Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival, Day 1 - The Side Stages

Editor’s Note – As is always the rule with Mayhem Fest, one man can’t see it all. Any words you see below pertain only to those acts I saw, and anyone not mentioned is not an omission or a slight – I simply didn’t get to see them amidst running around for interview opportunities, photo ops and the like. C’est la vie.

It’s seemingly become a tradition for the Northeast leg of the Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival; the day of the festival will be the most blazingly humid day of the year. It simply can’t be helped, it’s a law of nature. Such was the case this year, as we lucky few descended unto the travelling conviviality in search of….well, mayhem. The noun, not the band. They didn’t play this year.

Erimha lead the day, the first band of dozens on a sweltering afternoon where the sun only paused briefly to take its union-mandated coffee breaks. To their credit, Erimha came armed with “Verdict of the Soul” and several other hard-hitting selections, even braving the terrible humidity to don pore-clogging facepaint. It’s no easy task to be the lead-off hitter for a day long festival; the sun is crushing the fans who are there, most of them aren’t there, and the ones who are will be gaining their bearings and can’t find the stage until the second song. The lead band can’t win for trying, and amidst those circumstances, Erimha gave it an honest swing. Admittedly, there’s something about corpse paint and midday sun that seems incongruous, but that’s neither here nor there.

You’ve read it before, and you’ve read it here before. The Texas Hippie Coalition collectively make up the living battery of southern groove metal. Their energy, even the seemingly blasé nonchalance of front man Big Dad Ritch, is infectious and everlasting, overpowering in totality. THC has never met a crowd that can’t be won over, and they’ve never failed it the attempt. No matter where or when you see this band, they have more fans leaving than they did coming in. The churning furnace of “Hands Up” leads their night, followed by the gleefully sleazy, rollicking good time of “Eight Seconds.” There is an inimitable charm wrapped up in all the bravado and shotgun-shaped mic stands. Ritch himself stands larger than life with his buck knife hanging at his hip, flanked by the contained supernova of bassist John Exall and the eager ambition of new guitarist Cord Pool, it’s hard not to feel the earnest honesty of the band as they swing out the pendulum rhythm of “Turn it Up.” This particular year, and for the first time in recent memory, Mayhem was scheduling bands two at a time during most of the afternoon. Yet, THC is alone in their timeslot. There’s a reason for that. These guys remain a band on the rise.

The first thing that always takes spectators by surprise when watching Mushroomhead is just how much is going on up there. Even when trying to photograph the band, it’s hard to know where to focus and what to watch first. There’s a lot of kinetic movement on the stage, a product of multiple set pieces and the sheer size of the band’s roster. As the members came out in full regalia to slam their way through “Our Apologies,” there were so many visual cues it was nearly distracting. Aside from the ornate masks and costumes ranging from industrial to spooky, there are lights, smoke machines and an impressive display of water drums, which lend the performance a certain additional drama. The crunch of “Sun Doesn’t Rise” and “We Are the Truth,” balancing the strengths of all three vocalists, was powerful and captivating, the growing crowd assembling to see one of the most unique performances of the entire ten hour experience. There are elements of both GWAR and Slipknot bored into the soul of Mushroomhead’s performance, but they retain a strong identity in their own right. There’s a certain palpable fun built into the experience of Mushroomhead, even as they grunt through the gritty sludge of “The Dream is Over.” No matter the stripe of the crowd, it was hard not to appreciate the show-stopping effort of Mushroomhead, as their moving carnival became a blur of electronic samples, blistering music and cascades of water.

Since their very first record which is stashed away on a dusty shelf somewhere in my dwelling, Ill Nino has remained a curiosity to me. Always their talent has been evident, but always the ‘jungle groove’ has been just outside my reach, never resonating in a meaningful way. So it was with piqued interest that I had to take in Ill Nino and digest their set – I needed to understand the band by watching them. My reward, and it was that, was a gutty performance that reflected both the band’s long, professional experience with music and their emotional attachment to performance. Perhaps surprisingly given the longevity of their career, Ill Nino’s strength was demonstrated best by two selections from their early days. Vocalist Christian Machado exhorted the crowd into following along for a thunderous “This is War,” while longtime adherents to the band’s catalog were drawn in for an engaging “If You Still Hate Me.” Bands who have spent so many years in the game are occasionally suspect in live performances. Their continued dedication to craft can be circumspect, their desire flagging. Ill Nino suffers from neither of those setbacks, instead using big rhythms, swollen percussion and a bucket or perspiration to lean in on the crowd and sweep them up in the groove.

