Veiled in the Heart of Respect
As the hum from the amplifiers fades, the capacity crowd erupts with cumulative applause. In the century-old theater, the stage lights drop to a single point of bluish green light. From the darkness walks a man from the drum riser to the microphone stand at the front of the stage. Clearing his voice as if to audibly gather the attention of the room before he speaks, the applause softens then dissolves. His baseball cap and ubiquitous Metal band t-shirt (Obituary) are his uniform. The figure thoughtfully shoves his hands into his pockets as he waits for the room to go completely quiet. Finally, he begins to speak. “…Hemingway, Emerson, Fitzgerald, all Americans who lived here in Paris to draw inspiration for their work. French writers like Victor Hugo, Dumas and many others who also drew inspiration from this country…. this special city. When I think of Paris, I think of knowledge and power. I use that often when I write lyrics for this band. It’s an honor to perform for all of you here tonight…” – An American singer from Texas, Riley Gale, has just dropped the proverbial mic on this unsuspecting sold-out Paris crowd. The people in attendance erupt with applause. No customs agents required here. The passport for Parisian approval of the band Power Trip has just been stamped.
Hailing from Dallas Texas, Power Trip was on a European tour as direct support for the Florida-based metal band Trivium. Across the pond industry standards for press and photographers covering a concert are identical as it is in the States – after shooting the first three songs of Power Trip‘s set I was escorted out of the photo/security pit area. I quickly made my way through the sold-out crowd all the way to the back of the venue. With every step across the beer-soaked floor I’m consciously absorbing everything in sight from the faces of the concert goers to the architecture, paintings, and design of the room – right down to every nuance of the space – each detail more engaging than the next. The doors to this theater first opened to audiences in February 1865 (context – that was the year the American Civil War ended). I made my way to the staircase at the back end of the house as others watch the remaining portion of Power Trip‘s performance. As I ascended the narrow steps to the balcony I became a bit overwhelmed and emotional with the onset of darkened thoughts about my own mortality. I began to slow my cadence as I think about the many people that are no longer with us, the people that never had a chance to exit this building. With tensions between the French Government and local Muslims at an all-time high, three ISIL terrorists walked into this building on November 13th, 2015 and began firing automatic weapons indiscriminately into the crowd killing 90 people and wounding over 200 more. The worst terrorist attack in Paris history took place in this very room. I’m standing in the Paris concert venue, Le Bataclan.
France Because of Germany
The first time I traveled to France was in December of 2009. I scratched clean through a bucket list item by flying to Paris to see a Metal band perform live. At that time the rumor around the Metal blogosphere was that the German industrial metal band Rammstein was embarking on a final tour to support their latest release, Liebe Ist Fur Alle Da. I had no intention of going to my sepulture without seeing one of my all-time favorite bands live in concert. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this internet rumor would prove to be false. Rammstein would actually continue to tour in support of that album for four more years – I would attend some of those U.S. dates including shows in Dallas Texas, Oakland California and New York City. Without question, the Rammstein show I attended at the Bercy Arena in Paris was the standout of those four shows. Not only were the flames ten times larger due to Frances unrestricted set of rules for pyrotechnic effects indoors, but I also was blessed to witness a band that only sings in German surrounded by people that spoke French. A once in a lifetime experience and a show that I will never forget. I found France and Paris, in particular, to be a step away from everything I’d known in America. The French people have a cool quiet nonchalant confidence that avoids confrontation or anger at every encounter. They are a people connected through food, music, and love of their culture, art, and family. I knew I would be returning to France sometime in the future.
Thanksgiving weekend last year I played some old 8mm videos of my 2009 trip to Paris to share with my lady, Blanca. She fell in love with the images and my stories from my time in Paris and Swindon England. The Tuesday after the holiday, Blanca and I woke up to a news story about “Travel Tuesday” (the Travel industry’s answer to Cyber Monday) and jumped to the computer to take advantage of special cheap flights overseas. Within an hour we had booked a round-trip flight from San Francisco direct into Charle de Gaulle for less than it would cost us to fly to Chicago at any other time. In the month that followed, we found tickets to Trivium and Power Trip at Le Bataclan. Now with the T’s crossed and I’s dotted the only barrier to our France journey was time.
From the Gates of Hell to a Spastic Colon
Friday the 13th of April 2018. My lady and I arrive in France safely and with fevered intent. We quickly station ourselves quietly in a Best Western hotel deep in the Latin Quarter. Without unpacking or freshening up from the 11-hour flight, we started our Parisian journey sans cheese or croissants and hopped into a taxi heading directly over to the 14th arrondissement of the city – time for some death! We reached our destination quickly and queued up with some 100 or so people awaiting special admittance to an underground journey. We entered an old building with a door that was unremarkable without signage that left me wondering if we were even in the right place. We were. Over the next 2 hours, we head deep into a labyrinth of tunnels that contain the remains of more than six million French dead.
