Whisky a Go Go, Los Angeles, California
October 24, 2014
Jen and I have traveled far and wide over the last few years with our pals in Widow, but this visit to the West Coast was special to us in a couple of respects. First, it marked our first opportunity to attend a show at the world-famous Whisky a Go Go nightclub, a Sunset Strip landmark for a half century and a location where countless legendary acts have performed over the years. Second, this trip was particularly meaningful because we were going to see Satan. No, not the dude with the red cape, pointy beard, horns and pitchfork, but the classic NWOBHM band whose ‘Court in the Act’ opus from 1983 is an underappreciated gem in the heavy metal pantheon. But this wouldn’t be a mere nostalgia gig; after all, Satan’s comeback album, ‘Life Sentence,’ was one of the finest records released by anyone in 2013. I couldn’t wait.
It was a long day before we ever got to the gig. We awakened at 4:00 a.m. CST (2:00 a.m. Pacific) in a New Orleans airport hotel, then flew cross-country to LAX and endured a harrowing 90-minute subway ride to Hollywood in metro cars packed to the gills with people who seemingly hadn’t discovered soap or deodorant, even as we passed such dubious landmarks as Crenshaw and Watts. Good times. Still, we finally reached Hollywood by late morning, arriving just in time to witness the ceremony for adding John Denver’s star to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (Really? John Denver didn’t have a star until now? What the hell is wrong with you people? Dude was a musical titan, and I’m not even joking.) A lovely lunch at Tekila (killer Mexican food) followed with Widow’s Chris Bennett and his girlfriend, Allie. Then we checked into our not-so-plush (but perfectly serviceable) accommo-dations at the Saharan Motor Lodge, hit the neighborhood grocery store for snacks, bottled water and beer, changed clothes, and made the 2.3 walk down Sunset Blvd. to the Whisky. What a blur.
A cool feature of the way we set up this day was that we arrived at the Whisky in mid-afternoon, hours before the doors were to open and long before most people had gotten there. This gave us a great chance to walk around the place, including the first floor area where the stage is, the balcony area where we would set up the merch stand, and the upstairs backstage area, which features a huge open backstage area for the headliner (with huge windows looking out onto Sunset) and smaller but reasonably well appointed black-painted windowless rooms for the openers. A few observations about the place: The Whisky is not very big. Capacity is only something like 250 or 300. It is, however, very clean and very professional looking. The owners have maintained it well. Stage lighting and sound are nice as I have ever seen in a venue this size. All around the venue are TV screens. Rather than showing football games (or World Series Game 3, which I would have liked to see), the TVs show a close-circuit, multi-camera feed of whatever band is on stage at the time. The footage looks awesome. And the Whisky makes that footage available to each band to purchase. That’s another thing I noticed: The Whisky has figured out all sorts of angles for how to maximize their revenues, from the aforementioned video service, to charging $200 for groups sitting at one of the booths downstairs, to the convoluted bar tab policies in effect. Also, the venue staff was professional to a fault, but also very firm. These guys were nice about it, but they wanted to make sure you knew at all times that they were absolutely in charge and in control. Some of it was weird stuff, too, like telling me to move one step forward while one of the bands was playing in order to keep an imaginary aisle clear. WTF? I’m standing on the floor: There’s no aisle here. I didn’t understand what was up with that, but I did what I was told.
I suppose it’s commonplace at these kinds of events for the venue to book scads of local openers. Tonight was no exception. The touring package consisted of two bands: Satan and Magic Circle (doom from New England). Yet there were 6 total bands on the bill (a seventh dropped off without explanation), with all the local openers in a regrettable pay-to-play situation. (See what I mean about the Whisky maximizing cash flow?) I felt really bad for the first local opener, a band of youngsters called A Perfect Nightmare, with alternating screechy/clean female lead vocals. They played to about 6 apathetic people downstairs. I didn’t care for their music at all, but I felt pity for the fact that they must have spent so much money and gone to so much trouble to perform for nobody.
