A Year in Concerts, Part I: From Slayer to the Symphony

Images of a Slaytanic Symphony

From Slayer to the Symphony and many others in between, we've seen it all in 2010. Most importantly, these experiences reveal similarities and differences of all live music events, bringing out the best and worst in all of us.

2010 was another good year for live music. Many of us have seen at least a few shows here or there, and some of us have spent more time in front of towering stacks of PA speakers than with the very persons we claim to love. While tastes and genres may vary from show to show, there are a few undeniable truths and dynamics present at almost every club, concert hall or arena — no matter who is playing that night. The live music experience is defined — and measured — by the way fans react to the performance, and music of any kind has the ability to trigger piloerection (that means to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, not what those of you with your mind in the gutter might think).

There are also many differences in the way people “do” things at a concert that, when compared to audience behavior and etiquette twenty years ago, seem odd, out of the element, or extremely annoying. In this article, I will reflect on some of the more memorable shows of 2010 and examine the good, bad, and lessons learned over the course of the past year in concert-going.  Some phenomenons are present across various genres and types of shows, yet each show retains a unique nuance that serves as the sole fleeting memory of what transpired on any given night.  And some of these phenomenons just plain kick ass.

First, let’s examine an item of ubiquity sure to be present at each and every concert, no matter how big or small: the video camera phone.

The Video Camera Phone
With the ever-growing wave of new technology, people experience concerts in a much different way than they did 10 years ago.  In fact, some people at concerts appear they would much rather be watching a live show on a small screen rather than  try to see their favorite band in person.  Why?  I have no idea, but this is exactly what many idiots pay a handsome admission fee to do: to hold up their digital camera video phone in front of their face so that one day, they will be able to remember the concert they never truly experienced in the first place, and marvel at all of its garbled, pixellated inaudible footage they captured while clutching their video phone in one hand and balancing a 24-ounce cup of overpriced hog swill in the other that only adds to the unsteady camera angles.

Image of camera phone at concert

For many, this is the ultimate concert experience -- watching a live show on their camera phone while at the same live show.

Luckily, for those of us there to see live personages of  band members with the naked eye, these camera-toting imbeciles grow weary and lose interest quickly, either to use their device for text messaging or give in to the rare sensation of blood flowing to their brain as a result from their outstretched arms raised over their heads.  In any case, every time I see the soft-glowing sea of camera-phones welcoming the band onstage, I yearn for the days of yore when cigarette lighters illuminated darkened venues in a show of support for a slow song, power ballad, or inadvertent attempts to ignite fellow crowd members’ feathered locks of hair.

This behavior is annoying enough that it deserves its own article, which will likely be forthcoming on 13 Shades of Grey.

Now that we’ve got the rant about that little annoying tidbit out of the way, we can focus on the actual music that took center stage over the past year.

To capture the essence of what a live show truly provides the fan, we’ll take musical acts who are polar opposites in the musical spectrum to reveal that a good time can be had at just about any show.

Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax: The Symphony of Destruction
Image of Jagermeister Tour Poster
Some people prefer to unwind to calm, relaxing music after a rough day on planet Earth; I prefer the cathartic effects of blazing chainsaw-distorted guitars, the tremor of quaking double-bass drums, and growling vocals whose lyrical content are often times indiscernible to trained ears.  In an effort to repackage the glory of 1980s thrash metal and the legendary Clash of the Titans Tour in 1991, Jagermeister tapped original “titans” Slayer, Megadeth and Antrhax to clash again for audiences in the new millennium, some of whom were but a glimmer of light in the bloodshot eyes of their shaggy-haired Hessian fathers during the first incarnation of the tour.

Those that know me know that I love metal and its many forms.  I knew going into this show that I would definitely enjoy it, if only to see Slayer perform the Seasons in the Abyss album in its entirety.  Anything the other two bands could add would be a bonus.  To top it off, this concert was by far the best bang for my buck of any show that I’ve ever attended: $10 (early bird special).  In the age of nostalgia acts charging triple digits for fans to turn back the clock to a carefree time where they weren’t riddled with debt, foreclosure, and a pack of smart-aleck kids whose mouths need feeding, Slayer and Co. bucked the trend again and gave fans this opportunity on the cheap, allowing many fathers and mothers to bring their kids along for full metal indoctrination.

Turns out, I was right — I thoroughly enjoyed the show, even though I was flying solo (which is usually the case when I indulge my senses in musical molten lava).  Anthrax was OK, nothing more.  Megadeth, who played their entire Rust in Peace album, was actually better than I thought they might have been.  Between front-man Dave Mustaine and lead guitarist Chris Broderick, Megadeth featured the best guitar work of the night, both trading blistering solos and fretboard wizardry throughout the set.  The highlight of Megadeth, for me, was their performance of Symphony of Destruction, the first song that put Megadeth on my map back in 1994.  It also served as a neck warmup for the impending upper-spinal trauma from headbanging to The Almighty Slayer.

