featuring TWISTED TOWER DIRE / WIDOW / CEREBUS / SALVACION
Reggie’s 42nd Street Tavern, Wilmington, NC
December 9, 2017
Perhaps improbably, North Carolina is home to some of America’s finest traditional heavy metal bands. This is not a new development. It was true in the heady days of the 1980s, the dark ages of the 1990s, and continues to manifest itself all the way through the classic metal revival of today. So it was logical (and maybe even inevitable) for an intrepid soul to organize a local metal festival to showcase these North Carolina metal gems. Enter Carlos Denogean, a resident of Wilmington, North Carolina and an accomplished, hard-working drummer with an impressive resume indeed. Tonight marked the second installment of Carlos’s THOU SHALL ROCK festival (named after a song by his primary band, Salvacion). From what I understand, Carlos aims to build a metal scene in Wilmington (a port city running along the Cape Fear River on the east coast of North Carolina), and THOU SHALL ROCK is a cornerstone of that most noble and worthy objective. The well-curated four-band lineup was all-killer, no-filler, featuring ‘80s legends CEREBUS in their first in-state comeback show, long-running internationally acclaimed titans TWISTED TOWER DIRE, globetrotting fun-loving power trio WIDOW, and one of the best of the new breed of North Carolina metal in the form of SALVACION. With a roster like that and the added inducement of seeing my friends Widow (with whom I’ve had countless road adventures over the years) for the first and only time in 2017, it was a no-brainer for me to make the necessary arrangements to attend.
Unfortunately, as many well-meaning promoters around the U.S. (and particularly in the South) can attest, building a scene is a dicey enterprise fraught with peril. So it came to be that the festival took place on a bitterly cold Saturday night, with a threat of ice and snow that fortunately never materialized. Whether because of the dire weather forecast, the impending holidays, or general laziness/apathy, the punters stayed home tonight, despite the stellar billing and the dirt-cheap $7 price of admission. The result was that a dedicated-but-way-too-small audience of a couple dozen die-hard metalheads were treated to an incredible night of North Carolina metal. To their credit, none of the bands allowed the underwhelming turnout to affect their performances or dampen their spirits, and each of them not only put on a killer show but made a point of supporting each other. The brotherhood and camaraderie are definitely there in this community. Also, the venue, Reggie’s 42nd Street Tavern, was a fine setting for the proceedings. From what I gather, it used to be a total dive bar with a stage literally at floor level; however, it has been renovated recently and now features a large stage with modern lighting (unfortunately stuck in monochrome red for 98% of the gig tonight, thereby ruining any hope of good photos or video for anybody). Bartender was friendly and the beer selection was impressive. For my beverage of choice tonight, I settled on Blair’s Breakfast Stout by Wilmington Brewing Company. I do love my dark beers, and this one was a fine example of the style done right. At a reasonable $6/pint for a delicious local beer, I was a happy camper on that front.
It was more than a little surprising that TWISTED TOWER DIRE were up first. With a 23-year history and a worldwide fanbase that rightfully regards them as one of the greatest U.S. metal bands of all time, TTD should have been headlining this shindig, not kicking it off. Be that as it may, at a few minutes after 10:00 p.m., Scott Waldrop and his co-conspirators took the stage to their traditional “Battle Cry” instrumental opener before ripping into the classic “The Isle of Hydra.” No matter how many times I see them, there is always so much to love about a Twisted Tower Dire gig. The twin guitar artistry of Waldrop and Dave Boyd is the stuff of legend, just sheer perfection with those riffs, harmonies and leads. Bearded, smiling singer Jonny Aune (proudly wearing a Mythra shirt and joking about how he thought it was supposed to be warm at the beach) is also one of the best in the business, with power and range for miles, and supported by killer backing vocals from three of his bandmates. And the rhythm section of bassist Jim Hunter and drummer Marc Stauffer is as solid as they come, with Stauffer wearing his customary headset microphone (John Gallagher-style) as he bashed the hell out of the kit, and Hunter rocking a killer Black Sabbath Dehumanizer shirt. Then there are the songs. The setlist tonight was a slightly truncated version of TTD’s triumphant set at the Frost & Fire festival in California in October, just littered with classic tracks spanning the band’s discography and of course their brilliant Mercyful Fate cover, “A Dangerous Meeting.” Because of geographic distances and life commitments, TTD performances have been few and far between in recent years. But don’t be fooled. They remain an absolutely lethal live band. Also, there are persistent rumors of new Twisted Tower Dire material on the horizon, so I hold out hope that there will be opportunities to see them again relatively soon. For now, though, I am absolutely convinced that the Twisted Tower Dire gig was worth the flight to Wilmington in and of itself. Setlist: Battle Cry, The Isle of Hydra, Snow Leopard, Guardian Bloodline, Axes and Honor, Final Stand, A Dangerous Meeting, The Witch’s Eyes.
