September 14, 2011


When: Sept. 1, 2011
Where: Backstage Live, San Antonio
With: In Solitude, Ponykiller

by Van Damned (TX)

First shows on tour can be dicey. Anticipation and adrenaline levels are maxed out. Grooves have yet to be established. Excitement combats fatigue. It's sink or swim. The boys get separated from the men -- sometimes literally, as in the case of Down and In Solitude's U.S. tour kickoff in San Antonio.
Down practicing in my living room.*

I missed Ponykiller due to a late start by me. By all accounts, their psych/math rock didn't whet any San Antonio appetites.

As for the other two bands (there was no local support), they couldn't have been more dissimilar.

Sweden's In Solitude are young, there's no getting around it. Bone-skinny and bright-eyed, these five lads from Uppsala -- some of whom aren't even out of their teens -- made their U.S. debut at Maryland Deathfest in May, following a cavalcade of Internet buzz and word-of-mouth excitement. Their fall tour with Down is their first real introduction to the continentals and its inhabitants and, unfortunately, it showed. Chalk it up to first-day-of-class jitters, but these kids looked a tad nervous, taking up a small amount of room on what was actually a pretty large stage. That's not to say they won't lock it in over the next few weeks; given their talent, they most likely will. Their San Antonio tour opener, however, was a little shaky. Rhythms chugged a little off-kilter, a voice cracked, cymbals that should have accented breaks were missed.

To be fair, South Texas meatheads in cargo jorts, Tapout and Affliction, buzzing on cheap beer and cheaper weed, are not primed for the dead-earnest Mercyful Fate/Angel Witch worship In Solitude rep. Nor are they particularly swooning over the fox fur, Chelsea boots and ghoul paint aesthetic that In Solitude swear by. The crowd response was mostly tepid -- but I'll be damned if all five grabbar on stage didn't pour out every ounce of denim 'n' leather/thrash 'til death attitude they had in their matchstick bodies. There were a few of us there who knew we were seeing something more: real art in infancy.

Particularly endearing was guitarist Niklas Lindstrom's quick exit mid-song to puke in the alley behind the club. It's a hesher's rite of passage to learn the hard way that extreme heat and cheap booze don't mix. By the next song, Lindstrom was back on stage, grinning from ear to ear and ready for more.

This is a band that can only get better with age.

Down, on the other hand, couldn't have looked more at home. With more than 100 years of combined on-stage experience (that's probably a conservative estimate), these NOLA metal titans owned every square inch of that room. Like any group of long-time friends reuniting after time apart, Phil Anselmo, Kirk Windstein, Jimmy Bower and Pepper Keenan -- each superstars in their own right -- meshed immediately, picking up probably very close to where they literally last left off. New to the fold was bassist Pat Bruders, who has replaced the ailing Rex Brown. Bruders, a long-time Louisiana metal staple, fit in perfectly, anchoring the bottom end and adding to the gray hair quotient reached by the band. That follicle color peculiar to accrued age is what made this show so special.

The songs, by now, should be familiar -- Down's Southern-friend sludge has become doom canon since their 1995 debut. But straight out of the gate, the songs took on fresh life, their performers looking as sprightly as the day they had written them -- if not more so. Sobriety, family and maturity have been very, very good to these men. Phil has never sounded better, joking and talking and laughing with everyone in earshot, on-stage and off, a cult of personality in every way. Kirk and Pepper were in lockstep with each other, grinning the whole time. The Bower Power was present. Each chorus became an anthem; each riff, a tidal wave. Nearly a thousand heads banged in perfect unison with the five on stage. It was fantastically fun.

After a brief moment's rest off-stage, Down returned for a three-song encore of the shout-along classics "Temptation's Wings," "Stone the Crow" and, finally, the ever-epic "Bury Me in Smoke." It was during the latter that the band traded their instruments off to members of In Solitude, Ponykiller and, if you can believe it, Jimmy Bower's aunt, who apparently taught him how to play, on drums. Seriously. The gang reunited briefly on stage to take a well-deserved bow before departing, leaving Anselmo alone on stage to lead the crowd in his now-standard benediction: AND SHE'S BUYING A STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN. Amen.

Fast-forward to 9:04 for the money shot.

*Just kidding.

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