DevilDriver with Holy Grail, Incite, and Hemlock at the Riot Room in Kansas City, Missouri
05 May 2016
Words by Randy Shatkowski || Photos by Thomas Woroniak
Metal stalwarts DevilDriver brought their tour to The Riot Room in Kansas City on Thursday, May 5, 2016 in support of their upcoming release Trust No One, and it was a sweaty, intimate mess of a show in all the best ways.
Opening band Hemlock originally hail from Las Vegas, but have all moved to within easy driving distance of Kansas City, so they have played around town quite frequently, but this was my first chance to catch them personally. In the words of Gob Bluth, I have made a terrible mistake. I wrote Hemlock off as past their prime imitators, but after their incredible thirty-minute set, I have no idea how this band has been around for almost 25 years without becoming a household name for metalheads. The Riot Room stage is already small, and having 4 bands worth of gear on stage shrunk their available space to “barely enough to stand still,” but this didn’t stop them from headbanging, jump-kicking, and shredding their way through a set that was far heavier and far less power metal than I expected. In fact, the closest comparison to Hemlock‘s sound I can think of is replacing Hed P.E.’s vocals with pure, traditional metal screams, including everything from guttural pig squeals to The Black Dahlia Murder style high-pitched shrieks but focusing on a throaty, classic metal roar most akin to Phil Anselmo, all done to perfect by vocalist/bassist Chad Smith. Drummer Brian Smith was also eye-catching, frequently hammering out fills one-handed while holding a stick high in the air with the other hand, and even tossing in the occasional windmill swing on the cymbals. The entire band was great at engaging with the crowd and getting people fired up for the evening to come – I’ve never seen an opener get the entire crowd jumping to every song, but they managed it. Hemlock is worth the price of admission to this tour all by themselves.
Next up were Minnesota-based hardcore punk/metal hybrid Incite. Guitarist Dru “Tang” Rome is a riff machine, and every track they played featured some impressive wizardry from his end, and anchoring rhythm section Derek Lennon Lopez on drums and Christopher “El” Elsten kept the tracks tight and focused. The only weak link was vocalist Richie Cavalera – the stepson of Max Cavalera of Soulfly and Sepultura fame. While his energy was on point, his vocals seemed to consist of a 2-3 note monotone bark. If I were to rely on vocals alone, I would have an extremely hard time telling any of the songs from their set apart.
Have you ever wondered what it would have been like to see Motley Crue back at the Whisky-A-Go-Go before they ever made it big? Well, seeing retro power-metal/thrash band Holy Grail in a small venue isn’t quite like that, but it could be easy to confuse them for an opener from the Crue’s club days. The sound is pretty standard (Iron Maiden worship crossed with early Metallica), but the presentation is phenomenal, in no small part due to their lighting tech. While the previous bands were drenched in dull reds, the full color spectrum was used for Holy Grail, including the house laser lights (which in 20+ shows at the venue I didn’t even know existed) and strobes. The small stage seemed a whole lot bigger with the controlled chaos of long-haired, head-banging men flailing around being matched by the equally frenetic light show. The visual and crowd-participation aspect of Holy Grail‘s show not only elevates the music, it compliments it. It’s cheesy and quaint, but it knows it’s cheesy and quaint and still doesn’t give a damn, and that makes it a hell of a lot of fun. The only real gripe I had is with the mix early in their set, as none of the vocals were set high enough until about halfway through.
At last the main event hit the stage. DevilDriver came out firing with fan-favorite “End Of The Line,” and it became apparent that the stage was even smaller than usual due to the band choosing to leave their cabs even with the front of the drum kit rather than the back. And DevilDriver thrive in that small stage setting. Guitarist Mike Spreitzer frequently stood so close to the edge of the barrier-less stage that fans along the front row hit in the back by moshers smacked their faces on his guitar – and appeared to think this was the coolest thing to ever happen. Frontman Dez Fafara smiled, high-fived, and fist-bumped his way along the front the entire set, even using fans’ outstretched hands to balance him so he could stand one-legged on tilting monitors while leaning out over the crowd and bellowing through hits like “Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost” and “I Could Care Less,” a bizarre cover of AWOLNation’s megahit “Sail,” as well as enthusiastically received new songs from their upcoming release, “Daybreak” and “My Night Sky,” and of course signature track “Clouds Over California.” The band clearly appreciated having a packed house on a Thursday night, and that positive energy flowed back and forth for 13 songs, the intensity never letting up onstage or off. To wit: the gentleman standing next to me spontaneously Hulk-Hogan’ed his brand new DevilDriver t-shirt midway through the second song, which got a mid-performance laughing hug out of Fafara, and that sort of energy permeated the entire evening. DevilDriver may not be the biggest name in metal, but maybe that’s for the best. If they’re happy playing crowded, dive-bar party shows like their set in Kansas City, fans will be happy to keep coming out every time.