Next up during the 11 o’clock hour were my buds in WIDOW, who were fresh off a massive headlining performance at the Steel Assassins festival in Sydney, Australia last month. Many years ago at one of my first Widow gigs (before I started going on the road with them), their then-drummer Peter Lemieux (who is now playing in a really good young LA band called Blade Killer) summarized Widow’s live ethos perfectly to me in four simple syllables, “We bring the fun.” That is and always has been Widow’s credo. It’s impossible to not have fun at a Widow show, with their good-time fist-pumping singalong anthems like “Night Life” and “Lady Twilight,” their often-hilarious (whether intentional or not) stage banter, and their balls-out, hair-flailing, devil-may-care approach to their performance. I don’t think shredder Chris Bennett (he of the white Gibson Les Paul) ever plays a song the same way twice, as he’s always trying out unrehearsed, off-the-cuff licks and flourishes that more often than not sound absolutely killer and complement the song well. If you watch Bennett closely, you’ll see sometimes he’ll smile to himself a little after one of those improvised bits, and you know what he’s thinking, “Damn, that sounded cooler than I thought it would,” haha. His partner in crime, bassist/vocalist John E. Wooten, is just as much fun to watch over on stage left. John E.’s got this Johnny Cash “man in black” thing going on these days, with black button-down shirt, black jeans, and black cowboy boots. Not only is Wooten’s distinctive voice as strong as ever, but he is pure energy during the instrumental sections, bouncing around the stage and headbanging like crazy. As for newish drummer Robbie Mercer, after more than a year in the fold, he now seems completely comfortable and locked into the groove, which is exactly what Widow’s music calls for. Of the band’s stage raps, two were particularly noteworthy tonight. First, there was the one after “Of the Blood We Bind” where they hilariously allowed that the melody in that song might have been borrowed from TTD’s “The Witch’s Eyes,” and sang bits of the two songs back to back to hammer home the point. The TTD guys were dying laughing, especially when Bennett made a crack about how Widow was going to be hearing from Scott Waldrop’s attorney. Also, it was both heartwarming and funny when they acknowledged me from the stage, said I’d flown up from Alabama for the gig, encouraged everyone to buy me a drink, but then added the caveat “not too many, because he’s kind of a lightweight,” hahaha. Bastards. Like I said, Widow brings the fun. Really, the only surprise of the night was that, in a spur-of-the-moment decision, they bailed on their traditional closer “Take Hold of the Night” and opted instead for a cool, crowd-pleasing cover of Ozzy’s “Bark at the Moon.” First Widow show I’ve seen in many years where “Take Hold …” was not played, but it was great fun to hear their take on the Ozzy staple, complete with a pretty damn good impression of the seminal Jake E. Lee solo. Nicely done all around, lads. Let’s not allow another year to pass before the next one. Setlist: Burning Star, Carved in Stone, An American Werewolf in Raleigh, Night Life, Of the Blood We Bind, Lady Twilight, The Pleasure of Exorcism, Bark at the Moon.