Widow were up next, and fortunately a much better fate awaited my friends. By this time, the venue had filled to approximately 100 people, which is certainly a respectable audience. Widow delivered their typical high-energy performance, with guitarist Chris Bennett summoning up a little extra flash and flair in the guitar solo department and bassist/vocalist John E. headbanging so hard that he must have given himself whiplash. As for drummer Jason Wheeler, he had expressed concern beforehand about the suboptimal state of the “house” gear he would be using, but you never would have known it during the gig, as he sounded powerful and spot-on (other than some muddiness in the bass drum, which again was a function of the gear not the player). They surprised me a little by shuffling the setlist, opening with “American Werewolf in Raleigh” into “Nightlife,” rather than the customary “Take Hold of the Night” into “Reanimate Her,” but it actually flowed really well this way. Chris offered up a couple of choice one-liners in between songs, the best of which was, “I don’t know if Jesus is here, but Satan is.” The 30 minutes passed in a flash. It was great to see Widow with a killer light show, tons of stage fog, and good sound system that did justice to their dynamic live presentation. Judging by the appreciative audience reaction, Widow made some new fans in the City of Angels tonight. As always, I was proud of them for delivering the goods and doing it their way, regardless of the location or circumstances. Setlist: American Werewolf in Raleigh, Nightlife, Lady Twilight, Take Hold of the Night, Reanimate Her, Angel Sin, Pleasure of Exorcism.
Things got a little blurry for me for a little while after that. I wasn’t drinking heavily or anything, but I was very tired (remember, I’d been awake since 2 a.m. local time) and there were of course the usual post-gig congratulations and post-mortems to go through with the Widow guys. Next up were two local thrash bands, Arsynic and Ravish. What I remember about the former is that they did covers of Megadeth (“Rattlehead”) and Death (“Pull the Plug”), as well as a ripping instrumental called (I think) “Japanese Steel.” What I remember about the latter is that their guitarist’s guitar was noticeably out of tune during their whole set, and they tried to keep going after their time was up, resulting in the power being cut and the lights being turned on. Bummer for them, but the lesson is don’t keep playing after the stage manager tells you to stop. It’s a fight you cannot win.
The first touring band of the night was Magic Circle from Massachusetts. I have and enjoy their self-released debut album as a fine slab of doom with occasional chugging guitars and soul-stirring vocals, albeit a really crappy production job. I was of two minds about their performance tonight. On the positive side, Magic Circle delivered those majestic, crushing guitars and soaring Brendan Radigan vocals to near-perfection. The sound was awesome for anyone into doom of the Trouble / Solitude Aeturnus variety. What’s more, they stood out on the bill as the only band with even remotely doomy tendencies, so Magic Circle’s set made for a great change of pace. Album songs like “Scream Evil” and speedy “Rapture” were terrific, and the several new songs aired sounded quite strong too. On the negative side, however, Magic Circle had literally no stage presence. The five guys seemingly didn’t move a step or reveal a single emotion all night long, but stood there stoically and played. Also, singer Radigan made a number of snide, sniping comments at the crowd that frankly made him come across like an asshole. Too bad. If I had just closed my eyes and listened to the music (and tuned out the between-song stage patter), Magic Circle would have hit a home run in my book tonight.
Of course, the reason we were all here was to see Satan. By the time they took the stage near midnight, the Whisky had filled up quite nicely. No, it wasn’t packed and it wasn’t a sellout, but there had to be 200+ people in the venue, most of whom didn’t look like they had been born when ‘Court in the Act’ was released in 1983. Weird, right? Anyway, the quintet from Newcastle came out onto that stage and annihilated the Sunset Strip for 90+ minutes. Everything about this show was brilliant. Guitarists Steve Ramsey and Russ Tippins produced sheer magic on their six-strings, with captivating riffs, melodies and leads for miles. I could’ve just stood there and watched the two of them play guitar for an hour and a half, and I would’ve felt like the entire trip to Los Angeles was worth it. They were a study in contrasts: Ramsey rocking the Gibson SG, Tippins on the Strat, Ramsey all smiles and headbanging energy, Tippins a cool customer behind his sunglasses. But their playing styles meshed to perfection and the result was heavy metal paradise. Singer Brian Ross also brought his “A” game, coming out onstage bedecked in sunglasses, heavy full-length coat and gloves, Rob Halford style, all of which he shed in short order to rock out in a sleeveless t-shirt. I swear, Ross hit every single note in every song, his voice showing no signs of either age or the rigors of singing a full headlining set every night for the last week or two. The rhythm section of bassist Graeme English (with Ramsey, the other half of the Skyclad alum tandem in the band) and drummer Sean Taylor may not have been flashy, but they put their heads down and rocked with a level of power and energy that befitted musicians half their ages.
