The Parish at House of Blues, New Orleans, LA
March 16, 2018
It’s funny how concert calendars work. There are interminable stretches of time where nothing of interest comes within a 300-mile radius of my house, followed by frenetic periods in which worthwhile gigs pop up almost daily. So it came to be that just five days after seeing Exodus demolish The Parish room at House of Blues in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Jen and I were back on I-10 headed west to attend another show at the same venue. The last time Iced Earth played New Orleans was back in May 2004 on the Glorious Burden tour. On that occasion, they had played the big room at House of Blues. But it’s been many years, and IE’s brand of metal has fallen out of fashion a bit in the States, so this show (even though it was on a Friday night, the night before St. Patrick’s Day, no less) was booked into the 250-capacity small room at HOB, The Parish. Truth be told, the place was not packed out. It was a respectable crowd, to be sure, but definitely not jammed to the rafters. Also, the audience differed greatly from the hordes assembled here five nights earlier for Exodus. In contrast to the old-school thrash mavens who dominated Friday’s attendance, this was much more of a short-hair-and-glasses, prog-power kind of crowd. I don’t say that in a disparaging way; after all, my hair is close-cropped and if I don’t have my contact lenses in, I’m wearing glasses too.
The first touring band to hit the small Parish stage was KILL RITUAL, the San Francisco-based four-piece led by guitarist Steve Rice (ex-Imagika). Their style heavy modernish power-thrash was a good fit for this tour. Despite the cramped confines of the stage and the audience’s unfamiliarity with the material, Kill Ritual delivered a strong 30-minute set. Vocalist David Reed Watson ventured into the audience several times to sing, the band effectively elicited audience participation to a track called “Rise,” and the set ended on a high note with a very enjoyable cover of UFO’s “Lights Out,” even though many in the crowd didn’t appear to be familiar with the tune. An unexpected surprise for me was the realization that my old friend Chris Lotesto (of the Chicago band ION VEIN) is playing bass for Kill Ritual on this tour, after having done second guitar duties for the band on a European run last year. We got a chance to catch up for a bit at the end of the night, and it seems that Chris is making the most of this opportunity to be part of a major tour slashing across America. It’s always good to see friends doing well.
Next up was Seattle’s SANCTUARY, a set which I regarded with a strange mixture of anticipation and dread. Don’t get me wrong: I dearly love Sanctuary. They were the first underground metal band I ever saw live, back in April 1988 opening for Megadeth on the So Far So Good … So What? Tour. But vocalist Warrel Dane died last December. (This did not come as a shock. When I saw Sanctuary at Headbangers Open Air in Germany last July, Dane appeared exceedingly pale, gaunt and frail.) Given the distinctiveness of Dane’s voice and the deeply personal, emotional resonance of his poetry, it seemed to me that laying the band to rest was the only proper course of action. I was incredulous when Sanctuary announced they would be going forward with the Iced Earth tour as planned with a guest vocalist (Joseph Michael, ex-White Wizzard and current singer for Witherfall), in tribute to their fallen brother. After seeing the show, however, I am convinced that Sanctuary made the right decision. Two songs in, guitarist/founder Lenny Rutledge took the microphone and said (to thundering applause) they were doing these shows in remembrance of their friend Warrel, and he introduced “Battle Angels” as Dane always had, “Are you ready to go into fucking battle?” The message was on-point, the tone was right (although do I wish they weren’t selling $30 shirts emblazoned with Dane’s face, date of birth, and date of death). This was done in a respectful way that both honored Dane’s legacy and fulfilled the band’s pre-existing commitment to do the Iced Earth tour, a tricky tightrope to traverse. Singer Michael has the upper-register range to pull off the vocal acrobatics embedded in these songs with which Dane himself struggled so mightily in the later years of his life. He hit the notes for the most part, and even gamely worked through the insanely demanding screams of “Battle Angels.” No, Joseph didn’t have the emotional gravitas or the richness and depth of Dane’s voice, but that’s unfair to expect. Joseph Michael did a fine job, even when calamity struck during “Soldiers of Steel.” Michael went offstage during the solo part, leaned on what he later called “fake ballast,” lost his balance and jammed (broke?) his ring finger on his right hand. He missed a vocal cue, then came out with his finger taped up in fluorescent yellow gaffer tape. Michael finished the show, but had a stream of entertaining commentary the rest of the night about doing a few more songs before he went to the emergency room, about how he had just popped the joint back into place, how there was a quick care clinic down the block and, at the end of the gig, a remark along the lines of, “Thank you, good night, I’m going to see a doctor,” haha. Vocals and vocalist antics aside, Sanctuary played great and sounded great. Rutledge and drummer Dave Budbill seemed really into it, and young-gun hotshot guitarist Joey Concepcion recruited for this tour played a scorching set of leads. The setlist was beyond reproach, and it did my heart good to hear these classic songs played live one more (final?) time. Yet the whole set was tinged with sadness because Warrel is not here. Sometimes certain lyrics would cut through the din in a poignant, melancholy way, such as “Count your blessings / Die tomorrow” or “What if there is nothing more? What if there is only emptiness?” Godspeed, Warrel Dane. Thank you for the music and the poetry. May your weary soul find peace. Setlist: Die for My Sins, Seasons of Destruction, Battle Angels, Arise and Purify, Frozen, The Year the Sun Died, Soldiers of Steel, Mirror Black, Future Tense, Taste Revenge.
