forces at the front of the stage for the high-energy instrumental bits. Simply magical stuff, and they looked to be having a blast up there. Unfortunately, the band ran out of time, so a planned guest appearance from Ty Christian (err, um, excuse me, Fang Von Wrathenstein) of Lords of the Trident did not materialize. Still, it was an outstanding gig. Mega Colossus were undoubtedly one of the top bands of the whole weekend for me. Approximate Setlist: Jihad Jihad, Sea of Stars, The Judge, The Mountain That Rides, Wendigo, Kill More Better, Swords Against Death.
By now, it was after 5:00 p.m., and the Music Joint was up and running, so I walked over to check out Kentucky’s BLOOD CURSE for a couple of songs. Three-piece band, featuring Aaron Franks on guitar and lead vocals, with his wife, Olivia, pounding the drums. Cool. When I walked in, it sounded like Aaron was debating with audience members whether he looked like Dave Mustaine or not. (My vote: yes, he does.) Musically, Blood Curse are very much in the NWOBHM style. They sounded good and had a nice crowd for the Music Joint room. Perhaps a little too much nervous chatter between songs, but that’s understandable. At one point, Aaron announced they were going to play a Witchfinder General song (coincidentally enough, that band adorned his t-shirt). Without even knowing what song it was, one of the Reckless Force guys volunteered to come up and help sing it. Blood Curse said yes. While it would have been fascinating to see how this impromptu, spur-of-the-moment collaboration played out, I had business in the Rock Club with room with a certain other band from Kentucky, so I made my exit then. Nonetheless, I’ll be paying attention to Blood Curse going forward, and you should too.
The Legions of Metal strategy was clear: Put a heavy hitter on the Main Stage relatively early on the second day in order to compel the audience to show up and hopefully stick around for the rest of the night. (Such measures were necessary because last year far too many people came to Legions only for the headliners, leaving many of the lower-card bands playing to mostly empty rooms with no one buying food and alcohol.) Still, it seemed bizarre to see SAVAGE MASTER taking the stage at 5:30 p.m. Last month, I saw them go on after 1:00 a.m. two nights in a row, and a post-witching hour timeslot definitely seems more aligned with the band’s occult imagery. Still, I’ll take Savage Master whenever I can get them. You know, there’s something to be said for the effects of a long, grueling tour to galvanize a band and help them take their live show to the next level. Tonight was the last show on Savage Master’s five-week U.S. tour, which followed closely on the heels of a three-week European run. Several band members admitted to me that they were exhausted, and how could they not be after an itinerary like that? But they were absolutely ready for the grand finale tonight. I thought I knew what to expect, having seen Savage Master many times in the past, including three times at the beginning of this U.S. tour. But they were a notch better than that tonight. For 35 minutes (they got off to a bit of a late start, rendering the awesome “Vengeance is Steel” a tragic setlist casualty), Savage Master simply dominated Reggies Rock Club. Everything about the show was masterful, from the songs to the stage presence to the interaction between band members to the sound to the lights. Savage Master worked the stage like consummate professionals, with frontwoman Stacey Savage making eye contact with the front rows at the very edge of the stage, moving constantly, now pulling on the chains around the necks of guitarists Larry Myers and Adam Neal, now forcing bassist Brandon Brown to his knees with a stiletto heel to the chest. It was probably the best Savage Master gig I’ve ever seen, and they were truly leaving it all on the field for the Chicago audience. One of my favorite parts of this show was that I was watching it alongside my friend Dustin Hardman, a super-nice guy who just so happens to be Savage Master’s record label (High Roller) rep in the USA. Dustin lives in central Florida, but had flown to Chicago principally to see Savage Master, whom he’d never witnessed live before. It made me happy that Dustin got to see Savage Master deliver an absolute hammer of a set, and he was visibly, obviously blown away by what he saw. Me, I relished every moment because it may be a few months before I get to see the band live again (they’re going to lock themselves away to continue writing album #3), so I banged my head and threw my fist and sang along like the world was coming to an end. All too soon, it was time for the closing salvo of “Ripper in Black” (complete with Stacey donning a full-length cape and drinking stage blood, leaving a trail of blood spatters all across the front monitors and floor of the stage) and “Death Rides the Highway.” Savage Master are one of the greatest bands in the world right now, period. Setlist: Black Hooves, With Whips and Chains, Satan’s Crown, Looking for a Sacrifice, Burning Leather, Dark Light of the Moon, Ready to Sin, Ripper in Black, Death Rides the Highway.
