–ICED EARTH: Crofoot Ballroom/Pontiac, Mich./Friday, March 16th, 2012

–ICED EARTH: Crofoot Ballroom/Pontiac, Mich./Friday, March 16th, 2012

Like most of us in the United States, Michigan residents have enjoyed a rather toasty winter of 2011-12. The normally frozen tundra and snow-capped pines of the great white north have been in hibernation during one of the our warmest and least snowy winters on record. Indeed, last week’s record-high temperatures in the 70s and 80s were downright scorching–certainly nothing frozen or “iced” about this section of Earth at all. But this is no weather report, this is a concert report, and last Friday night the almighty melodic thrashing power metallers Iced Earth laid waste to the Crofoot Ballroom before an exuberant crowd of a few hundred screaming Iced metal maniacs. Kollnot R’n’M Reviews was lucky enough to be privy to the utter sonic devastation, and the experience was one to be cherished for a lifetime.

Now, it takes a lot to motivate my brother Jeff and myself to load the old Windstar and make the storied heavy metal road trip. Perhaps it’s the ever-improving number of high-profile touring acts to hit the Grand Rapids/West Michigan area in recent years that has rendered us complacent about taking the two-hour plus drive to the East Side of Michigan and the infamous, dreaded Murder City. Yes, we all know plenty of intrepid and devoted heavy metal pilgrims who will travel hours or even days to catch their favorite bands, and I offer these fellows the utmost admiration and respect. Others of us, for various reasons, prefer to stay closer to home. But even home bodies face their occasional emergencies, and missing Iced Earth on their “Dystopia” World tour simply wasn’t an option.

So, with some Van Halen, Ratt and Eric Clapton (this one did not get played much) CDs in tow, we “headed out to the highway” at about 3:30 p.m. to get the adventure underway. Other than a half-hour bottleneck on Eastbound I-96 due to a serious crash involving five teenage girls, the trip was smooth and uneventful. For some reason, the always-reliable Mapquest had us getting off I-75 at the Waterford exit, a full 11 miles from Pontiac. The Dixie Highway led us through a healthy business district that included several chain and family restaurants. This point is worth noting. The very second the Dixie Highway became Cedar Chavez Ave. and we crossed into the Pontiac city limits, the traffic cleared completely, the buildings became deserted, and the only sign of economic life was the endless line of used-car dealerships on the east side of the street. Pontiac is a modern-day ghost town, a poignantly visible reflection of the deep recession that has crippled this nation, and our beloved Michigan in particular. This is also worth noting for later.

The Crofoot Ballroom is located smack dab in the middle of downtown Pontiac in a mostly abandoned business district. The drab and dreary surroundings were accentuated by the decimated, pothole-laden parking lot across the street, itself adjacent to some freight railroad tracks. As much as the austere location recalled something out of Max Max or Resident Evil, there was something oddly appropriate about this setting for an Iced Earth show. As we parked the van in the Pothole Lot, we watched as new Iced Earth singer Stu Block passed directly in front of us clad in his vintage blue heavy metal denim vest. Oh yes, this would be an exciting night.

A short line of metal fans was starting to snake around the side of the Crofoot’s building, but it was still over an hour-and-a-half until show time, so we decided to roam the empty Pontiac city streets in search of food. This quest quickly proved fruitless, for other than a tiny coffee shop selling way over-priced cold cut sandwiches, there was nary a decent pub or restaurant in sight for blocks on end. Obviously, this made us wish we had stopped somewhere back on the good ol’ Dixie Highway in Waterford. So we meandered back to our van in the Pothole Lot and eagerly consumed our homemade “lunch” consisting of packaged cheese-and-crackers and rice crispy treats.