I have seen ICED EARTH many times over the years, but the only time I’ve ever seen them in such an intimate, up-close-and-personal setting was on a memorable summer night in June 1999 in Richmond, Virginia with my friends Tony and John. Tonight reminded me of that show. Tonight, as in Richmond, I was jammed right against the front of the stage, my face mere inches from Jon Schaffer’s guitar all night long. There was seemingly no air circulation and definitely no A/C on a warm, humid New Orleans spring night. With heat rising, the second-floor Parish venue was a sweltering sweatbox from beginning to end. Iced Earth left most of their Incorruptible stage production crated up tonight, as there was no room on the postage-stamp sized stage for any of it. There was no banner, no barricade, no drum riser, no fancy lights. Indeed, the only bit of stage production the band employed tonight were two compressed-air jets situated in the front corners of the stage, which they used three or four times during the evening, startling the hell out of the poor unsuspecting patrons standing directly in front of them. But you know what? Iced Earth needed none of those accoutrements tonight. They just came out and bulldozed the crowd with a killer 90-minute set of pure, uncompromising Iced Earth metal.
Of course, IE is infamous for their frequent lineup changes, but this incarnation of the band has been touring nonstop since the first of the year, so by this point they are a well-oiled machine. New lead guitarist Jake Dreyer is a beast, a shredder of the highest order, and he seems entirely comfortable onstage, making the most of his limited opportunities to come to center stage during his solo spots to shine. Canadian singer Stu Block is a really likeable guy, with his humorous, from-the-heart, and often self-deprecating stage raps. He also does justice to all eras of the band’s material, and has a terrific voice that fits Schaffer’s material perfectly. Oddly, Block’s voice was low in the mix tonight, and not just upfront where I was standing. The ever-nomadic Jen walked around the entire venue during Iced Earth’s set and reported that Stu’s vocals were low in the mix throughout the room. Bummer, but it must have been intentional because every other singer was clear and loud in the mix. Before highlight “Black Flag,” Block announced that Iced Earth are filthy pirates and then added with a smirk that, “We learned last night that some people are just too pussy for our pirate ways. But the pirate ship just keeps on going.” He did not elaborate, but I later learned that half of Iced Earth’s crew had apparently quit the tour the night before, so the band were definitely doing this gig in sub-optimal conditions. Later, Block indicated that the band was “dripping” on the incredibly hot stage, and apologized for sweating on somebody’s eyeglasses in the front row. At one point Block tried to get a reaction from the people in the back, then said dejectedly, “Aannnnd that guy just fell down.” I didn’t see it, but Jen told me that, sure enough, some drunk guy near the back bar keeled over in a heap as if on cue when Block asked for noise from the people in the back. A particularly funny moment came when Block mistakenly introduced “Raven Wing” when the setlist said they were supposed to be playing “Brothers” next. Schaffer quickly corrected him, prompting Block to laugh and exclaim, “Well, let’s back this pirate ship up,” and joke about how he had just gotten reading glasses because he is old. When it came time to play “Raven Wing” for real, Block said, “This might seem like déjà vu for some of you,” and proceeded to deliver the same intro he had previously, all with a smile on his face. Well played.
Iced Earth’s setlist leaned heavily toward new material, with 6 of the 15 cuts being lifted from last year’s Incorruptible album, and just 7 from Something Wicked and points earlier. Although I was disappointed that the Something Wicked trilogy (which had been part of the setlist for much of this tour) was absent tonight as it had been the last few nights, I was nonetheless quite pleased with the song selection. Incorruptible is a fine album in its own right, and songs like “Black Flag” and especially first encore “Clear the Way” (about the Irish Brigade’s valiant self-sacrifice at the Battle of Fredricksburg in December 1862) are simply monstrous live tracks. “Burning Times” and “I Died for You” both elicited huge crowd responses, the audience singing the chorus so loud as to drown out the band onstage. I was particularly smitten with the three-song block from Night of the Stormrider, which began with “Stormrider” itself, Schaffer addressing the crowd directly and apologizing for the 14-year gap since Iced Earth’s last performance in New Orleans, but quickly pivoting to say it wasn’t the band’s fault and that if we want Iced Earth to come back we need to mobilize the fan base and let promoters know. He then tried to incite a moshpit for the thrashy “Stormrider,” exclaiming, “You can pit in here. Fuck that corporate shit.” Nope, didn’t happen. No sign of a mosh pit, not with this type of crowd. But the song ruled, as it always does. The follow-ups, “Angels Holocaust” and “Travel in Stygian,” were nothing short of divine, two of the best heavy metal songs to emerge from the United States in the 1990s, back-to-back. Wow. The icing on the cake was the final encore, “Watching Over Me,” which Block prefaced by starting chants of “Sanctuary” and “Warrel Dane,” then dedicated the song to all of us who have lost someone important. The crowd sang along beautifully, and it was a magnificent, transcendent moment to close out the gig. I’ll confess I got a little choked up. Then Jon Schaffer reached out and handed me his guitar pick that he’d used throughout the encore, and the night was truly complete. Go see this tour! Setlist: Great Heathen Army, Burning Times, Dystopia, Black Flag, Seven Headed Whore, I Died for You, Vengeance is Mine, Brothers, Dracula, Raven Wing, Stormrider, Angels Holocaust, Travel in Stygian. Encores: Clear the Way, Watching Over Me.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~