Concert review: Anthrax

Anthrax - 2015

Newport Music Hall, Columbus, OH – January 27, 2016

People enjoy and continually return to live music for myriad reasons: they love its immediacy, its intimacy, or, by contrast, they are overawed by spectacle, or love the near unmatchable feeling of being one among many, sometimes among thousands, united in a common passion. Some want to hear a recording they’ve always loved duplicated perfectly on stage, while some explicitly desire to see it taken in new and unexpected directions. Some thrive on the inherent intensity that happens whenever a band is operating in high gear. Some want to literally bounce off of every person they can, while others internalize the music and move in their own deliberate and inimitable ways. Underlying everything is the simultaneous sense of renewal and strengthening of an already powerful bond between artist and listener, quite likely forged far away from the stage, often under the most personal of circumstances. I don’t mind hearing the occasional mistake in a live setting for the same reason that no one should: it reinforces the glorious fact that these are musicians and not machines. The first, and to my ears only, mistake that occurred in Anthrax’s stirring return to its rightful place as a headlining act came well past the hour mark of its set when, during the infamous, seminal, and delightfully, unapologetically adolescent rap/metal odyssey “I’m the Man”, bassist Frank Bello was rendered speechless at the microphone for reasons not immediately clear to the crowd. At first I wondered if he was having as much trouble recalling each and every patently goofy lyric to a song that turns twenty-nine years old this summer as I was, but then I noticed he was doubled over, laughing hysterically at something either on or offstage I hadn’t caught. A few bars later, drummer Charlie Benante was suddenly and seamlessly at the fore, layering pattern upon pattern as prelude to a particularly strong rendition of vintage MTV Headbanger’s Ball staple “Indians”. The band hadn’t missed a beat, or a step, all night, and it wouldn’t miss another.

That’s Anthrax in a nutshell. Even in its rightful place among the original “Big Four” of thrash metal, the NYC quintet at times felt like an also-ran. It wasn’t nearly so epic as Metallica, after all, or as technical as Megadeth, or as scary as Slayer, or, by most accounts, as successful as any of them, merely a deceptively strong multi-decade musical institution built on an unshakeable foundation of New York attitude and blue collar hard work. Anthrax pushed its rabid fans as hard as anyone – the word “mosh”, as in the pit variety, essentially vaulted from the underground into the popular vernacular when the Among the Living anthem “Caught in a Mosh” broke through – but, among its peers, Anthrax was unquestionably also always the band having fun up there. So it was again on this cold, clear night in Columbus, Ohio, which is about as removed temporally and geographically as you’d ever want from the band’s heyday as a shining star in a growing national musical movement with two exceptions: the place was still packed, and whenever the animated crowd wasn’t mouthing the lyrics, or shouting along with the gang choruses, there was a smile on almost every face I saw. This night, for these fans, for yours truly, had been a long time coming. Anthrax’s road to continued relevance and favored statesman status almost 35 years after forming in Queens has been an altogether rockier one than its aforementioned, similarly elevated peers, replete with highs, lows, and more lows, shuffling lineups – including extended, multiple stints by not one but two iconic front men – record company overreach and implosion, and the very real dilemma whether to change its name in the wake of the post-9/11 anthrax scare, or even possibly disband entirely. The band fought furiously through it all to maintain its footing and stand its ground, efforts that increasingly and inevitably over time included slipping down almost every concert bill on which it appeared, from headliner to direct support, and, occasionally, to outright opener. Each lower rung represented not merely, to oversensitive types like me, an implication of insufficient respect but, in the perhaps necessary sales pitch to news fans, a corresponding lost opportunity to take care of its established diehards.