As we eventually made our way into the line waiting to get into the Crofoot, I marveled at the unfair circumstances that force an outstanding veteran band such as Iced Earth to have to keep playing tiny clubs like this after over 25 years. Then I pondered the ridiculous pricing of the $75 meet-and-greet “VIP” ticket packages IE is selling for this tour. A handful of dedicated, and apparently rich, IE fanatics paid the 150 percent markup on the original ticket price to meet the band, get some swag and get their obligatory autographs and pictures. I find this situation ironic and a little amusing because while we were waiting in line to get in, Jon Schaffer himself exited the venue’s side door and began greeting and shaking hands with those of us who just happened to be standing there. Not to be smug, but it’s a bit odd how we just met the band for free, just like the good old days of hanging out by bands’ tour buses after shows hoping to gain an autograph and/or picture with our favorite musicians. To be fair, I understand the economy stinks, and the music industry is in the tank, and bands need to find some new, creative ways to generate revenue with the dearth of album sales these days. Maybe raise the price 10-15 bucks, or do like Fear Factory did and allow fans to get autographs and pictures if they buy a CD at the venue. But there are ways to make a buck, and there are other ways that perhaps should be reconsidered in the name of fairness to the consumer.

Okay, enough of that–on to the show. The Crofoot itself is a very nice venue, featuring a separate bar area facing the street and a decent-sized rectangular-shaped hall. An empty balcony surrounds three sides of the hall above the concert floor and small stage.

(This pic. is from Nov. 2001 outside The Orbit Room in Grand Rapids, during the good ol’ days of open-access meet-and-greets. From left, Jon Kollnot, Jon Schaffer, Jeff Kollnot) 

By the time openers Warbringer hit the stage, the Crofoot was half full, but the hardcore metalheads in attendance were primed and ready for some thrashing action. The ‘bangers in the pit, clad in their Iced Earth shirts and heavily band-patched denim vests, ate up Warbringer. This California-based quintet of longhairs deliver OLD-school thrash metal the way it was in the ’80s scene: fast, mean, heavy, aggressive, and did I say fast. The band’s songs were intricate and technical, featuring an endless assault of palm-muted thrash riffs, precise rhythmic gallops and fantastic lead playing from guitarists John Laux and Andrew Bennett. Vocalist John Kevill’s shouts of war and destruction recall Tom Araya of Slayer, but musically Warbringer are more dynamic and intricate in their arrangements than Kerry King and co. Think early Metallica, Exodus, Anthrax, Overkill and maybe even a little Heathen, and you’ll mostly get the picture about Warbringer. That can be a problem, however. Yes, Warbringer is tight live, and their infusion of just enough melody within their thrash is enjoyable. But their set became to feel redundant and wearisome about half way through, although it is probably much more fun if you know the music. The lack of originality is the main problem, in my opinion. Tons of bands are content to ape their musical heroes, and that’s fine, whatever floats their boats. But if you lack a distinct vision and fresh ideas to spice up a very traditional and conservative genre, then it’s hard to stand out among a sea of thousands. Just my two cents. However, Warbringer is a good band, they are energetic and passionate, and they will please thrash fanatics everywhere, no doubt.

Following Warbringer’s nearly 50-minute set, we made our way up to the front three rows, center stage. After a wait that seemed an eternity, although it was probably only about 25-30 minutes, the lights finally went dark and the intro music from the beginning of the “Dystopia” title track blared through the P.A. Voices screamed, fists and horns raised to the sky, and Stu Block roared a guttural scream from Hades to kick off the frenzied proceedings. Jon Schaffer, Iced Earth’s stoic and fearless leader since the mid-’80s, blasted the razor-edged palm-muted speed of the opening riff, and the Crofoot was ablazing. The band was on fire, as precise and deafeningly loud as we’ve ever heard Iced Earth in our fourth time seeing them since 1999. Block’s voice was impeccable; he did the low-register crooning ala Matt Barlow, then hit the ear-piercing shrieks with perfect control, all the while incorporating a beautiful vibrato that was music to these weathered ears. In due respect to all previous IE singers, Block blows them all away in terms of sheer singing ability. As said before, Schaffer’s rhythm guitar was as brutally loud and precise as ever, and he was all smiles throughout, singing along, making eye contact with fans and generally appearing to have a great time. Jeff commented afterwards that he has never seen Schaffer enjoying himself so much on the stage before, and that was rewarding to see. The rest of the band was equally firing on all cylinders: longtime drummer Brent Smedley calmly held down the rhythm section, with bassist Freddie Vidales manning his post directly in front and to the right of the drums, head banging his long curly locks constantly. Lead guitarist Troy Seele was the epitome of Joe Cool at stage right, easily delivering his fleet-fingered licks and harmonies, albeit his guitar sounded too low in the mix at times.