Barriere d’Enfer (Gates of Hell) also referred to as the Catacombs of Paris are nothing short of an astonishing and morbid hair-raising experience. From street level, we proceed down hundreds of steps via a tight spiral limestone staircase. The passageway was constructed sometime during the 18th century (think spiral winding lighthouse stairs). With every step down towards the former underground mine, you can feel the ambient temperature drop. With English audio guides in hand, we make our way down the tunnel on the self-guided tour. At six-foot-three I found myself taking on the characteristics of a 900-year-old Yoda type character with the worst case of osteoporosis in history. I was hunching and lurching my way through the first half mile of the tunnel before it finally broke into a larger room for me to stand erect. The bones of the dead reveal themselves abruptly and without warning. Stacked from ceiling to floor the remains of the dead are stacked like grocery store merchandise – first by leg bones, some ribs and vertebra and then finally the skulls. Curiosity dictates that I take a closer look at the suture seems in the skulls. A greenish looking skull catches my attention, so I draw closer and jokingly poked my finger into an empty eye socket – “that’s bad mojo… don’t do that” my lady scornfully whispers. I turn and look behind me where Blanca is standing to see her seemingly mesmerized and virtually catatonic. I looked as she stands motionless, her hand covering her mouth, eyes wide open without blinking. Still covering her mouth, she mumbles through her fingers, “…my God”.
After nearly 2 hours of traversing tunnels and negotiating stacks of human remains we finally make our return to street level. For some, the Catacombs would be enough morose adventure for one day – alas not for us. Metro (Paris Subway) bound with enthusiasm and vigor for exploration, we make our way up north to the next cemetery.
Pere-Lachaise is far and away the most popular and famous cemetery in all of Paris. Containing the remains of Irish novelist Oscar Wilde, Polish composer Chopin, Italian-born French designer of the Louvre, Louis Visconti and Los Angeles native and singer of the Doors Jim Morrison among others.
Having not fully adjusted to the time change, coupled with some wicked bad jet lag and internal time clock issues, I make the decision to drink the single bottle of 5 Hour Energy drink that had been at the bottom of my backpack for over a year. As we attempted to make sense of the French instructions on the find-a-grave-map, my stomach and bowels began churning wildly indicating that my body would not be absorbing the energy drink that I’d just ingested – evident by the telltale signs of whizzing and bubbling sounds coming from my stomach. A lifelong sufferer of IBS, I realize I have approximately three minutes to find a toilet or I’m going to casually damage my undergarments and possibly my shorts, socks, and shoes as a bonus. Shiny and rain-like sweat clusters form on my forehead and brow as I scramble to find any form of waste receptacle. I am desperate. I look for the deepest corner of the cemetery where tourists were seemingly absent – then proceeded to prop my back against the back of a headstone dated 1853 – then unceremoniously drop my shorts let the bowel Gods reign havoc over French soil. As I’m contemplating the ramifications of where my entrails have chosen to evacuate, I look left down the row of headstones to see a curious/nosey man trying to get a view of what I’m doing. In full voice, I yell out “Dude, really?” I stare back until he loses interest and walks away. Now commando (without underwear) for the first time in more than a decade I approach my girlfriend in complete humiliation. She offers, “…well, there’s a great story for the next time you’re in a bar – you just shit next to Jim Morrison’s’ grave…”
Texas Defines Honor – Florida Finds Drama
A twenty-minute cab ride from cemetery Pere-Lachaise, we make our way to the Trivium show and arrive at the Le Bataclan theater (pronounced Bat A Claw – per the smug and condescending Sudanese French National cab driver who stated with abruptness “…I don’t know Bat A Klan, I only know Bat A Claw…”). We arrive at the venue with haste. Outside the cab’s window, there is nothing but a cornucopia of concert T’s and long-haired Metal fans as far as the eye can see. The line to enter Le Bataclan is down the block and around the corner. This is about to go down sooner than expected.
Arriving at the entrance I soon discover that I am not on the press or band list as indicated in an earlier email. Years of shooting Metal shows have taught me to always CYA (cover your ass). So, in my back pocket, I have a hard copy of the email confirmation from management approving me to shoot photos. After displaying this email to security, in less than 10 minutes I have credentials in hand and Blanca and I are walking through the front door. I begin immediately photographing everything in my view. The entryway, the art on the walls, the people – every imaginable detail. Within what seemed like just a few minutes the house lights drop as opening band Venom Prison breaks into their first song. Sonically brutal and abruptly intense from the opening riff and double bass drum intro, I was immediately impressed. I rushed to the barricade to grab a parcel of land to begin photographing. Having been outside taking pictures just minutes before, I spent most of the first song trying to get my camera settings changed for indoor photography. By the time I got into my flow, the third song was finished and it was time to leave the security pit with the other photogs.
