Friday, January 20, 2006

Stairway to Dollywood

Back in 2002, Dolly Parton covered (gasp) "Stairway to Heaven." I'm sure most people's first reaction was to be horrified that the singer who brought us "9 to 5" would dare to touch Zeppelin's crown jewel, but if you excuse Parton's pop country days and focus on her early and late periods, the idea should be at least compelling. I really expected that I'd like it. I thought Dolly would bring herself and her traditional country roots to the song in a way that would make it her own without defacing it. Unfortunately, she just didn't bring enough of herself. The idea was brilliant. The bluegrass arrangement was well thought out, but the performance was stiff as if she had never heard or didn't really care much about "Stairway" (as unimaginable as that may be, even for a non-rock artist). There are moments when she hits stride and she and the song are one, but they are sadly few and probably accidental. The gospel backing vocals are an amazing idea, but like the rest of the song, they fail to soar as they (and all gospel) should. Don't get me wrong, this version is entirely competent, but "Stairway" deserves so much more than just competent. The bottom line is that this was a great idea in so many ways, but it was poorly executed. It's a shame, because I actually got goose bumps listening to this and thinking about what could have been.

Interestingly, if you want to hear Dolly Parton do a wonderful cover of a rock song, check out her version of Collective Soul's "Shine" from 2001's Little Sparrow. "Shine" is a very good song (if you're not sure about that, check out the Holmes Brothers' cover too), but certainly no "Stairway to Heaven." It's hard to believe that she could pour so much of herself into her cover of the former and fall so short in her cover of the latter. Perhaps "Stairway" was just too daunting a task for even an artist of her long experience.

Monday, January 09, 2006

More on Anthrax

During the show, a friend remarked that Charlie Benante was among the best speed metal drummers, up there with Lars Ulrich. Another guy remarked that he prefered Pantera's Vinnie Paul (which of course discredits his opinion entirely). But both forgot about Slayer's Dave Lombardo who I've long considered the genre's best and most definitive drummer. He was simply brutal. Charlie Benante is a close second for entirely different reasons. Benante is highly technical without any compromise in energy. In heavy music, there's no real substitute for Lombardo's extreme style, but Benante beats all others hands down with his unique mix of technical skill and unbridled electricity.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Live: Manntis, Sworn Enemy, God Forbid, Anthrax

January 6, 2006, Ram's Head Live, Baltimore, MD

Twenty years ago, Spreading the Disease was perhaps my favorite speed metal album. It wasn't as dark as Reign in Blood or as self-consciously serious as Master of Puppets. It was positive and fun. So when I was offered a ticket to see Anthrax, I agreed without a second thought. Anthrax might be well past their prime, but I figured they still had to be a good time, especially with the classic line-up back intact.

Of course there were openers, three of them, so I'll touch on each of them before I get to the main event. Manntis was first up. It seems to me that I'd heard some good stuff about them, so my expectations may have been a bit high. An unremarkable rhythm section and typical metalcore growler were certainly nothing to write home about. The band's hopes rest on its two guitarists. Their creative playing was heavy enough for anyone in the crowd, but included a touch of psychedelia that sets them apart from many of their contemporaries. Manntis is still a pretty average metal band, but the guitarists have the potential to propel them to the next level if the rest of the band can grow enough to follow.

Sworn Enemy doesn't face the difficulties that Manntis might as their sound progresses, because Sworn Enemy's sound is not likely to go anywhere. It's the metally New York hardcore that was being played 20 years ago with little variation. The drummer was stiff. The bassist was flat. The guitarists were uninventive. The singer was uninspired. They actually got through the entire set without an ounce of melody, I think. That might be remarkable, but it sure isn't good. It says a lot about Sworn Enemy that they had to beg the audience to get into the music. And it probably says more about the audience that they listened. Shame on them. Sworn Enemy sucked.

Last up before Anthrax was God Forbid. Before they played a note, it was clear that they were a step up from the first two bands. Their equipment was serious, their crew was serious, they looked like a real band. And when they played, they showed that they were a real band. They were tight, they were heavy, they performed. At times they were brutally heavy and other times they were surprisingly melodic. Their singer was a particularly engaging frontman who lumbered about the stage as if laboring under the heaviness of his own music. Unlike Sworn Enemy, their calls to the fans stirred a pot that was already boiling. I don't want to appear overly enthusiastic about God Forbid though. They were tight, they were solid, they were serious, but they weren't really anything new. They were just very good at the same old thing.

At this point, I was pretty glad that I got in for free. Sworn Enemy was a complete waste and while Manntis and God Forbid were worth the time, I can't see myself paying to see them on their own. So, Anthrax didn't have much competition. Plus, I wasn't expecting great things from a band that's a good 15 years past their prime. I expected them to be fun and tight, the things that made them a great band in their innovative heyday.

Anthrax's set focused on their mid-to-late-eighties prime, running through everything I expected plus a few pleasant surprises like "Medusa" and "A Skeleton in the Closet." It was particularly cool to hear them play "Metal Thrashing Mad," the song that turned me on to Anthrax two decades (yikes!) ago. Before playing "I'm the Man," Scott Ian said, "Let's go back to 1987..." I thought that's what we'd been doing all along. I mean other than Scott's hair, not much seems to have changed. Except, I thought, Anthrax is no longer relevent. No sooner had that occured to me than a fan made it to the stage despite the barrier, danced around the stage with Joey Belladonna and then got into an altercation with security. The meatheads finally subdued the guy and dragged him off stage, but Scott Ian demanded they bring him back. Joey gathered up all the crap that fell out of the guy's pocket. "You'd think the president was up here," said Scott sharing the audience's irritation at the idiotic security. Well the guy got back on stage, pointed to his wife and told everyone it was their 10th anniversary and then the show went on. But it was different after all that, because for me suddenly Anthrax was relevent. They're a fan's band, not a bunch of big-headed has-beens living out past glory. Anthrax was as tight and fun as I'd hoped, but the pleasant surprise was that, in this day of sick celebrity-worship, Anthrax didn't rest on their fame. They played a great show for the fans, not at them.