Slayer is not for everyone.  For most, it is a cacophonous soundtrack to a nightmarish, unimaginable hellscape.  But for me and approximately 5,000 others at 1st Mariner Arena in Baltimore, the opening notes to War Ensemble were nothing short of sublime as they tore into the night’s sonic foray.  Where Mustaine and Megadeth were more technical and calculated in their attack, Slayer’s spontaneous breakneck approach shattered any notion of intricate nuance in favor of furious aggression.  Guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman’s atonal assault throws melodic solos out the window and seemingly portrays machine gun fire and violent air attacks with palm-muted 64th notes and dive bomb whammy bar squeals.  It also gives hope to aspiring lead metal guitarists everywhere, showing that speed and pitch can be used in place of complex scales and modes to blow your audience away.

Aside from the piercing sound waves shooting from the speakers, I was surprised to see that this show was a family affair for many in attendance.  In fact, this was the most rewarding and redeeming aspect of the show.  Next to me, a father in his mid-40s sat with his teenage son and reveled in the night’s offerings, pausing between sets to have a buddy take their picture with dad’s camera phone (one of the only acceptable uses of the device during a concert), as well as a good-night call home to mom before Tom Araya and Slayer hit the stage.  Araya, a proud father and prominent thrash metal figure, is a family man himself who even brought his wife and children on tour through Europe last summer while school was on break.

In all, the show lived up to its expectations and then some, chalking up another victory for Slayer in my unofficial scorebook.

Lessons learned: Beyond all of the obligatory “metal is awesome” and “Slayer for President in 2012” thoughts bubbling up in my mind throughout the night, the most valuable lesson I learned is simple and straightforward: A Family that Slays Together, Stays Together.

National Symphony Orchestra: The Symphony of Thought Reconstruction
I must admit, this was my first “real” experience attending an orchestra performance.  The National Symphony Orchestra performs regularly at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts here in Washington, DC and my wife and I had the opportunity to catch them by virtue of complimentary tickets from a friend.  Classical music has always been a realm for which I hold admiration and appreciation, but rarely receives much play from me besides serving as background music or a flailing attempt to appear refined in compensation of my taste for the oft-perceived crudeness of my musical main squeezes.

Not knowing what to expect, I fingered through the playbill and immediately recognized one piece of information sure to make this performance good — no cameras allowed.  Score one in the positive column.  The orchestra was also to perform two early pieces from Beethoven, including a piano concerto featuring guest master pianist, Louis Lortie, which I thought would be the highlight of the night.

I was wrong.  When the NSO  Les Preludes by Franz Liszt began, I had no idea that I was about to be transformed.

Image of Franz Liszt

Hungarian-born and 19th century Metal Maestro Franz Liszt (1811-1886) rocked Vienna audiences and planted the seeds for future waves of metal heads.

It was about three minutes into Les Preludes that I realized something I, as a self-professed metal head, never really thought possible: classical music is the ultimate form of metal.  The ability to convey emotion, drama, toil and trauma in music is unmatched when performed by a full orchestra.  It requires an incomparable level of unity and precision that is crucial to its delivery, something that can simply be remedied in pop/rock music by turning up the volume.  Where three, four or five-piece modern bands can utilize technology to create a full-bodied sound, a symphony offers the audience a panoramic view of the limitless musical possibilities created by wood, strings, wind, metal (the element, not the awesomenessest type of music, people), and the human touch that have the ability to transcend the plastic facade of modern money-making pop music and crescendo to the very threshold of divinity.

And to think this form of music has withstood the decay of time only solidifies its superiority.  I can’t imagine Slayer (unless they are elected as collective U.S. President in 2012 as mentioned above), or even bigger bands like Metallica, or even the Rolling Stones and perhaps even the Beatles, would have the lasting power of more than three centuries.

Lessons learned: Attending live symphony performances is not boring at all; in fact, it’s absolutely captivating and I plan on doing it again.  Also, classical music can be “heavier” than almost anything.

Good music is good music, no matter what the genre.  Granted, it’s deeply grounded in subjectivity, but you cannot dispute the overwhelming fact that 2010 was a great year for concerts.

After this examination of two points on the musical spectrum, we will take a look at the high and low points of everything else in between, including the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the 20th Anniversary of Concrete Blonde’s Bloodletting album in concert, as well as the LOUDEST SHOW OF THE YEAR.  Stay tuned for more…

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