Last Thursday, I went to the Palace of Auburn Hills. Lest you should imagine a summer home for Henry VII, with crenelated turrets and a moat, the “Palace” is a gigantic indoor arena on the outskirts of Detroit. It is the home court of the Pistons, but Thursday night it was the venue for the multi-band, heavy metal Gigantour. Although I’m more of an Avett Brothers kind of girl, the tickets were a Christmas gift for my hard-rocking husband. It is not “my” music, but as I learned during my first metal adventure last summer, I am fascinated by the crowds, and, truth be told, I end up banging my own head as soon as I feel the vibrations from the towering stacks of Marshalls. Besides the which, if one only ever listens to music they already like they tend to become rigid and tedious.
On the cement balcony, a man tall enough to be classified as a giant, his height magnified by a perfectly groomed Mohawk, walked past me. “Smells like the chronic,” he muttered. It did. Like last summer’s Mayhem Festival, this crowd tended towards smoking of all kinds, and drinking ridiculously expensive beer. Unlike Mayhem, there were far fewer interesting costumes, and the emotional pitch seemed to be less religious pilgrimage than “I like metal and this is something to do in Detroit on a Thursday night.” The Mayhem attendees were, to a person, totally immersed in the metal life, from piercings and tattoos to the looks of rapture on their faces when a beloved band began to shred its way to musical nirvana. The Gigantour folk were more “regular” looking; the girl with purple hair and the guy with the Mohawk stood out from the crowd.
At the risk of sounding all snide and judgy, the Mayhem gestalt was a cross between London in the 80s and a Hell’s Angels gathering, while Gigantour’s was rather more monster truck rally. The couple sitting next to me seemed to be on a date that just happened to take place in the middle of a metal concert – they missed the first two bands, she was wearing pearls and they seemed more interesting in trying to yell to each other over the music than in listening to it. They did not bang their heads. Since I heard both Mayhem and Gigantour in the same geographical area, I don’t know whether the differences were due to venue, musical offerings or the season (I suppose there might have been lots of piercings and tattoos underneath coats and long pants).
There were True Believers in attendance, though, and we could see them clearly from our seats, a mere four rows up from stage left. On the floor, penned like potentially dangerous animals, were those who came to mosh and crowd surf, the ones who knew all the words and held their arms high to give the two-fingered salute. The floor was only half full for the first band, grew during the second, and was in full swing by the time headliners Motorhead and Megadeth played. A mosh pit opened in one part of the floor, and was in constant, dizzying motion for nearly two hours. As if by silent signal, moshers entered the circle and spun into one another without infringing on the space of those around the edges.
At the same time, bodies began to coast from the back to the front, raised and carried by an ocean of hands and ending at the railing directly below the stage. There, a patient row of security men in maroon polo shirts caught them, righted them, and made sure that they were unscathed before opening the gate and directing them back to the fray. Although the majority of surfers were fairly small people of both genders, there were several male surfers who had to have weighed more than 200 pounds; I was impressed with the ease with which the Palace employees caught and lowered them before they washed up on the barricade, and even more impressed with the casual, business-as-usual way in which a group of middle aged men handled the phenomenon of crowd surfing. While they might, in private moments, have shaken their graying heads and muttered “if my kid ever…,” they were consummate professionals in the arena.
Although I tend to get distracted by the sociological stuff, we were there for the music. The first band, Lacuna Coil, was an Italian goth metal group with a female lead singer. There aren’t that many women in high profile metal bands, so that drew me in; her stunning vocals and the interesting, occidental flavor of the songs kept me engaged. Striding back and forth in her black leggings, high-heeled boots and fringed black leather jacket, Cristina Scabbia was mesmerizing. There was a kind of supernatural, melodic, witchiness about the sound that hinted at ancient, European mysteries. Due to some inconsistent information about when the concert actually started, Lacuna Coil had a relatively small audience, with listeners filtering in during their set; I think the latecomers missed something worth hearing.
