Pour House Music Hall, Raleigh, NC
July 22, 2016
When you release your first album in nearly five years, it’s cause for celebration. That goes double if your new album happens to be the finest thing you’ve ever done. North Carolina melodic traditional metallers Widow marked the occasion of their newly released fifth album, ‘Carved in Stone,’ by throwing a party in their native stomping grounds of Raleigh, North Carolina. I hadn’t seen the lads in a year and a half, so I hopped a plane and flew up to RDU the morning of the gig to partake of the festivities. Any hopes for a respite from the relentless Gulf Coast summer heat and humidity that are the bane of my day-to-day existence were dashed, as Raleigh was enduring a sufficiently intense heat wave to give lower Alabama a run for its money. Hydration was the name of the game. Fortunately, there was plenty of beer on hand, so we were well equipped to withstand whatever Mother Nature sent our way.
The venue for this evening’s affair was the Pour House Music Hall in downtown Raleigh. It’s not really a metal club; to the contrary, flyers in the room were advertising everything from R&B to jazz to God-knows-what-else. Nonetheless, Widow wanted to have their release party at the Pour House because it’s one of their favorite places to play: cool yet cozy room, good acoustics, open floor plan with good sightlines and a balcony, clean facilities, a couple dozen local craft beers on tap, excellent staff, and Jack the sound guy, whose audio engineering acumen is surpassed only by his penchant for telling hilarious stories. Load in and sound check went smoothly and painlessly, the band joking that they’d better soundcheck a new song because they needed to practice it before tonight’s gig. Then some of us headed over to The Mecca, an old-fashioned Raleigh restaurant spot that has been serving up inexpensive tasty meals at that location for more than 80 years. Somehow I don’t think they’ve changed the décor of the place during that interval. There’s even a large faded, framed portrait of FDR hanging on the wall. Word has it the North Carolina Supreme Court meets there for lunch on a regular basis. The Mecca lived up to its billing, as I enjoyed a yummy grilled cheese and tomato sandwich plus fries for around $5. Duly fortified, we walked back over to the Pour House to rock.
Unlike most shows, tonight’s “opening bands” were openers in name only. In a tip of the cap to Widow’s stature as kings of the scene, the other two scheduled acts on the bill, Datura and Demon Eye, are local bands that could easily headline their own shows in Raleigh. Unfortunately, highly regarded doomsters Demon Eye were forced to cancel at the last minute because their singer fell ill; however, The Hell No jumped on to the bill with minimal notice to pick up the slack. Sure enough, by the time Datura kicked off the proceedings at 9:45 or so, the Pour House already had a nice crowd on hand. Datura clearly drew well for the event, given the sizeable number of death metal shirts I observed in the room. Yes, Datura are a death metal band, so not really my cup of tea, but I stayed inside and watched a few songs anyway. They are certainly good at what they do, with tight musicianship, quality riffs, and a dark-haired, unassuming female vocalist whose hellish growls were as impressive as they were incongruous to her appearance. After 20 minutes or so, I bought another beer and went out into the alley, where I joined Chris and John E. from Widow hanging out with a friend of theirs, some bearded guy. Well, it turns out said bearded guy was Karl Agell, who is perhaps best known as the vocalist for Corrosion of Conformity on their incendiary ‘Blind’ album, the only C.O.C. album in my collection and a long-time sentimental favorite of mine. Somehow, I resisted the urge to go into total geek/fanboy mode by telling him everything I remember about C.O.C.’s gig at the Paradise in Boston, MA in late 1991; however, I did introduce myself and hang out for a bit. Karl shared a few choice stories from the ‘Blind’ days, and was just a really down-to-earth, nice dude. Cool!
Fresh off my brush with celebrity, I went back inside to watch The Hell No. Totally different genre than the other acts on the bill, this quartet really isn’t a metal band at all. They’re kind of a high-energy rock band, for lack of a better term, with clear influences from punk and rock and, yeah, some metal too. They served up an energetic, entertaining set of quick-hitting, catchy tunes. Focal point was red-haired, tattooed lead singer Brenna, who has a captivating voice that filled the room and commanded the audience’s attention. The woman can flat-out sing. Not sure I’d really listen to a band like this on my own, given my innate close-minded heavy metalness, but man their set was great fun. Everyone else seemed to agree too, as The Hell No received an overwhelmingly positive reaction. A highlight was when, between songs, Brenna asked if everyone was ready for Widow and then sang the words, “take hold of the night,” in homage to Widow’s signature tune. The crowd roared with approval.
