Concord Music Hall, Chicago, IL
March 4, 2016
It turns out that not one but two sets of Teutonic metal masters were visiting the metropolitan Chicago area on the weekend of March 4-6. One band (Helloween) was in the midst of a short 5-show American run, while the other band (Accept) was doing just two gigs on U.S. soil. By some miracle of the metal gods, both bands were hitting Chicago on back-to-back nights. So Jen and I did what any self-respecting metalheads would do: We took a day off from work and hopped a flight to Midway International Airport for the weekend. On a cold (by wimpy Southerner standards, haha) overcast day, we made our way north and west from downtown Chicago on the L via the blue line, getting off at the Western station. A lousy McDonald’s meal and a few blocks’ walk later, we found ourselves outside the Concord Music Hall, a large (capacity had to be over 1,000, although it was lower tonight because the balconies were closed even though the floor level seemed mostly full) classy facility. From what I understand, the Concord only recently reopened as a rock/metal venue after having previously been a rap/R&B type club that closed its doors after multiple encounters of violence caused it to lose its liquor license. Beer prices were a shameful $8 even for pedestrian Goose Island brews, so I stuck with ice water. It wasn’t that I was trying to save money for merch either, as tonight’s headliner Helloween had no merchandise stand and hawked no wares of any kind. Talk about a missed opportunity, sheesh. Helloween lost thousands in merch sales in Chicago alone! Anyway, Jen and I found a nice spot in the second row, just right of the center, standing behind some short Latinos (and one Latina) who seemed far more interested in recording the gig on their phones than actually enjoying the gig itself, so I had an unobstructed view all night long.
At 7:55 p.m., the local openers, Septer, took the stage. If the name sounds familiar, it should. This is the same Septer that released two well-received albums early in the 2000s (one in 2003 and the other in 2006). I had no idea they were a going concern, but here they were. Not sure exactly how much of the original lineup remains in place, but guitarists Orest “Hawk” Dziatyk and Paul Dailey are definitely still in the fold, as is vocalist Dane McArtney, who sang on Septer’s ‘The God Key’ album in ’06. The band, who were using Them’s drumkit, raced through six songs (five originals and one cover, a spirited run through Maiden’s “Wrathchild”) very much in the Priest/Maiden-meets-U.S. power metal mold. The wool-cap and leather-gloves wearing McArtney (who was decked out in gear for a band called Judas Beast, which I can only assume is a cover band he fronts) has a hell of a powerful voice, reaching up and commanding those high notes on cuts like “Blood and Dishonor”; moreover, Hawk is a flashy guitarist who is fun to watch. Songs all sounded good, although Septer were saddled with a poor live mix and muddy sound, and it was a very pleasant 30 minutes. No new songs were aired, but the old stuff has held up surprisingly well. Setlist: Attack of the Ibex, Death by the Axe, Blood and Dishonor, Devil’s Prey, Wrathchild, Transgressor.
Next up were tour openers Them, who ponied up for this short Helloween tour even though their debut album, ‘Sweet Hollow,’ will not even be released until later in the springtime. Obviously, the name Them conjures up thoughts of King Diamond; therefore, it should come as no surprise that Them are engaged in full-fledged, unabashed, unadulterated King Diamond worship, both musically and visually. The musical side actually works well. Songs like “Dead of Night” sounded cool, with twin guitars, catchy melodies and compelling falsetto vocals. The theatrical side was a different story, however. The band used Billy Ocean’s “Caribbean Queen” and Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” as intro music. That’s just wrong. They borrowed/stole from King Diamond in every way imaginable. There was a baby in a smoke-filled coffin, an angry cross-wielding priest, a possessed young woman, a grandmother, a bone microphone and a top hat. The trouble is that while King Diamond expertly combines horror/eerie imagery with just enough campiness, Them descended into full-on low-budget goofiness most of the time. I almost felt like it was a parody, like Them were taking the piss out of King Diamond. Maybe that’s not what they intended, but that’s what it felt like. The use of other characters onstage seemed forced, half-baked and sadly contrived, like when Grandma wailed to the crowd – a propos of absolutely nothing – that the possessed girl had hanged her dog, or when she complained that she “had a bone to pick” with the singer. Characters milled about onstage for no apparent reason, darting on and off. For one song, the girl crept after Them’s vocalist with an axe, taking a few half-hearted swings that came nowhere near his head. Why? The last song featured a full-blown ritual exorcism/sacrifice, concluding with the singer “stabbing” a knife into the girl and “blood” spurting out into a chalice, which the singer then drank, allowing the blood to dribble down his face, onto his shirt, and down to the stage floor as he cackled maniacally. Lovely. Thus ended Them’s 35-minute performance. I don’t know. Maybe it will all come together when the album is released and the lyrical concept is unveiled. For now, however, much as I enjoyed the musical side of Them’s gig, the visual/theatrical side was pretty much a miss, as far as I’m concerned.
Them’s set concluded at around 9:15 p.m. At 10:00, Helloween still hadn’t gone onstage, even though the stage had been prepared, instruments had been checked, and everything had seemed ready to go for quite some time. What was going on? Helloween aren’t really known for pulling an Axl Rose by making the audience wait forever. Somehow it seemed that, hmmmm, this tale just wasn’t right. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Shortly after 10:00 p.m., the band’s tour manager came out, picked up a microphone, and addressed the crowd. Uh-oh. In very polite, apologetic terms, he explained that the whole band had gotten sick during a couple of bitterly cold days in Canada a few days earlier. So ill were they, he said, that a doctor was with one of the band members right now checking to see if he was physically able of playing tonight’s gig. Double uh-oh. Then the tour manager smiled and reassured us that “we Germans are resilient,” and that he expected Helloween would be able to perform if we would just be patient for 5 or 10 more minutes.
