November 19, 2016.
8:30 AM. I am speeding down the New York State Thruway on the way to my first Diamond Head show of their current US tour, and two memories pop into my head.
The first memory is of the last time I saw DH in April 2013. At the first show at the St. Vitus Bar in Brooklyn, I ran the merch table. The club was small but packed, and business was brisk. At the end of the show, I asked Karl if he wanted the money. “No, mate,” he said. “Hang onto it till tomorrow night.” So there I was, walking the streets of Brooklyn in the early hours of a Saturday morning with a large amount of cash in my pocket, praying that I don’t get mugged or stopped by the cops.
The following night, a Saturday night in Amityville, about ten people turned out to see the band. That’s rock and roll for you in a nutshell. But at least the money from Brooklyn had been delivered safe and sound.
The second memory was of every single road trip I took with my good friend Glenn Williams in the late 70s and early 80s. We were young and carefree, jumping on a train on the spur of the moment and heading to London or Birmingham or Nottingham to see some pretty amazing bands.
Forty years on. The faces have changed, but that’s about all.
12 PM. I get a text from Karl: the band won’t be at the venue until five. I pick up Will, my son, from his college, and we enjoy a great afternoon in the unseasonable November weather. First, we stroll the Walkway Over the Hudson. Then we find an Irish bar, and grab lunch and several pints. Like I said–this feels like the road trips of my teenage years.
5 PM. The band arrives at the venue. Amazingly, they are just a few minutes late. The first person out of the van is Karl. I am greeted with a huge bear hug and the news that Abbz had to head back to the UK and the band would have to finish the tour as a four piece. I meet the new boys, Ras and Dean, and both greet me like an old friend even though we have never met. Brian jumps out, looks at me and after, a few seconds, amazingly remembers me, even though it’s been three years. We quickly reminisce about the Heavy Toronto and Montreal festivals in 2011. Blimey, I think, the bloke has an amazing memory.
Load in and setup take a mere 20 minutes. Everyone pitches in: Ras lifts amps onto the stage while Brian sets up some of the drum hardware. At some point in time, I imagine, they all had ego removal surgery.
Will and I sit down and let the well-oiled machinery take over. The club was a vaudeville/movie theater back in the day, with a nice big stage and great sight lines. All the while, I’m thinking how different tonight is going to be with Nick and Eddie now permanently gone and Abbz MIA.
6:40 PM. The longest sound check in the history of rock ‘n’ roll drags on. First, the sound crew can’t find a problem with the monitor system. After almost 20 minutes of checking line levels, the front-of-house engineer discovers several amps in the monitor system haven’t even been switched on. Then Karl discovers a blown cone in the drum wedge. The offending wedge is removed and replaced, allowing Ras, who is doing his own monitor mix, to finally tweak the system to his liking.
The band keeps its composure throughout the ordeal. No one bitches or complains or throws a wobbly. If they wanted to kill the sound engineer–and who could blame them–you wouldn’t know it.
Finally, they rip through “It’s Electric.” Everything sounds perfect and exactly the way everyone wants it. My doubts about the sound engineer and the recent lineup changes fly out of the window. It’s going to be a fun night.
7 PM. The first of the three warmup bands takes the stage–a group of kids in their late teens and early twenties play some decent hard rock. Everyone looks nervous, but they do a great job. We watch several songs before going to the bar, where Karl and Will discuss music theory.
7:40 PM. Between bands, we hang in the dressing room, located inconveniently up two flights of stairs on the right-hand side of the stage. It is inaccessible from any other place in the building, and everyone laughs as they wonder what Sebastian Bach, who will be playing there in a week’s time, will make of it. Will, a very accomplished guitarist in his own right, talks to Brian about the scales he uses to warm up. Ras and I talk politics and his new in-ear monitor system. Then, Brian plugs in a kettle and he and Ras proceed to make two very English cups of tea. The rock and roll lifestyle goes into full gear.
7:50 PM. Band number two takes the stage. They begin and end with songs that could have come off The Sword’s last album. In the middle, there’s some Alice In Chains-type stuff. Not bad, but nothing to set the world on fire. We belly up to the bar after three songs.
8:30 PM. We check in with the band in the dressing room. Dean is signing copies of the new CD. One by one, the rest of the band join him, and everything is very calm. Will and I nip downstairs and liberate some bottles of water from the bar for them. We bring them up, then leave them to their warmups.
8:45 PM. The last support band goes on. They sound like a poor man’s version of Motley Crue; apparently, nothing of significance has happened in hard rock and metal for these guys since the mid eighties. Worse, the bassist, who is a dead ringer for Billy Connolly, and his buddy stage right don’t move during the entire performance. Will and I quickly head back to the bar for several more, leaving the area in front of the stage to the band’s dancing wives. The band redeems themselves at the end, but only barely, with a nifty, slow cover of Motorhead’s “Killed By Death.”
10:00 PM. I grab a bunch more waters and place them around the stage just before the house lights go down and the familiar sounds of Holst’s “Mars, the Bringer of War” blast through the PA. It’s showtime, and the band quickly hit their stride with an abridged “Borrowed Time” running quickly into “Bones” from the new album. There’s a little over a hundred in the venue–a small but very energetic crowd headbangs at the front of the stage, leaving the bar and vicinity to a middle-aged crowd who are showing their enthusiasm more sedately but no less profoundly.
There follows a set of classic Diamond Head, performed as tightly and as cleanly as you could want. It’s heavy on the first two albums with three songs from the new album thrown in for good measure.
Ras proves to be the consummate front man, working the room in classic metal foot-on-the-monitor, gesture-at-the-crowd style. His voice is as powerful as it is on record, none the worse for wear after twelve shows in sixteen days.
Dean, meanwhile, has to be two people at once tonight, and he goes about his business with a minimum of fuss. Visually, he’s more subdued than his predecessor, but musically he fills the gaps left by Abbz’s rhythm guitar perfectly, rounding out the sound with clean but punchy bass lines. He makes sure nothing drops out when Brian solos,
which Brian does a little less frequently than usual given the circumstances, tightening some of the arrangements to make them work for this four-piece version of the band.
Meanwhile, at the back, Karl puts on a masterclass of hard rock drumming for the warmup bands who have all stayed to learn a thing or two from the veterans. More than once, I find myself in awe of his power and finesse. If the Grammys ever give out an award for Unsung Heroes, Karl’s name better be the first one on it.
If they’re tired after three weeks of constant road work, it doesn’t show. If anything, they are sounding better than ever, as precise and as powerful as I have heard them in recent times.
The fourteen-song set ends way too quickly. Poughkeepsie declares that, yes, in fact, they are evil, then it’s selfie-with-the-punters time, which the band does with great good humor and grace. Autographs are signed, congratulations are said, then it’s time to get to work for the last time that day.
Everyone pitches in again, and the gear is packed quickly and efficiently. Outside, the weather has taken a turn for the worse. Typical of upstate New York, Indian summer has turned into winter in a matter of hours, and a cold rain is pouring down in buckets. Karl moves the van to a more advantageous location, and we quickly load out, sheltered by a friendly porch roof. Will and I bid the lads good night, and we make our own way back to White Plains.
The rain turns to sleet. I fall into that strange hypnotic state that Captain Picard must get into whenever he takes the Enterprise into a starfield at warp speed. The trip back to White Plains takes forever, reminding me of all those times I drove home from winter gigs in the 80s and 90s.
If you’re a musician in this part of the world, driving through snow is just one more due you have to pay.