Miss May I is one of those names that buzzes hotly in press circles. You see their name everywhere, attached to seemingly everything. So this seemed like a perfect opportunity to see the band close up, see what makes them tick, see if their live show is compelling. There is a certain Anthrax-ian quality to Miss May I while on stage, an electric current that’s solely generated by the commitment of the performers on stage. They smile, they run around, they engage the crowd by stepping to the front of the monitor speakers, all those common tricks that work and are underutilized by bands trying to win new fans. To their credit, Miss May I attracted more and more fans as their set went on, the Mayhem crowd gradually coming in shallow waves to rest on the stage’s shore. “Day By Day” was the climax of the set, and even if the music itself wasn’t giving the crowd a jolt, the minor league David Lee Roth-ness of vocalist Levi Benton was charismatic enough to hold attention. While the applause following songs like “Relentless Chaos” wasn’t overhwleming, it was consistent and thorough, implying an earned respect from the fans gathered before the band.

Suicide Silence’s set made a perfect bell curve, the crescendo rising to prominence with an impromptu sing-along of “Fuck Everything,” a song with a simple but effective message among throngs of metal fans who often use music to escape the doldrums and frustrations of their every day life. This was flanked on either end by the calamitous pounding of “Cease to Exist” and the chaotic bursts of “Wake Up,” both of which captured the imagination of the Suicide Silence fans among the masses, if not the whole crowd. Variety was lacking in the set of Suicide Silence, as by the time the band closed with the punishing roll of “You Only Live Once,” their set had blended into one long rumble, lacking the easy identifiers of crowd-rallying songs like “Fuck Anything.” The afternoon heat was blasting at full bore at this point, so that certainly didn’t help the case, but in any event, Suicide Silence was impressive only in isolated moments.

No matter who you talked to, there were only two words on the lips of everyone, and we do mean everyone, at Mayhem Fest. Body. Count. Members of the press admitted freely that Body Count’s addition to the tour was the principle reason they showed up. Walking around the concert grounds, conversations could be heard in all corners by all manner of patrons, and the name Body Count was fast on everyone’s tongue. The boys from Texas Hippie Coalition admitted to me that they were upset their press time began during Body Count’s set nearly every day on tour. Other musicians were amped just to share space on the bill with the iconic hardcore outfit. Body Count was the first name mentioned by Korn’s Jonathan Davis when he asked the crowd what bands they had enjoyed on the day. A crowd had crammed the front of the stage where Body Count would be playing more than forty minutes before they did. This was the crucible of Mayhem Fest, headlining main stage bands be damned.

The show began before it even began, as Coco quietly and rather innocuously slipped to the side of the stage to watch the show before it commenced. It’s hard to be innocuous when you’re Coco though, particularly when being led by the couple’s two massive bulldogs, each decked out in heavy spike collars.

Some performers are just different. There’s an indefinable something about them, and that something can vary wildly between ‘different’ performers, but they invariably have something. Ice-T, even above and beyond the rest of Body Count, is different. He is possessed of a jaw-dropping swagger, carrying himself with the visage of a man who knows he has nothing to prove but intends to prove it anyway. It takes real balls, to be frank, to call the audience soft (and much worse,) and have them still love you, but the crowd was wrapped around Ice-T’s finger from the moment he sauntered from the back with the band getting to ready to blast “There Goes the Neighborhood.” To his credit, let’s talk Ernie C for a minute. While Ice-T gets the lion’s share of the attention directed at Body Count, Ernie C remains a talented and confident guitar player, still tapping through the middle third of that opening song with aplomb and perfect timing. While we’re on the subject, the rest of Body Count is tight, too, beginning with the unforgiving percussion of Ill Will and the punishing bass of Vincent Price (no, not that Vincent Price.)

The aural assaults and verbal punishment of both individuals and the establishment continued through new cuts like manslaughter and subtle nods to the metal crowd like “Disorder,” a version of an Exploited song originally recorded along with the luminaries in Slayer. Between songs, Ice-T had a mean mug for everyone, not backing down and not backing off, even as he remained unchallenged as the most badass presence of the day, eventually transitioning into new songs like “Talk Shit, Get Shot.” Finally, it happened. Leading off his brief explanatory tirade by saying “you can only play a cop for so long before you want to shoot one,” Body Count launched into a cathartic “Cop Killer,” the song that made the band the most feared act of 1992. Complete with police lights and a crowd singing along, bystanders newly initiated watched in awe and learned a thing or two about how hardcore should be done.

That’s part 1. Tune in tomorrow for part 2, where we tackle seeing the same show twice, wondering what the half-life on profound angst is and pyro-free venues.

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This week we discuss alchemy, camera technology, a first time guest host joins the show, and we review "As Above, So Below".  

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