Looking around the Rock Club, and holy hell, suddenly there are a lot of people here, including many who I do not recognize from earlier this weekend. When I thought about who was playing next, it all made sense. REDD BARRON are from Romeoville, Illinois, a small suburb of Chicago. They hadn’t played a show together in a quarter century. Yet all five members of the “classic” era lineup where here to perform as Redd Barron. It was a historic moment, certainly, for the band members, so it was only right and proper that their friends and families turned out in droves for the occasion. (A beneficial side effect, of course, was that the “Redd Barron factor” translated into dozens of walk-up ticket sales for Legions of Metal, and may have gone a long ways towards vaulting this event out of the red(d) and into the black so as to be viable for next year. Thank you, Redd Barron and your loyal supporters.) Redd Barron’s appearance at Legions was intentionally timed to follow shortly on the heels of the band’s new CD anthology, The Barron’s Here … to Rock!, released by Heaven and Hell Records and compiling the band’s 1987 demo and 1989 cassette releases in one place. I own the CD and listened to it a number of times in recent weeks, enjoying the melodic metal stylings, strong songwriting, and compelling vocals. But I wondered how the band would fare today. Coming out to the intro tape of “This is your brain on Redd Barron … any questions?” which commenced their cassette, Redd Barron looked a little stiff, a little awkward at first. But within the first couple of songs, the band members loosened up, got comfortable, and proceeded to have a ball up there. The big grins and happy smiles both onstage and in the crowd told the tale, as Redd Barron hit it out the park today. The shimmering guitar interplay of Pete Alvarez and Greg Eichelberger sometimes called to mind the likes of Wilton/DeGarmo and Drenning/Jackson. Just stirring stuff. The rhythm section of David Lee Van Ham (bass) and Rod Gardner (drums) was solid as a rock. And vocalist Brian Lee’s pipes haven’t aged a bit, still sounding a good bit like vintage Don Dokken, but with an expressive stage demeanor and frontman skills that I would never have expected given the passage of time. Setlist included some of the top tracks from CD release, with “The Barron’s Here to Rock” serving as the initial rallying cry, the early demo cut “Burning Cities” sounding fantastic, and my favorite “Kill or Be Killed” laying waste to the place. Interestingly, the band played several songs that were not featured on the CD, including “The Game,” “King of the Hill,” and a tune that may have been called “Living on the Edge.” I know “King of the Hill” is an old track, but I’m not sure about the others. Anyway, the main point is that Redd Barron showed exactly the right way to do a reunion gig: Bring in all the classic lineup’s members, rehearse like hell, do it for love of the music, and don’t be afraid to let that emotion out on stage. It was a beautiful thing, this Redd Barron reunion done right. On the strength of this performance, I’d be stunned if Redd Barron doesn’t field offers from some of the bigger underground true metal festivals in Europe. They deserve it. Setlist: The Barron’s Here to Rock, Burning Cities, Dow Jones, The Game, Kill or Be Killed, Blind Date, Living on the Edge (?), King of the Hill.
By the time Redd Barron finished, TRANSYLVANIA was well underway in the Music Joint Room. I heard really positive things about their performance, so I am sorry I missed them. But Jen was hungry and I knew I needed to eat, so we made our way back upstairs to the VIP room buffet to get some dinner, drink some water, and hang out with our Savage Master friends and others. It was definitely a productive pitstop, with John Littlejohn telling road stories that made us laugh until we were crying. Love that dude.
One of the more eagerly anticipated bands of the weekend was PHANTOM. The New York-based power/speed metal band released three well-received albums in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with their best-known work being 1993’s Cyberchrist. The band, led by vocalist Falcon Eddie and also including classic lineup bassist Charlie Buckland, has been inactive for many years, although they did release a best-of compilation last year entitled Violence of Twilight. Originally, Phantom was announced to perform at the inaugural Legions of Metal festival last year, but that didn’t work out. Thankfully, it happened tonight. Interestingly, the setlist tracked the Violence of Twilight compilation perfectly, except that the last two songs were swapped in the running order. That means six songs from Cyberchrist, two from Phantom, a couple of old demo tracks, and one new song (the oddly titled “Fish Belly White”). The material stands the test of time very well, and I found myself greatly enjoying the likes of “Preying with the Mantis” and “Queen of the Damned.” Falcon Eddie’s hair may be white now, but he hasn’t lost a step vocally, as he was able to deliver his vocal lines with full range and impressive power. The die-hard Phantom fans in the crowd (and there definitely were some, traveling from as far away as Germany to see the band) were ecstatic, and everyone else seemed to enjoy Phantom’s set. I was never a huge fan of the band back in the day, although I certainly held Cyberchrist in high regard; nonetheless, it was a real treat to see Phantom alive and well (to quote a certain song title) after all these years. Wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Phantom riding the Europe festival circuit next year. Judging by what I saw tonight, they’d be a most worthy addition to any billing. Setlist: Alive and Well, Big Daddy, Cyberchrist, Pleasure of Pain, Preying with the Mantis, Violence of Twilight, Queen of the Damned, Wolves at the Door, Well of Souls, Fish Belly White, Lost in LA.
