August 17th, 2012 | Published in Stage and Street
By Jeffrey McClellan
A lot of bands owe their livelihood to the juggernauts that double-teamed the Cleveland House of Blues on August 7th. The Toadies and Helmet both grew out of a backlash against the cookie-cutter, heavily produced rock bands of the 80s, and were two of the first bands of the burgeoning grunge movement to prove that rock music could be both catchy and musically intriguing. Both bands have forged instantly identifiable and intricate signature sounds, and have made it a point throughout their careers to make music that rocks as hard as it thinks. On Tuesday night, these two powerhouses combined resources to co-headline a show that reminded those present why their names rank high in the influences of practically every band since that are worth listening to.
The House of Blues as a venue is a rather more organized affair than your typical Cleveland dive; entry to the show was tightly controlled in a way that indicated that someone, somewhere has no doubt written a manual on how to manage filtering the unwashed masses into a large public space. This attention to detail may seem incongruent at first with a rough-and-tumble rock and roll show, but is born of a company culture which is earnestly dedicated to the enjoyment and safety of every attendee. Safety was further emphasized by an almost airline-esque pre-show lecture pointing out the emergency exits and house rules regarding moshing, stage-diving, and other such uncouth practices. While it may be tempting as an entertainment writer to take the piss out of a concert space for such overemphasis, the spate of recent concert tragedies we’ve seen in the live music world highlight what can go wrong when a promoter doesn’t take these things seriously.
First on the bill were Austin natives Ume (that’s ooo-may). This power trio’s feedback-laden throwback grunge-rock made the perfect appetizer for the heavy meal to come. Frontwoman Lauren Larson attacked each tune with a thrashing, frenetic energy thrown into stark relief by the band’s almost bashful crowd interaction between tunes. Drums and bass were both organic and tight, and provided an ideal backdrop for the effects-laden guitar stylings. This is an act that has gained a fair bit of steam in a relatively short time, from their first EP (2009’s Sunshower) to a spot on this year’s Lollapalooza hand picked by Perry Farrell himself. With such a raucous live show, it’s no wonder.
Helmet was the first of the two headline acts to hit the stage. Since their inception in 1989, Helmet have pummeled audience after audience with their special blend of intricate polyrhythms delivered with a generous portion of hardcore punk attitude. Frontman and band mastermind Page Hamilton’s formal jazz training comes through in dense, angular bursts, brought down and beaten into submission by drummer Kyle Stevenson’s ferocious driving bash und crash. Guitarist Dan Beeman and touring bassist Dave Case rounded out the lineup, adding further method to Page’s madness. The band was perfectly rehearsed, and Hamilton spoke to the crowd with a relaxed patter that echoed their confidence, riffing with the audience on everything from baseball (he’s evidently been pulling for the Indians of late) to war stories of Cleveland past (including his first hotel stay here, a seedy place where supposedly “you turned on the light switch and porn started playing on the TV”) to his own unique approach to music (to quote, “This song is in 7/4, I think… Don’t be confused, you can still dance to it”).
Despite this chill demeanor, Helmet proved throughout the set they showed up first and foremost to rock. The audience ate up every last note, straying perilously close on several occasions to breaking the venue’s standing “No Moshing” rule and thus risking ejection. The band was clearly appreciative of the love directed toward them, as they finished off with a last-minute set list change, bringing in their heavy hitter, the 1992 single “Unsung”. This was no small gesture; as one of the band’s most popular songs of all time, it’s easy to imagine them having grown sick of playing the same song every damn show for ten years.
Helmet’s set alone would have been worth the price of admission, but this was a CO-headlined show, and it was time for the Toadies to take over. Where Helmet seethed with alt-metal fury, the Toadies brought a quirkily melodic rock and roll roar. Led by frontman Todd Lewis, the Toadies made platinum with their debut album, 1994’s Rubberneck. Though their subsequent career was fraught with difficulties which led to the band’s hiatus in the 2000s, Lewis, along with fellow guitarist Clark Vogeler, drummer Mark Reznicek, and new bass player Doni Blair, are back with a brand new album, Play.Rock.Music.
The Toadies are a quandary; experience has honed their performance into a fine piece of pure American steel, but there’s a rawness to their performance that serves as a reminder that they hail from an era when you didn’t need a CPU-sanitized baby wipe of an album to make platinum. Their live show feels like someone took The Cars, hopped Ric Ocasek up on speed and LSD, and replaced his signature Fenders with a seemingly endless supply of cherry-red Gibson SG’s. Lewis hasn’t lost the angst that made the band’s name, stating of one tune “I wrote this song a long time ago, ‘cause that’s when you pissed me off”. Lead guitar Vogeler played textural overlays that were just plain weird, borrowing a page or two from Helmet’s dissonant playbook. Bassist Doni Blair seemed off in the ether most of the night, but in a good way; his Mr. Roboto stage movement keeping the bassline firmly in the pocket. Reznicek kept it all together from the drum riser, a difficult task made harder by the band’s sometimes-sidewise arrangements.
For the encore, the Toadies played two more tunes, and finished off the night with a truly epic performance of “I Burn”, bringing the drummers from both other bands along with their longtime roadie to accompany Reznicek (sporting the traditional encore squirrel mask) on toms. This more than anything showed off the sense of fun that all three bands in the evening bring to their music; a trait that has served two of the acts through almost twenty years in an industry that forgets your name after a month, and will undoubtedly propel the third to challenge the heights reached by their bill-mates.