It was an odd Tuesday evening marked by unseasonably changeable weather when a strange mistral wind blew the sails of a certain pirate ship East to our fair shores.
“It’s a really strange show tonight,” the headliner was later to open his set declaiming, and truer words were never spoken.
After all, who the hell ever expected to see a European based pagan metal tour landing at a blues bar in the noted hotspot of Teaneck, New Jersey?
Mexicali Live, formerly Mexicali Blues, is a small restaurant/bar with balcony and raised seating along the walls. The bar is set in a rear alcove, with the stage right by the entrance. The main floor can be filled with tables or cleared for concerts, as was the case here. The first thought my wife and I shared upon entering was to wonder what the hell unsuspecting dining patrons (which included at least one old couple looking quite lost) would think of the festivities to come!
First and most out of place with their fellow acts came a band I’d never heard of out of Pasadena, going by the name of Gypsyhawk. With three wild blond manes and full beards between them, attendees could be forgiven for thinking it was a family act with bassist/vocalist Eric Harris playing the Glen Benton role of black sheep of the kin, but no such luck.
While their overall sound suggested they were striving desperately to be Thin Lizzy (not a bad goal, that), their more grungy Southern 70’s hard rock feel suggests far more that Gypsyhawk is the second coming of Molly Hatchet.
While Flirtin’ With Disaster never got its time in the brief but impressive 5 song set, the manic polyrhythmic mastery of the kit that drummer Ian Brown laid down provided an engaging base and groundwork for lead guitarist Erik Kluiber to work some fretboard magic. And it didn’t hurt that he had a stuffed Animal prominently fronting his kit…
New kid Ben Robbins played it cool, closing his eyes and bobbing his head from side to side as he laid down the occasional second lead, but mostly kept things to the Maiden meets Lizzy = Hatchet melodic harmony lead formula the band showed to be its main modus operandi.
Kluiber, goofily camping it up with his lanky frame nearly toppling the Marshall stacks behind him at one point, proved to be quite the player, with the general quality of the music making it a bit easier to gloss over the often crass juvenalia of Harris’ between song stage patter. Overall, very impressive for an out of left field opener to what would be a seriously incompatible bill otherwise.
Then things really got interesting.
Next up was the first of two acts who really, really didn’t seem to fit into the locale. As one boozy patron who travelled all the way from Philly for the show asked me, “is that really the name of this town? What the hell kind of stupid name is TEANECK, anyway?”
There were two sets of drums and equipment filling the rather small stage, the second of which was taken by Norway’s own Trollfest.
Now, I’ll confess that when I was first exposed to the band earlier in the year with Brumbelbassen (which debuted in Europe last summer, but only streeted in the states back around March), I wasn’t incredibly impressed. It predated my monthly roundup reviews, but I recall thinking it was very middle of the road: not bad, but nothing to write home about either.
Well, I’ve just dug it up and reloaded it onto the iPod, because these 6 Norwegian hellraisers made one hell of an impression!
Despite ridiculously cramped stage conditions (picture 5 guys across, standing in front of two drumsets – if the guy on the right took one wrong step, they’d be out the doorway or landing on the merch table!), Trollfest put on one hell of a set, bringing back memories of Finntroll in their Trollhammeren/Nattfodd heyday, but with a stronger sense of outright fun.
While sax player “Drekka Dag” was nowhere to be found, portly “Trollmannen” pulled off vocals that reminded this reviewer of Frantisek Storm of Master’s Hammer, less growled than inwardly breathed helium croaks. With the firm melodic underpinning of “Manskow’s” accordion playing and punctuated by “Trollmannen’s” handheld cowbell, guitarists “Mr. Seidel” and “Dr. Leif Kjonnsfleis”, bassist “Lodd Bolt” and drummer “Trollbank” propelled matters into a manic, hyperaggressive overdrive that tempted more than a few friendly if quite besotted fellow patrons towards violating the venue’s loudly posted “no
moshing or stagediving” notices. Things never got too out of control, which made it easier to get some stage photos, but drained the energy more than a tad and just made the whole affair seem strange.
With the Rick Neilsenesque “Dr. Leif” mysteriously appearing in the middle of the audience next to us, pretending to be a patron cheering on the band, “Mr. Seidel” prompting reticent patrons to get into things and “Trollmannen” telling some rather stupid (if admittedly quite amusing) jokes between songs, the guys put on one hell of a show all around and even made a fan out of my wife (whose sole pagan metal indulgences consisted of Leaves Eyes and tonight’s headliners prior to this evening). I was able to convey this small fact to the man himself after the show, which he claimed to be “honored” by – as you can see, a good sense of humor all around, and I certainly hope to hear more from these guys in the future.
Assuming my reappraisal of Brumbelbassen doesn’t change how I felt about the album earlier in the year, this is definitely a band who shines under live conditions – please do come back this way at the next opportunity, guys!
Finally, after the stage was cleared of equipment, the evening’s main attraction hit the stage. Plagued by equipment failures and accidental mishaps inclusive of but not limited to a serious guitar rig issue delaying start time by nearly a half an hour, some wireless issues with Bowes’ keytar, backing microphone concerns and a faulty mic stand that allowed Bowes’ microphone to fall to the stage at least twice during the set, the generally mighty Scotch pirate metal act Alestorm delivered a somewhat halfhearted effort throughout.
From Bowes’ opening comments to the last moments (where he literally leapt offstage to play card games! Wait, we’ll get there…), the band ripped through a Back Through Time-heavy set that nonetheless tapped into history just a tad (“wenches & mead”, “set sail & conquer” and “Captain Morgan’s revenge” off the debut and “the quest”, “leviathan” and Alestorm standby “keelhauled” off Black Sails).
Things really got weird when the tour manager set up a reserved table directly in front of the stage (!), which was eventually populated by a group of guys playing Magic the Gathering throughout the show (say huh?!?). Now, I know from my discussion with Chris himself that he’s a big D&D geek, but he seemed distracted throughout the entire show by whatever was going on at the “match”, even giving the mic to one of the gamers for the ENTIRE running time of “Nancy the tavern wench” (which came therefore with some improvised, aggro-growled lyrics from this unknown gent). This set the entire band into fits of hilarity.
Backing keyboardist Elliot “Jazz Hands” Vernon was completely disinterested throughout, staring languidly into the audience, checking his cel phone and even disappearing offstage to take a leak at one point (Bowes even asked on mic “what the hell are you doing out there?” to this one).
Thankfully, Dani “Deadpool” Evans did his best to overcome equipment issues and keep things moving along on an even keel, and Bowes, despite persistent mugging and bemusement at the limitations of the venue (“nobody’s doing anything anyway, might as well clear the area”, the tour manager exclaimed when putting the offending Magic table front and center), did manage to at least phone in a reasonable, if rushed performance of Alestorm favorites.
As noted, the last song had barely concluded (and was in fact still coming to its crescendo) when he leapt offstage to take a vacated third seat at the table and start playing Magic. I and other fans who wanted to exchange a quick greeting were all but ignored as he subsumed himself into the game (and the ersatz audience ‘vocalist”s farts, which he proudly pointed out to onlookers he did his best to chase away so as to monopolize Bowes’ attention).
As Vernon closed the concert with, “we’re Alestorm…(pointing towards Bowes and the table gamers)…and they’re geeks.”
All in all, a good if quite unusual show all around, particularly on the part of middle of the bill Trollfest.