After Phantom’s set, I meandered over to the Music Joint to talk to some friends. While I was there, I ended up catching a portion of WHITE BOY AND THE AVERAGE RAT BAND’s set. Definitely the oddball band on the billing, the trio was much more of a classic rock band than a metal band. Not surprisingly, given the demographics and musical interests of fest attendees, that fact translated into a modest turnout. That said, the people who were watching them seemed really into the band. Much as the style isn’t really my thing, their musical talent was quite obvious and they’re good at what they do. They may have just been a tad too far outside the stylistic heartland of what Legions of Metal is all about to be able to make much of an impact.
There’d been a bit of a buzz surrounding HALLOWEEN’s performance all weekend long at Reggies. The long-running Detroit shock rockers have been a going concern since 1984, and they still feature original vocalist, Brian Thomas, and original bassist, George Neal, in their ranks. Although they continue to record and release albums, Halloween do not often play live these days. There’s a certain mystique and aura around their stage show, which has become the stuff of legend over the years. I had never seen the band before, so I was intrigued. Tonight I caught roughly half of Halloween’s set, but that was enough to confirm that none of their fans would be walking away disappointed. I heard them run through a good chunk of the classic Don’t Metal with Evil album, which is honestly the only Halloween disc that I know well. It warmed my heart to hear songs like “What a Nice Place,” “Tales from the Crypt,” “The Wicked Witch” (which Thomas dedicated to his ex-wife, haha), and of course the mighty “Don’t Metal with Evil” performed live after all these years. Visually, Halloween had a schtick that lived up to their name, with full-size skeletons perched on the drum riser, wrought-iron fencing lining part of the stage, and Brian Thomas (decked out in white-face makeup) marshaling a vast assortment of masks, weapons, prostheses, and other props. It looked like the band had knocked over a Party City and cleaned out the Halloween aisle on their drive down from the Motor City. Bassist George Neal gets the prize for generosity, as he was flipping custom bass picks into the audience all night long, with such frequency that I can’t imagine anyone who wanted one leaving emptyhanded. I caught one, giving me a cool souvenir. I didn’t stay until the bitter end, because I needed to secure a prime spot in front of the second stage for the next band, but I was definitely pleased to have finally seen Halloween after all this time.
They say that kings are not born, they are made. Well, tonight felt like a coronation for BEWITCHER. I’ve been blown away by the Satanic speed metal trio from Portland, Oregon every time I’ve seen them, including a pair of occasions in Texas last month as they commenced their tour with Savage Master. But tonight they took it to the next level: more energy, more power, more focused malevolence, more potent destructive force. What made the difference? Perhaps some of it was the experience of having been on tour for the last few weeks, their weaponry honed to a razor-sharp edge. In my view, though, the most important factor was the audience. The Music Joint was jammed with ecstatic metalheads throughout Bewitcher’s set. From where I was, pinned against the stage-right front corner of the stage, I was surrounded by people absolutely losing their minds to Bewitcher’s deadly brand of single-minded blackened delirium. There was a mosh pit – not much of one, mind you, but a mosh pit nonetheless, the only one of the entire festival. Any signs of fatigue or blasé disinterest at the tail end of a two-day festival utterly vanished the moment the band kicked into opener “Speed ‘Til You Bleed.” Everyone went apeshit. The wilder and louder the crowd got, the wilder and louder the band got, turning into the sort of magickal endlessly escalating symbiotic feedback loop of raw energy exchange that is the hallmark of a truly great concert. Each song was faster, more evil, and more ripping than the last, as Bewitcher rose to the occasion by breathlessly tearing through the likes of “Rome is on Fire,” “Black Speed Delirium,” newbie “Under the Witching Cross” (my second time hearing this song aired live, and it smokes!), and “Sin is in Her Blood” (which they didn’t perform at the Texas gigs I attended). By the time Bewitcher finished the set-closing killer Bathory cover of “Sacrifice,” band and audience alike were totally drained, sweating, gasping for air, and struggling to comprehend the magnitude of what had just transpired. It was a special moment, the moment where Bewitcher metaphorically seized that flaming torch and brandished it triumphantly against the blackened heavens, proclaiming once and for all that they have arrived. They’re a force to be reckoned with. They’re not going away. And none of us will ever be the same again. Wow! Setlist: Speed ‘Til You Bleed, Rome is on Fire, Too Fast for the Flames, Wild Blasphemy, Black Speed Delirium, Under the Witching Cross, Bewitcher, Sin is in Her Blood, In the Night (The Cult Will Rise), Sacrifice.