These ‘80s metal band reunions are a tricky thing, because sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. Greensboro, North Carolina natives CEREBUS released an underground classic U.S. metal album called Too Late to Pray back in 1986, but then were lost in the sands of obscurity for decades. Earlier this year, the band (including original members Scott Board (vocals) and Eric Burgess (bass)) reformed to play Chicago’s prestigious Legions of Metal festival. Cerebus turned in one of the most talked-about performances of the entire weekend. They were just so good live, and the Too Late to Pray material has aged so well, that it was no surprise Germany’s Keep It True festival soon snapped up Cerebus for next spring’s edition. Tonight marked Cerebus’s first North Carolina gig in 30 years, so it was a really special night. Several of Board’s and Burgess’s family members were on hand to witness this bit of history. As for me, I was really stoked to be seeing Cerebus again. In the wake of the killer Legions of Metal gig, the Heaven & Hell Records reissue of Too Late to Pray has been in regular rotation at my house and in my car for months now. Cerebus were every bit as good tonight as – and arguably even better than – they were in Chicago. Curly blond-maned frontman Scott Board (who I understand spent time in a Whitesnake tribute band with Widow’s John E. Wooten and others a few years ago) has an absolutely fantastic voice, and the years have diminished none of his range or power. Someone commented to me after opener “Running out of Time” that they thought Board’s voice was going to blow out the P.A. it was so strong. Wow! (And to correct an error in my Legions of Metal review, Board absolutely was not looking at lyric sheets. He was apparently having technology issues in Chicago which caused him to keep looking down at his feet, which I assumed meant he was looking at lyrics. Tonight he never looked down once and definitely had no memory aids in front of him.) Bassist Eric Burgess looked to be having the time of his life up there, smiling and roaming the stage all night. And the younger Cerebus recruits were no slouches either. Guitarists Reid “Speed” Rogers (also of Knightmare and Salvacion) and Elio Romero excelled at those often-tricky guitar parts, and both turned in fantastic performances. As for drums, none other than our host Carlos Denogean was sitting in (from what I understand, Stephen Arnold, the Cerebus drummer from 1987-88 who played with the band in Chicago, had other musical commitments), and he turned in his usual top-notch, muscular, headbanging showing. As in Chicago, Cerebus aired most of Too Late to Pray, omitting the lengthy ballad “Longing for Home,” and also added the cassette bonus track “She Burns” and a barn-burning cover of Saxon’s “Motorcycle Man” that was tailor-made for Board’s voice. Highlights? For sheer emotional impact, it’s tough to beat “Distant Eyes,” a magnificent song that Board dedicated to the band’s guitarist Chris Pennell, who passed away in 2010. “Running out of Time,” “Too Late to Pray,” “Catch Me if You Can,” the NWOBHM-flavored “Taking Your Chances” (and living day by day). Man, that’s some superb music right there. Cerebus richly deserve their slot at the 2018 KIT festival, and will go down a storm in front of the Germans. As for me, I was just so happy to get to see them again tonight. Setlist: Running Out of Time, Too Late to Pray, Rock the House Down, Distant Eyes, Catch Me if You Can, Taking Your Chances, She Burns, Talk is Cheap, Motorcycle Man.
It was after 1:00 a.m. when Wilmington’s own SALVACION finally took the stage. This was double-duty for both Speed Rogers and Carlos Denogean, but they seemed totally unfazed by it. What did faze them just a bit was the dramatic entrance of vocalist Elliot Madre. Apparently, Elliot was overcome with the Christmas spirit on this night, so he sauntered out during “Thou Shall Rock” sporting a Santa hat, sunglasses, an unbuttoned Christmas sweater with a big red bow hanging from the back, a festive scarf, and twinkling multi-colored Christmas lights fashioned into both a necklace and a belt. It was quite a spectacle. His bandmates couldn’t stop cracking up when they saw him, so it was obviously a surprise to them too. Unlike in 2016, where the band’s setlists both times I saw them were comprised exclusively of hard-rockin’ Thin Lizzy/Riot inspired Way More Unstoppable tracks plus covers, Salvacion edged into some of their newer, heavier, more Iron Maiden-influenced material tonight. There were two songs from their excellent, but overlooked 2016 EP, Keep Up the Fire, aired tonight, plus their superb “Ecstasy of Gold” single released late last year. I definitely enjoy the Unstoppable stuff (like “Epic Beer Run” and “Faster than Hell,” with its memorable line about when you race with the devil, you’d better be faster than hell), but the direction of these new songs is right up my alley and I hope Salvacion continue to evolve in that way while maintaining their hard-rock underpinnings and identity. As always, some of my favorite moments during the Salvacion set where when guitarists Rogers and lefty Dan Todd, along with bassist Victor Marriott, came together at the front of the stage during the instrumental parts to rock out. So much fun. And speaking of fun, what better way to round out the proceedings than with an audience-participation cover of Riot’s “Swords and Tequila”? (They also worked in a version of Saxon’s “And the Bands Played On” earlier in the set.) Salvacion are a talented band who have enough individuality to stand out in a positive way in the crowded traditional-metal marketplace today. I wish them luck, and look forward to seeing them again soon. Setlist: Thou Shall Rock, Faster than Hell, Out for Blood, Epic Beer Run, And the Bands Played On, Ecstasy of Gold, Keep Up the Fire, Swords and Tequila.
All told, THOU SHALL ROCK II was an outstanding event that deserved much more support than it received. Here’s hoping Carlos Denogean soldiers on with subsequent editions of this festival. If he does, I’d definitely consider a return trip to Wilmington. There’s some amazing music happening in North Carolina, the venue is cool, and that breakfast stout rocks. Maybe I’ll see you there?
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~