by JJ Koczan
We continue with JJ's report from the Roadburn Festival in Tilburg, Holland. If you missed it, check out Day One, Day Two, and Day Three. The fourth and final day was Sunday, April 26, 2009, and that's what we have here...
Saint Vitus at Roadburn (gilles etasse)
The vibrating of an incoming call on my cell phone woke me up at 06:30 this morning. It was an old friend of mine -- probably the oldest, come to think of it -- whom I've known since third grade or so. He's a veteran now and got out of the Marines this past New Year's Eve, having done a combat tour in Iraq that provided him with nightmares and memories I can't even imagine and don't want to try and physical ailments which the military is now trying to screw him out of his health benefits to cover.
He was crying into the phone because one of his fellow Marines, with whom he was apparently quite close, died yesterday from complications resulting from terminal cancer. As I understand it, the complication in that circumstance is that you have cancer. It took two strokes to kill him, and aside from his wife and parents, he hadn't told anyone he was sick. My friend, who's already had far too much of the reality of human nature shoved into his eyeballs, was blindsided, and he'd spent that entire day making phone calls to say that another one of his buddies was dead.
I'll stop short of falling into some kind of "death as impetus for reflection on one's life" thing, but I think about that experience and I think about the last four days I've had, which as far as music goes have been some of the best of my life, and all I can chalk it up to at this point is privilege. I'm not rich, I can't afford this trip and knew I couldn't when I decided to undertake it after it was announced that Saint Vitus, whose logo t-shirt I'm now wearing, was playing. But I am a white American from an upper middle class background, and apparently that's enough to do whatever you want to in life. Like write about music for a living, or take the time out of the day to reflect on one's own cultural privilege -- or, more likely, not.
One further: As I write this, I'm sitting in my pajamas with my back up against four pillows on a Hilton bed in Amsterdam, enjoying a snack of unsalted cashews, fresh French baguette, organic pesto and some cheese which I don't even know what it is but I want to make out with it. I've done nothing in my life to deserve any of this.
I feel the same way about Roadburn. The Afterburner show Sunday night was held in the more intimate Green Room -- as opposed to the main space, where I'd just assumed it would be -- and even more than the festival in its entirety, I think the Afterburner show captured the spirit of this music. It was intimate, it was personal for all involved on stage and off, and it was communal. The heavy was so heavy and the feeling throughout was of pure enjoyment. These people may or may not look like scumbags -- and I absolutely include myself in this -- but this is what they live for. It's what I'm living for, and I may not have any more right to it than anyone else, but I sure as shit appreciate what got me here. It would be ridiculous not to acknowledge it.
The last couple days have been a wash of great music, really good beer and hazy memories I'll enjoy as long as I have them, but the Afterburner show last night was smaller scale and more in line with what makes this music so special to those who can identify with it. I know I haven't really had the occasion to discuss the music itself over the past couple days, because there's just been too much of it to really hone in on one thing or another and these entries have been written in various stages of hangover duress (like a true professional), but there's a spirit and passion here, personified in many ways by Wino, that is wholly unique not only among the larger realm of rock-based music, but even in the much more nuanced miasma of metallic subgenres.
The Heavy. The Riff. And yes, The Leaf, for those who would have it. Like the "1%" patch on the back of a Hell's Angel's jacket, if you know, you know. The experience is common across borders and languages, and when I looked around me at the Green Room last night as Bill Steer's Firebird soloed their way through a groove-centric set of '70s bellbottom rock, the smiles I saw on the faces in the crowd were emblematic of the sense of union within the heavy underground. "We are who we are and this is why we're here." It may be a group of social misfits, and awkwardness can and will abound, but after a couple beers, everyone's friends and everyone's fans and even the dudes in Solace were in the crowd cheering on Wino's band after their own set, which was among the heaviest of the entire weekend.
I'll give the rundown: I arrived at the 013 as Swedish hippie folkers Dead Man were just getting going. The running order was them, Solace, Firebird, Wino, and finally Dÿse to close out the night. Most of the club had been gated off and the merch area, much diminished, was brought over from across the alley at V39 into the main lobby of 013. Up in the Bat Cave, on a continuous loop, they were screening the stoner rock documentary Such Hawks, Such Hounds. They had made fewer tickets available for the Afterburner show than for the regular fest, so the Green Room was not overly crowded as it had been all weekend. It was more like a bonus gig for some of those who'd attended the fest itself rather than another day of Roadburn, which was fine, because honestly, I -- and from the look of it I wasn't the only one -- was pretty damn tired by yesterday.
Being a longtime fan of the band, I was happy to see Solace get such a voracious response from the Tilburg crowd. The new material they played off of the upcoming A.D. album (out soon, ha ha) sounded more metallic than the tracks they played from prior albums Further and 13, but still maintained the guitar heaviness from Tommy Southard and Justin Daniels that is such a huge part of the band's sound. Vocalist Jason had to scream to be heard over the guitars and Rob Hultz's bass, and new/returned drummer Keith Ackerman (formerly of The Atomic Bitchwax) was a great fit and replacement for Kenny Lund. I didn't know if he'd be able to pull it off, but that skinny little guy's got some fucking chops for sure.
It was refreshing to only catch sight of one Carcass shirt before Firebird's set, and seeing the energy with which Bill Steer ran through the songs of the latter only served to confirm the lack of excitement I sensed in him during last year's reunion tour with the former. He broke out a harmonica for the last two cuts and it was a bluesy, jam-filled good time that earned the perceptible approval of Wino/Clutch drummer Jean-Paul Gaster, who watched more of the set from the side of the stage. Outside in the merch area, I'd purchased the last copy for sale of a 2007 European reissue of their 2000 self-titled album, and listening to the songs they played from it, I was glad to have done so.
And Wino. Guitarist Scott "Wino" Weinrich. In discussing the 10-day European tour which culminated in the Afterburner performance he said, "I can't even tell you how much fun I've been having playing with these guys," and I believed it. Bassist Jon Blank (ex-Wretched, Rezin) wasn't a match for either Weinrich or Gaster in terms of sheer personality in his playing and he knew it, but he did a respectable job of hanging in there nonetheless. As for Wino and J.P., their chemistry as musicians and unique styles blended together better than I could have anticipated on stage, making material from as far back as The Obsessed's Lunar Womb sound fresh and vibrant -- and heavy. As appropriate an opening for the festival as Ufomammut had been, the joy exuded by these three players in that more intimate setting was just as fitting an end. By the time I left to catch the train to Amsterdam and meet up with my wife, who'd left earlier in the day, I felt I'd seen enough and I was ready for it to be done, but when Wino, the band, finished their encore, there was a moment of exhalation: It's over. And that's it.
Inevitably as it came, this trip had to end. I fly back to Newark Tuesday morning and will once again have to contend with the ravages of jetlag in doing so, but whatever ailments I come upon (Swine is the new Bird Flu), it's easily been worth it. I'm sure the bank will accept that as an excuse for the overages on my checking account and wave the fees. That's how banks work, right?
In any case, I'd be remiss to end this without taking a second to thank a couple people. Everyone who helped make the trip and these reviews possible. Walter from Roadburn for the festival itself. Ben Ward from Orange Goblin for singing that chorus of "They Come Back" with me. Justin and the Solace guys for being good friends and generally kicking ass. My mother for her aid. And most of all, my wonderful wife and financial adviser, Wendy Wright, without whom this wouldn't have been possible. If there's anyone I forgot, I sincerely apologize.
Thanks for reading. Whether you made it this far or not, the fact that you started at all only underscores how lucky I am.