It felt anticlimactic to watch any band after Bewitcher. All I wanted to do was sit around and drink beer and sing their praises and try to reclaim some semblance of my lost soul. However, there was still more live music ahead, so I soldiered over to Rock Club to catch BITCH in progress. Having witnessed Betsy Weiss & Co. at Frost & Fire last October, I was fully prepared this time. Yes, Bitch had some classic U.S. metal songs, and they still play killer versions of songs like “Damnation Alley” (my favorite), “Riding in Thunder,” “Me and the Boys” and a ripping medley of “Leather Bound,” “Be My Slave,” and “Live for the Whip.” But what makes a Bitch show so much fun is Betsy’s showmanship, her wicked sense of humor (often directed at herself), and her remarkable ability at age 60 (she announces her age from the stage, so I’m not being impolite or revealing state secrets here) to pull off the sex-kitten gimmick that was her stock in trade when Be My Slave came out back in 1983. She’s a hoot. She’s still got her voice, her body and her mind, which is a damn sight better than most ‘80s rockers (male or female) can say these days. And she so joyfully revels in every second of her time onstsage that the audience can’t help but come along for the ride. Whether Betsy was calling out a “cute” guy upfront, or commenting on the appearance of the stage (viewing Stacey Savage’s bloody trail from earlier and wondering if someone had blown their brains out onstage), or revealing lyrical inspiration (someone called out for the song “Skull Crusher” but inaccurately referred to it as “Head Crusher,” so she corrected them, described what the song’s lyrics were about, then said they weren’t playing it, haha), Betsy’s a trip. You never knew what she was going to say next. And God bless her for it. The stuffy, uptight, oh-so-serious underground metal scene is better off with Bitch’s presence. One of the original Metal Blade Records artists, still kicking ass and doing it their way. Setlist: Bitch is Back, Me and the boys, Riding in Thunder, What Am I Gonna Do with You, Devil Made You Do It, Black Candle, Flesh and Blood, Fist to Face, Rock and Roll Musician, You Want It You Got It, Damnation Alley, Headbanger, Leather Bound / Be My Slave / Live for the Whip (medley).
The task of closing out Legions of Metal II fell to TKO. It was a feather in Legions’ cap to score TKO as headliner, with this show being billed as one of just three appearances worldwide where the band would perform their best-known album, In Your Face, in its entirety. In the interest of full disclosure, I was never a huge TKO fan at the time, as their sound veered a bit too much toward the hard rock end of the spectrum for my harder/faster/louder tastes back then. Still, this was a worthy performance. The band featured the same rhythm section that had steamrolled the Reggies main stage last night with Q5, and singer Brad Sinsel’s gritty, bluesy, whiskey-soaked voice sounds almost exactly like it did nearly four decades ago. To me, though, TKO’s greatest asset on this night was guitarist Kendall Bechtel (who is also the current vocalist/guitarist in Fifth Angel). What an amazing talent. I could have watched him play guitar all night long. He even did a solo where he played a classical piece (don’t recall which one). Can’t wait to hear what Bechtel does with the forthcoming third Fifth Angel album. The downside with TKO’s performance tonight was that the audience was severely dwindling. They were sort of static with the live presentation, too, so there wasn’t a great deal of energy on stage or in the crowd. But the quality songs (“End of the Line” and “Danger City” being my favorites) and phenomenal guitar playing carried the night and provided a fitting close to the festivities.
Legions of Metal II wasn’t the biggest, glitziest, or “coolest” metal fest you’ll attend in 2018. But it was a hell of a lot of fun. The lineup was well-chosen and interesting, with enough diversity and undiscovered gems to keep everyone happy. The people were great. Reggies is a world-class venue. And Bob Byrne did a hell of a job. He announced afterwards that plans are already in motion for Legions of Metal III in 2019. The Windy City beckons once again …
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~