The second band, Volbeat, was a surprise and a delight. The Danish band has a retro, rockabilly look and an onstage charisma that had me bouncing and banging in seconds. Although I expected a Danish band to be all blonde and blue-eyed, and to have the ubiquitous long hair made for dramatic head banging, the guitarists all had short, dark hair, with the lead singer sporting a slicked-back, shiny pompadour that flipped charmingly as he played.
I confess that I’m always yearning for a tune to go with the beat, and Volbeat delivered. bringing down the house by asking if “anybody out there likes Johnny Cash” and moving into a rendition of “Dead Man’s Tongue” that started out with Cash-like solemnity and then broke into a wild, percussive flight of fancy. At one point, lead singer Michael Poulsen spoke from the stage to a young woman in the floor area, asking why she was wearing a Metallica T-shirt. After identifying the boy next to her as her boyfriend, Poulsen asked why he hadn’t bought her a Volbeat shirt; when he replied that he didn’t have enough money, Poulsen reached into his pocket, took out a wad of cash and passed it to the couple. It may have been shtick, but it was great shtick. I can say with absolute certainty that I will, in the future, voluntarily download and listen to the metallic rockabilly of Volbeat.
The third set was by the legendary Motorhead, led by the eminence known as “Lemmy.” Every girl loves a bad boy (or at least I do), and Lemmy is the gold standard. It’s hard to find out how old he actually is, but given the fact that he was being fired from his first band when I was in the eighth grade, it’s safe to assume that he’s pushing sixty. Still, when he appears on stage in his trademark cowboy hat and boots to sing “Ace of Spades,” he’s dead sexy.
I had expected to like Motorhead’s performance best, because their punk-infused sensibility always reminds me of The Ramones. I did not, however, find myself carried away by musical magic. There was nothing wrong with the performance, but it all sounded kind of…the same. It’s hard to understand Lemmy’s vocals at the best of times, and the distortion involved in live performance made it impossible. I was, however, interested in the fact that Motorhead seemed to have a roadie who did nothing but replace cymbals as they were beaten to death by drummer Mikkey Dee, and by the incredibly long drum solo during which Lemmy walked behind a wall of amps and smoked a cigarette – our position four rows from the side of the stage gave us a perfect view. I take great pleasure in imagining him asking Mikkey, in his gruff, Scottish Lemmy voice to “be a good lad and come up with a solo long enough for me to finish a fag.”
The last band was Megadeth, who I had heard at Mayhem. Their performance was tight, compelling, and visually exciting. Although I had been standing on three-inch boots for nearly three hours, and was out very late on a “school night,” they made me forget for an hour that I was just another uptight, suburban mom. The musicianship was superb, from front man Dave Mustaine to the workmanlike precision of drummer Shawn Drover, but what made me smile and whip my middle-aged hair was the charm. All three guitarists moved to every part of the stage, playing to those of us on the sides, and they were the only band of the night to do so. Watching guitarists Broderick and Ellefson face each other, smiling as they shredded, I felt the warmth of hearing a band that seemed to be genuinely happy to be making music, to be making music with each other, and to be making music for us.
Metal may not be my first musical love, but just like Mayhem, my Gigantour bottom line was that I felt free, in the best possible way. The thing about most live music is that I tend to feel self-conscious trying to dance, to clap, or to “groove,” always aware that I’m just a tightly wrapped white girl trying to be all cool and capable of a little get-down. At a metal concert, all I have to do is feel the beat and bang my head, which I can totally do – at Mayhem, everybody was banging and whipping their dyed, Mohawked, dreadlocked hair, and at Gigantour I still felt that the amplified vibrations ran up through the soles of my boots and straight to my constantly moving head. I probably won’t bang it so much that I have to follow in the footsteps of Dave Mustaine and have surgery to repair my blown-out neck, but I’m enjoying it more every time…and you just can’t bang your head to The Avett Brothers.
Photo Credits: http://www.gigantour.com/ (Except for the blurry, grainy ones, which are mine).