This is nothing new – in some ways it’s the music industry circle of life – but in metal terms it’s something akin to having Elton John or Billy Joel open for pop sensation Adele just because she’s so obviously much more popular at the moment. There are questions of pure, cold economics at play here, not just questions of propriety, and, unfortunately, economics always wins. It is for this reason that Anthrax – the metal standard-bearer I’d loved since age thirteen and the first ever metal band I saw live after becoming a citizen of Ohio (in a blissful, bruising 90-minute front of stage marathon at an obscure Cincinnati sweatbox) – was relegated from genre royalty to semi-permanent opening act status, and why, later again joining with Slayer and Megadeth on the “Clash of the Titans” reunion tour*, the band played a measly, borderline insulting five-song set as the de facto opener. I’m not arguing that Anthrax shouldn’t have opened, but they deserved the opportunity to play more than five songs (two of which we missed just getting to our spots on the lawn). Nor have things really improved on that front in the intervening years, which have seen the band, following an extended period of singer-less uncertainty notable even in its tumultuous history, reunite with original wailer Joey Belladonna and release a comeback album – 2011’s widely-lauded (if not particularly by me) Worship Music – with another, titled For All Kings, on deck for a February release. On the one hand, the band is as visible as it ever was, though, on the other, this comes largely on the basis of support appearances on tours like the CotT redux and its current stint opening for genre powerhouse Lamb of God. It’s hard to imagine a band as enthusiastically and comprehensively tangled up in, as fans and players respectively, both the rich history and ongoing revitalization of thrash metal** short-shrifting a legend like Anthrax on purpose, but, then again, I’ll never know. That wasn’t the tour I got to see.

*The fabled original “Clash of the Titans” arena trek took place in 1991, and featured three of thrash’s “Big Four” (Metallica, already having transcended this, among its many other labels, abstained) as rotating headliners. For those, like me, who were unable to see it, the original tour took on the feel of something truly legendary, perhaps even beyond, and hearing the news that it would be resurrected as a 2010 summer tour felt like I’d received a second chance at a once in a lifetime opportunity. It surely was terrific – Megadeth played “Rust in Peace” in its stunning entirety, and I got to see Dave Lombardo and the late Jeff Hanneman play with Slayer for the last time – but, still, when you’ve had almost twenty years to mythologize something, you tend to make some uncomfortable logical leaps.

**LoG’s Chris Adler manned the drum kit for the new Megadeth new album, “Dystopia”, and, by all accounts, including mine, the creative dynamo gave dotty genius/bandleader/benevolent dictator Dave Mustaine exactly the creative kick in the butt we’ve all fantasized about delivering to him at least once lo these many years. Where else, and for what offenses, the infamously opinionated Mustaine might also deserve to be kicked I’ll leave for now to offline speculation.

So it was that, on an off-night from its Lamb of God warm-up duties, by serendipitous happenstance***, Anthrax finally got to headline its first show with me in attendance since the early 2000s. Belladonna himself said the band hadn’t been to Columbus’ venerable Newport Music Hall since 2006, which was news to me, even though I can’t imagine a circumstance in which I wasn’t there. None of that really mattered. The past was officially preamble, and the air crackled with good vibes, gear-grinding guitar licks, and ceaseless shouts of solidarity from the just south of sell-out crowd. Like proud, powerful second-gen thrash survivors Machine Head, who I also once saw outrageously relegated to a five-song Megadeth opener, the opportunity to headline seemed to both free and focus Anthrax, who plowed through a near ninety-minute total set with a level of determination and vitality – the Italians call it “gusto” – that couldn’t help but surprise. As a concert veteran of close to twenty-five years now, I’ve seen more than my share of unfortunately phoned-in performances, whether listless or bored, or overwhelmed, and witnessed talented vocalists by the score that tried gamely but just couldn’t hit the notes anymore. With the exception of Jonathan Donais’ (ex-Shadows Fall) addition on lead guitar – and, of course, Belladonna, since I came of age as a metal fan during his first era with the band but didn’t actually see it live until the tenure of his replacement, the gritty, perpetually underrated Jon Bush – I’d be hard pressed to note any tangible difference between the Anthrax I saw in 1996 (with the Misfits), or 2000, or 2003 (with the almighty Motorhead!), or 2006, or 2010, and this version I saw foundationally shake the Newport on its “off-night”. Belladonna, for as much issue as I sometimes take with his goofy, slightly out-of-place demeanor, or how his continued existence unsubtly devalues the very good Bush years, was a damned revelation on the microphone, hitting his marks cleanly, and high note after high note with no perceivable wear. Anthrax kicked off the evening with the opening trio – “A.I.R.”, “Lone Justice”, and a particularly feisty version of perennial favorite “Madhouse” – from classic album Spreading the Disease, celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year. “Caught in a Mosh” landed like a bomb just after, and, appropriately, the floor show hit an early peak of activity. It felt like I’d waited forever to hear that song live again, even if it had actually been just six years. The context was everything.