I haven’t even mentioned the songs yet. Oh, what songs. Satan played a generous, no-B.S., all-killer-no-filler, 17-song set spanning 7 tracks each from ‘Life Sentence’ and ‘Court in the Act,’ plus 3 pre-‘Court in the Act’ demo songs. Amazingly, those old demo tracks (which I had never heard before) elicited the most feverish response from the people around me. Really? You’re all under age 30 and the Satan songs you know the best are the demo songs from 1981 that never made it onto an album? What kind of world is this we live in? Anyway, the setlist was glorious. The band hopscotched back and forth seamlessly between ‘Court in the Act’ material and ‘Life Sentence’ material, with no discernable variation in quality. Every song ruled. Opener “Trial by Fire” damn near brought tears to my eyes. I’ve been listening to that song for three decades and to hear it performed so masterfully by the band that wrote it was an overwhelming experience. “Break Free,” “Cenotaph,” “Life Sentence,” “Testimony,” even “Alone in the Dock,” for crying out loud. All are quivering classics, masterpieces in the annals of British heavy metal, and they were served up one after another, seemingly effortlessly, by our skilled hosts.
Ross and his bandmates really seemed pleased with the joyful reception they received from the Whisky crowd. Much of the floor was a giant moshpit (dammit, when did these come into fashion for traditional metal bands? Stupid kids, get off my lawn) during the entire Satan gig, so I was relegated to a corner over on the left side of the stage, in front of Ramsey and English, for most of the show. Ross’s comments from the stage were sometimes bizarre (he made some reference at one point to wearing a maid outfit and “Hoovering” which I guess is what we call vacuum cleaning), but mostly heartfelt and genuine. He said they wouldn’t be playing any Blitzkrieg songs because Satan and Blitzkrieg are both active entities, so there’s no need for them to perform each other’s material. (He could have said that the Blitzkrieg songs aren’t as good as the Satan songs, but I guess the truth would have been a little too painful, since Ross is the mastermind of Blitzkrieg.) He said they were filming a “movie” (I guess he means a DVD?) at tonight’s show because American audiences are so much better than British audiences, and that he wished he could take us all home to England. And he said his two biggest musical inspirations are Ian Gillan and Rob Halford, whereas for stage presence he looks up to Alice Cooper. Interesting. Kind of unnecessary to tell us all that, but interesting nonetheless.
All in all, Satan turned in an unforgettable performance. I’ve witnessed some killer shows in 2014, but I can’t imagine anything topping this in my year-end rankings, after all is said and done. Everything was perfect tonight: the room, the sound, the songs, the performances. And I couldn’t help thinking in my heart that I’ll never have an opportunity to see this band again. After all, I’ve been a metalhead for more than three decades, and I never had the chance to see Satan before tonight. Even then, I had to fly clear across the country to do it. If tonight marks the only time I ever see Satan (the band or the dude), I will count my blessings and say it was well worth it.
Setlist: Trial by Fire, Blades of Steel, Time to Die, 2025, Break Free, Cenotaph, Broken Treaties, Life Sentence, The Ritual, Incantations, Testimony, Oppression, Siege Mentality, Alone in the Dock. Encores: Heads will Roll, No Turning Back, Kiss of Death.
After the show, I learned that there were multiple heavy metal celebrities in the house. Schmier from Destruction was here, strangely enough, and the Widow lads had an opportunity to visit with him, which was nice since Widow had toured with Destruction in March. Katon Depena from Hirax was in the house. Some famous DJ was here too. Anyway, it was a great night, and it seemed like 2:00 a.m. arrived in no time, with the Whisky staff politely but firmly nudging everyone out the door and into the cool October night air on a beautiful southern California evening. On the way out the door, I had a chance encounter with Russ Tippins, and had an opportunity to tell him how much tonight’s show meant to me and to thank him for such an incredible performance. He was humble, gracious and soft-spoken. Later on that night, we got back to the hotel and things took a turn for the ugly, but that’s another story for another day. Nothing, and I mean nothing, can diminish the memory of this gig in my mind and in my heart.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~