All of a sudden, the chorale-like main riff of “Angel’s Holocaust” opened up, and Block led us into a full-on sing along of the Carmina Burana mashup. After the devastating rendition of the Night of the Stormrider classic, dark arpeggios opened into the surprising Dark Saga deep cut “Slave to the Dark,” which utilized eerie mood lighting to perfect effect. The power/speed metal hits, new and old alike, just kept coming: “V,” “Stand Alone,” “When the Night Falls,” featuring its trademark blistering instrumental sections and a truly mindblowing performance by Block, “Dark City,” “Damien,” “Declaration Day,” etc. Throughout the show, Block proved himself as the ultimate heavy metal front man as well as a world-class vocalist. He strategically prowled the stage, making grand arm gestures that reminded me of Bruce Dickinson in their theatricality, constantly engaging the audience with eye contact, choreographed chants and sing-alongs. More than once, Block graciously thanked the audience for coming out and supporting them, and more than once he said that their hearts go out to the people of Michigan for enduring these difficult economic times, and to hang in there. He then dedicated the new power ballad “Anthem” to us and the perverence of the human spirit. Schaffer spoke to us on a couple occasions as well, once proclaiming how much better a venue the Crofoot is than the infamous Harpo’s deep in the ghettos of Detroit. He also made a brief speech about the corruption of the U.S. government and the international monetary system, making a shout-out to the Michigan Chapter of the Sons of Liberty. Schaffer added that the band survived an especially difficult situation the previous day, and that the guys in the band made it a great day for him, celebrating his birthday (the 15th) until the wee hours of the morning. It’s funny, I never knew I shared both a name and birthday with Schaffer until that moment, but it made this celebration of my own 36th birthday all the more special.

The highlight of the show, IE’s piece de resistance and all-time most requested tune, was undoubtedly the 16-minute epic, Dante’s Inferno. Schaffer’s guitar sounded especially cutting and brutal during this moody, dynamic tune, and Block’s performance would make the great Barlow proud. The main show ended with a predictable but enthusiastic rendering of “Iced Earth” the song, but it all wasn’t quite done yet. Schaffer stepped to the microphone one more time to say, “We don’t usually do an encore, but we got a few requests for ‘Burning Times’. Then the band tore into the mid-tempo Something Wicked standout, telling us that this, the second-to-last night of the U.S. leg, must have been one of the best shows on the tour so far.

Schaffer and the rest of the band finished with a rousing, pirate-style acapella version of “I don’t think these lads can take their ale,” while taking turns swigging from a whiskey bottle. They were still celebrating, and the celebration of life continues afterwards in our heads, Iced Earth-style.–Jonathan Kollnot

P.S. I’d like to dedicate IE’s performance of “Watching Over Me” to the memory of my high school buddy Dion R. Kajfosz, who passed away on 04-24-96 at age 20.

–Approximate Setlist: 1.) Dystopia 2.) Angels Holocaust 3.) Slave to the Dark 4.) V 5.) Stand Alone 6.) When The Night Falls 7.) Dark City 8.) Damien 9.) Anthem 10.) Declaration Day 11.) Days of Rage 12.) Watching Over Me 13.) Dante’s Inferno 14.) Iced Earth. Encore: Burning Times.

~ by jonnyboyrocker on March 23, 2012.

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