***Serendipity, of course, has its limits. Cruelly scheduled for the same night, at a venue literally two miles down the street, was an off-night headlining set by the other notable opener on Lamb of God’s current tour, the fast-rising, supremely talented California black metal outfit Deafheaven. I had already planned to buy my Deafheaven ticket the day the Anthrax show was announced. Driving to Indianapolis in the dead of winter is almost nobody’s idea of high times, and I momentarily couldn’t believe my good fortune. I’d miss the larger tour, sadly, but still see the two bands in whom I was most interested without even leaving town. The two LoG openers were playing headlining sets to boot. Then I checked the dates, realized they were not, in fact, exclusive, and the air was suddenly, violently thick with expletives. I’m happy with my end decision, but I kinda resent being put in the position to have to turn down seeing a band I really like, not once but twice. Grrr.

From this early peak, the show lurched forward into slightly less forgiving waters. The runaway train Joe Jackson cover “Got the Time”, from my favorite Anthrax album, 1990’s Persistence of Time, struck just the right frantic chord, but soon the band was back in advertising mode again, touching on both of the Belladonna return albums, with frenetic zombie apocalypse charmer “Fight ‘Em ‘Til You Can’t” and personal fave “In the End” – a rumbling, drum-heavy meditation on existential finality, for which the large amp covers flanking Benante’s kit were momentarily covered with screen-printed tributes of the late Ronnie James Dio and “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott – making a better overall case for Worship Music than it maybe deserves, and passionately-played new songs “Evil Twin” and “Breathing Lightning” failing to make much of an initial impression in either direction. I couldn’t help but be disappointed at some of the song choices – the thirteen-year Bush era continues to read like a series of redacted passages in an official Pentagon report, despite awesome songs I think Belladonna could knock out of the park, like “Only” and “Fueled” – and the weird lack of attention paid the band’s biggest albums – simply include, say, “Finale” and “In My World” as an extra two-headed monster and things improves 100%. The end of the main set felt somewhat anticlimactic, with the predictable inclusion of Trust cover and long-ago MTV hit “Antisocial” closing things out, though the band roared back to life with the encore, segueing an even more ragged than usual “I’m the Man” – including whatever the heck Bello was laughing at – into a particularly pummeling version of “Indians”. As I have a sneaking suspicion he does every night, Anthrax high chief Scott Ian stopped the band cold just after the beginning of the famous “War daaaaance!” breakdown, citing, in his particularly brusque, delightfully indelicate way, drummer Benante’s dissatisfaction with the level of fun the crowd was having. Needless to say, our behavior upon the restart, having been properly goaded, was much more to his liking. The night ended with a belligerent and highly satisfying rendition of “Among the Living”, my favorite Anthrax song, or at least my favorite of the ones played.

The simple truth is that, if you had told me beforehand that Anthrax would be playing a tight, fourteen-song headlining set, given its looming new album and thirtieth anniversary of Spreading the Disease floating on the wind, I could easily have sat down and predicted, almost to the letter, the entire set. The only (mild) surprises were “In the End”, though a pleasant/moving one, the inclusion, perhaps, of four songs off Disease instead of three (if forced to cut one, I’d have reluctantly chosen “Lone Justice” over the pounding, delirious mid-set highlight “Medusa”) and, unquestionably, the snubbing of traditional nightcap “I Am The Law”, a song that is, for some reason, so indispensable within the Anthrax catalogue that I’ve heard the band play it even on nights when there were only five songs to work with. I wouldn’t have traded it for “Indians”, though, Scott’s motivational speech and all, and definitely not for “Among the Living”. If the show had started thirty minutes earlier, when it should’ve, there would have been ample time, not just for “Law” but all of the solutions I’ve prescribed above. Anthrax was still terrific, as strong, in truth, as they ever were, and that bodes well for the future. I’m glad Anthrax has a future, even as I deify its past and, for one night at least, revel in its present. I last saw Anthrax headline in January 2006, despite retaining precious little memory of it today. If I’d known it would be a solid decade before I had that chance again, I’d have paid much closer attention. The band itself seemed incredibly happy at the one-off circumstances and grateful for the turnout, not to mention all the passion reflected back at them. They may not have been certain there’d be quite such an audience awaiting them, but we’re music fans. More than that, we’re Anthrax fans. There are any number of reasons that keep us coming back.

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