Those familiar with Widow’s third album, ‘Nightlife,’ no doubt remember the title track which begins with the lyric, “Nighttime has come again / Strike of midnight we will begin.” Those words were apt tonight, because at just around the stroke of midnight, the house music cut off and Widow’s intro tape rolled. The boys used Survivor’s “Eye of Tiger” as their warmup music tonight (like Iron Maiden does with “Doctor Doctor”), then segued into the prerecorded acoustic intro to “Burning Star” off the new album. The intro ended and, bam, Widow hit the stage with “Burning Star,” the opening cut off the new record. It was an emotional moment for me. I’d first heard the rough mix of this song more than a year and a half ago. I was blown away by it even then and have often imagined what it would be like to hear it live. Now I know. It rules. Next up was the title track, “Carved in Stone,” another monster off the new disc. For the rest of the 10-song set, Widow played a nice mix of new songs and crowd favorites; indeed, the set was evenly balanced between the two. Fast-paced new tracks like “Wisdom” and “Of the Blood We Bind” whipped the sizeable crowd into a frenzy, although the band intentionally brought down the intensity level for the laidback “Anomaly,” a song that guitarist Chris Bennett joked they would probably screw up because they’d had so much difficulty with it in rehearsal. But “Anomaly” sounded spot-on, much to everyone’s relief. Predictably, though, the audience reception was most rabid for the oldies. “American Werewolf in Raleigh,” “Nightlife,” “Lady Twilight,” “Pleasure of Exorcism” and “Take Hold of the Night” are all proven, time-honored smashers. All sounded amazing tonight.
A few random notes/observations from Widow’s gig: Tonight marked the first time I’d seen them with new drummer Robbie Mercer, also of Dark Design. Mercer hasn’t played many gigs with Widow to date, but he positively nailed his performance at this high-profile show. No, he wasn’t flawless, but neither were Chris and John E. They’re all a bit rusty, after all, since they haven’t been gigging regularly in the last few months. Overall, though, I was highly impressed with Robbie’s powerful yet controlled style. He and bassist/vocalist John E. Wooten were really locked in for most of the set, providing a crushing foundation over which guitarist Bennett could work his lead guitar magic. Robbie’s gotta work on catching those sticks he throws in the air, however, as several of them ended up hitting the stage five or six feet away from him. A telling moment came near the end of “Take Hold of the Night,” when one of the beaters on Robbie’s double-bass pedal failed in spectacular fashion, flying loose of the kit and landing on the floor nearby. Robbie was unflappable, adjusting instantly with only the slightest hiccup in the beat and finishing the song so well that I don’t think most people even noticed. Ability to adapt on the fly to unexpected chaos onstage is crucial for survival in Widow. I think Robbie’s gonna do just fine. As for the other guys, Bennett played his usual amazing leads and repeatedly offered heartfelt thanks to the audience between songs. At one point, he thanked by name each of the people he knew had traveled long distances for the gig. After mentioning a few folks, Chris said, “last and probably least” he was thanking me, with some very kind words that I don’t deserve at all. I love you too, man. But I’m still going to give you a hard time for not printing out the setlist and having to hold up the show for a couple of minutes while you looked it up on your phone because you couldn’t remember what song came next. Finally, there’s bassist/vocalist John E. Wooten. Looking a bit like Johnny Cash these days with the black button-down long-sleeve shirt, black jeans, and black cowboy boots, John E. sang his ass off tonight and rocked out in his usual trademark fashion, though he reported being a bit more sore than usual the next day. We’re clearly going to have to do some PT before Widow goes on tour. Anyone know a good drill sergeant? Will he work for beer?
All in all, it was a fantastic night. Widow finished their triumphant set shortly before 1:00 a.m., then hopped off stage, grabbed some drinks, and hung out with the audience until the last person left, and the staff locked the front door and told us we had to leave at nearly 3:00 a.m. It was a fantastic night, a stellar kick-off to the ‘Carved in Stone’ cycle. Here’s hoping that the band take this show on the road in the months and years ahead, and that I’m able to go along for a big chunk of the ride. They were killer tonight. Widow are back, boys and girls. Lock up your booze, stock up on earplugs and take hold of the night!
Setlist: Burning Star, Carved in Stone, American Werewolf in Raleigh, Nightlife, Of the Blood We Bind, Lady Twilight, Anomaly, Wisdom, Pleasure of Exorcism, Take Hold of the Night.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~