It was closer to 20 minutes later when the stage went dark and the traditional “Walls of Jericho” trumpet intro music played, after which the five ‘Weenies strolled onstage with a strong rendition of “Eagle Fly Free,” giving way to the wimpy (but somehow still pounding) “Dr. Stein.” Honestly, all of the band members looked fine, with one notable exception. Tall, lanky, Backstreet Boys-coiffed guitarist Sascha Gerstner was in obvious distress, his already-pale face having taken on an almost deathly pallor, sweating profusely even though the room was not warm, his movements tentative and shaky, his visage a mask of misery. It looked to me like the dude could pass out or keel over at any moment, and he was clearly not a happy camper. After “Dr. Stein,” affable vocalist Andi Deris paused to explain the obvious: Canada was cold, the band had all gotten sick, everybody was powering on with the help of meds, but Gerstner had just received a hit of extra-special medicine to allow him to play tonight. I would have expected Gerstner’s illness to cut the show short. It didn’t. God bless him, Gerstner gamely stayed out on the stage and powered his way like a boss through a 16-song, 110-minute performance (including a solo spot, which I think was truncated as the lone concession to his illness). He collapsed in a chair in the wings of the stage whenever he could, but never faltered onstage. It really was remarkable, and hugely appreciated by audience and band mates alike. Under the circumstances, no one would have faulted Gerstner for bowing out of the full set, yet the man stayed out there the entire time to bring German heavy metal music to the people of Chicago. For that reason, Deris dedicated the song “Heroes” to Gerstner, as he was the real hero of the night. And towards the end of the show, when it was time for band introductions, Gerstner received louder applause and audience reaction than anyone, eliciting a weak smile from the pale guitarist in spite of himself. If tonight’s Helloween gig was good (and it was), then we have only Sascha Gerstner to thank because it was his selfless act of metal soldierdom when all the chips were down that made it happen. Cheers and thank you, Sascha. I’ll never make fun of your haircut again.
For my taste, this was actually a really strong Helloween set. To be honest, I haven’t been overly enamored of the last few albums. They’re not bad; on the contrary, they’re quite listenable and enjoyable, even. But everything sounds so rehashed and formulaic that it all feels a bit like Helloween are going through the motions. Having said that, all three new songs aired tonight (“My God-Given Right,” “Heroes” and “Lost in America”) sounded killer, and the set was peppered with other highlights from the Deris era, from standbys like “Mr. Torture” and “Power” to the surprising inclusion of tracks like the awesome “Before the War” and “When the Rain Grows” and “Steel Tormentor,” all culled from the band’s oft-overlooked mid-90s output. Damn, this is good stuff, and it sounded great tonight. Deris may not be blessed with the world’s greatest voice, but he is an engaging, friendly and charismatic frontman, whether regaling the audience with stories about his move to Spain as a solution to his half-French, half-German lineage (not sure how many Americans grasped the quandary created by that particular bloodline) or donning a top hot for the last few tunes of the set. Andi Deris is the sort of bloke you’d love to sit down and have a beer with. As for bassist Markus Grosskopf, the dude is a beast, a ball of energy, the heart and soul of Helloween, even when he (with a twinkle in his eye) descended into full-on Rudy Sarzo-land by licking the neck of his bass. By contrast, I’ve never understood the stage persona of guitarist Michael Weikath, and I still don’t. Yeah yeah, the guy’s a legend, blah blah blah, but his disdainful, disinterested facial expressions coupled with his odd, exaggeratedly effeminate stage moves have never worked for me, and tonight was no exception. By contrast, drummer Dani Loble is a lot of fun to watch, a high-energy drummer who adds a lot to the tunes even though his solo spot was largely unnecessary and workmanlike.
I enjoyed Helloween’s set a great deal, but my favorite part had to be the five-song medley that included key parts of “Halloween,” “Sole Survivor,” “I Can,” “Are You Metal?” and “Keeper of the Seven Keys.” Some passages in that medley literally sent chills down my spine, they sounded so good. Predictably, the night ended with Helloween’s biggest hits and most well-known tunes from the Kiske/Hansen days, “Future World” and “I Want Out.” Oh, I know it’s fashionable in some metalhead circles to bash these tunes, but I appreciate them for what they are and they never fail to put a smile on my face. That said, “I Want Out” overstayed its welcome a bit tonight, thanks to a (totally ridiculous) moshpit that erupted in that song for the first time all night, spawning multiple crowd surfers even as Deris led the crowd in a prolonged singalong. Metalheads of Chicago: How can you start a moshpit during “I Want Out”? What the hell is the matter with you? For shame. You’re better than that. Anyway, it was 12:15 a.m. when the show finally ended. Jen and I drifted outside to find a fresh coating of light snow on the ground, but our hearts were light and happy as we shivered in the cold to wait for the blue line train and walked the Magnificent Mile in downtown after 1:00 a.m. to reach our Gold Coast hotel. Cheers and thank you, Helloween and especially Sascha Gerstner!
Setlist: Eagle Fry Free, Dr. Stein, My God-Given Right, Steel Tormentor, Mr. Torture, Waiting for the Thunder, Straight out of Hell, Heroes / drum solo, Where the Rain Grows, Lost in America, Power, Forever and One, Medley (Halloween/Sole Survivor/I Can/Are You Metal?/Keeper of the Seven Keys). Encores: Before the War, Sascha Gerstner guitar solo, Future World, I Want Out.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~