All photos by Andrew Wilhelm
When: Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2011
Where: Summit Music Hall, Denver, Colo.
With: In Solitude, Ponykiller
By Andrew Wilhelm (Denver)
First impressions can be tough to swallow. My first taste of New Orleans' Down was way back in 2002, when Ozzfest rolled through San Antonio. Down were one of the main acts on the second stage, and I caught a distant view from the hill of the amphitheater. Coherency was not a quality I ascribed to their set -- Phil Anselmo, of note, did not give it his all. If I remember correctly from those hormone-filled days, they didn't even play all of "Ghosts Along the Mississippi." I was crushed, to say the least. When Down came to Denver last Tuesday, it was technically the second time I've seen them, but it felt like the first. I finally saw the Down that packed 'em in across the world.
What a rebirth it was.
Opening the show was Ponykiller, a New Orleans quintet singed to Anselmo's Housecore Records. Guitarist and vocalist Colin Yeo is also in Arson Anthem with Anselmo, Hank Williams III and Eyehategod's Mike Williams. Musically, Ponykiller owe a debt to Man or Astro-man? and Don Caballero, and add vocals that wouldn't sound out of place on 120 Minutes. Just the right amount of psychedelia to carry one away, but not to be plunged into Hawkwind's bowels. Naturally, one would expect that they wouldn't be on this tour if not for the Anselmo connection, but variety can nourish, and Ponykiller provided a energetic yet also laid-back start to the evening. These are some dudes to keep in eye on in coming times.
In Solitude's greatest strength -- or fatal flaw, depending on your cynicism and/or prickliness about originality -- is that they sound a lot like Mercyful Fate. King Diamond isn't in the most optimal of health these days, and even if Melissa and Don't Break the Oath can be found on Amazon and Mediafire with relative ease, there needs to be living, breathing entities to carry on the sound. In Solitude have taken on that role, and they keep the King of King's fire glowing like the flames of Oath's cover. The catchy twin guitar melodies, the haunting (if not bombastic) croons, the drive -- these Swedes preserved it all. They came off as a bit more bassy live, but the guitar action was not drowned at all. To the contrary, there was plenty of air for the solos and melodies to soar throughout the building. Vocalist Pelle Åhman does have a bit of an Erik Danielsson look to him, but he's a much more humble fellow (hell, there are dictators more humble). Even if there isn't much money to be made in music anymore, coming to America is still a big goal for many European bands, and In Solitude took the opportunity and came out swinging.
In their performance, Down proved they still had some of the anger and hunger that made Over the Under a success. They are also a healthier band than before, in Kirk Windstein's sobriety and the replacement of the ill Rex Brown with Crowbar's Pat Bruders, and that led no compromise in their power. Their Southern swagger grows as big as the South itself through the amps and the PA. Windstein's and Pepper Keenan's grooves sunk deeper, Jimmy Bower's hits were thunderous, and Phil's screams carried weightier resonance. "Lifer" was, to borrow a phrase from Anselmo's former band, goddamn electric. Another standout was "New Orleans Is a Dying Whore," a normally morose tune given a helluva shot of unrefined momentum. True to their New Orleans roots, Down loves their Saints, and Phil took some time out of the set to talk some mess about the Denver Broncos, with a strong, swift "Fuck Tim Tebow." While I am not a football bro, I am all for hating on right-wing Christian nutjobs, so my cheers were thrown into the rabble-rousing stew. Anselmo, the showman that he is, always likes to get a rise out his crowds. He's more articulate on stage than he is in interviews, and his stage movements suggest a return to Vulgar Display of Power excitedness, which shows you how much he enjoys playing and interacting with crowds.
Nearly an hour after slanging out classics like "Mississippi," "Eyes of the South" and "Temptation's Wings," Down started their encore with fan favorite "Stone the Crow," and while the sing-a-longs during the chorus were uplifting, it was closer "Bury Me in Smoke" that truly capped the evening. Not only did it sound heavier live, the members of the support groups -- every one of them -- came out on stage and gave Down a helping hand in stretching out the song to its doomiest limits. Once the jam met its endpoint, everyone left the stage except for Anselmo, who had one final request for the crowd: to sing along with him, "AND SHE'S BUYING A STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN." When one of your albums is named A Bustle in Your Hedgerow, how could you not? A triumphant end to an unforgettable evening.
Down/In Solitude/Ponykiller US Tour 2011
9/14 - Oklahoma City, Okla. @ Diamond Ballroom
9/15 - Des Moines, Iowa @ The People's Court
9/16 - Libertyville, Ill. @ Austin's Fuel Room
9/17 - Sauget, Ill. @ Pop's
9/19 - Louisville, Ky. @ Expo Five
9/20 - Grand Rapids, Mich. @ The Orbit Room
9/21 - Flint, Mich. @ The Machine Shop
9/23 - Atlanta, Ga. @ Masquerade
9/24 - Mobile, Ala. @ Soul Kitchen