Serpentining my way through the crowd I was excited to share this experience with my lady. I had just shot a band in this historic and iconic venue. I leaned down to her ear level and yell over the music, “…these guys are really fuckin’ good…” – Blanca motions with her finger and signals for me to lean in again, “…. not guys – girl and guys…the singer is wearing a bra…” I had been shooting the singer from 6 feet away and failed to registrar an obvious and blatant detail such as gender. Googling the next day, I learned more about Larissa Stupar who vocally fronts the band Venom Prison. Stupar is a Russian-born woman that was raised in Germany. She describes herself as a vegan straight-edge anarchist inspired vocally by SlipKnot frontman Corey Taylor…and it shows. The bar for tonight’s performances has been set high. And my education on this planet continues. The house lights return as Venom Prison concludes their set and leaves the stage. To pass time between sets I make a lap around the venue checking out the bar area, the merch table and hitting up the bathrooms. I make my way to a group of men and women with cameras forming a queue at the stage left wall. The house lights cut out for the second time – it was time for another band. Each photographer passes a stout security guard with a flashlight who is checking our chest for a white Trivium press pass with the date “13 Avril” stamped on the lower portion. Each photographer scurries and stakes out his or her claim to a foot-wide parcel of land in front of a bank of monitors at the stage. A Slayeresque riff oozes from the monitors. I turn to see the audience swaying rhythmically to the song “Soul Sacrifice”. The crunchy slushy groove of Texas Metal rhythms instantly takes Jim Jones like control over the Metal hungry crowd. Power Trip is off and running. Demanding attention from the onset, the lanky and machine-like drummer was like your fathers old Chevy keeping everything in cool alignment ensuring the other band members were kept running with reliable and calibrated timing. Noticeably, all members of the band have their own distinct direction, rhythm and vibe yet move in a collective union to blend seamlessly with emotive and focused musicianship. Singer Riley Gale harkens back to an older 80’s Metal frontman, almost as if thawed out from some kind of cryogenic slumber – preserved in time and propped up to perform without a soul telling him what the current year is.
As Americans, we are in the arduous predicament of traversing a cultural and political wasteland that is the modern Trumpocalypse. My one trepidation in traveling to Paris was the perception of the French people towards Americans. In the pockets of feedback and hum between Power Trip songs, singer Riley Gale put to light what I hope is the true spirit of America and moreover extended it to the people of Paris in attendance that night – stopping me in my tracks and setting me to a confident calm – Gale announced to the crowd “…when I think of Paris, I think of knowledge and power…”. This validating the notion that present-day concerts don’t have to be phoned in. Through singer Gales words, the band Power Trip showed in that single moment that they transcended not only the medium but the genre and perhaps even the convention of live concerts. This was enough to garner my immediate respect for this band. Deep Ellum stock rises yet again. Vive le Power Trip.
Sadly, the true sin and sentence for Trivium on this night might be contained within the lore of Friday the 13th itself. Some believe that the number 13 is bad luck for religious reasons as depicted in a Da Vinci painting showing twelve disciples sitting around a table with Christ at his last supper. Others believe a lesser known theory telling of a Roman Catholic Pope fast-tracking an edict on Friday the 13th ordering the summary execution of the order known as the Knights Templar. Truth be revealed, I was at this show first and foremost because I was vacationing in Paris, secondly, I wanted to lay eyes on this venue. Having shot Trivium at Rock on the Range in Ohio some years ago, they were much further down the list of priorities. Trivium had a Sisyphusian task ahead.
The house lights drop for the last time as the final band hits the stage. Security herds the now doubled in size group of photographers to stage front. Iron Maidens’ track “Run to the Hills” begins playing on the house P.A. as if some type of misguided symbolic promise to the audience that greatness was on the horizon. From my vantage point just below the center stage monitor, I see the figures of guitar techs and musicians scurrying about in the darkness from both sides of the stage. The band emerges from a bed of fog and slowly raising light. Trivium’s set begins. It became evident by the end of the second song (Throes of Perdition) that bassist Paolo Gregoletto was having issues with his gear. As the second song ends singer Matt Heafy attempts to stall for time while a roadie runs new cables and replaces a pedal on the board located at Paolo’s feet. Alas nothing worked. Continuing to stall, Heafy remarked, “…we don’t need the bassist anyway, let’s just keep going…”. Trivium played on for the next four songs without half of their rhythm section on stage. Seemingly unrelated to anything Friday the 13th based, Trivium’s set continued but not without a series of strange oddities. It was clear that micromanaging security was on singer Matt Heafy mind. From where I was standing in the security pit the crowd surfers were rolling over the barricade in typical Metal show fashion. Singer Heafy would frequently stop his rockstar posing and/or singing to walk to the end of the stage to yell at security. Heafy repeatedly showed his frustration by making angry faces and waving his arms or wagging his finger in a manifestation of angry disapproval. Time after time he kept yelling at security seemingly to convince the staff they were not doing their job – which thankfully they all uniformly ignored. From where I stood this action was entirely unnecessary and was completely distracting from the show as a whole. Long periods of standing around without playing drew the energy of the show to a standstill. Because of this I quickly lost interest in Trivium’s’ show.
Amid Heafy’s in-between-song-smug-toss-away comments and his cliché grandstanding and overly distracting Gene Simmons-esque tongue posing during each vocal break in a song, I found the singer’s actions overly distracting and diverting from the music itself. After only two and a half songs into Trivium’s’ set, my thoughts drifted away to the oddity of the band’s performance. I remember distinctly saying aloud in a normal room voice (although muted by the 120 decibels pummeling across the room) “…Nah, I’m good…” and I left the photo pit before I was even asked to. I had the images I came for.
After a long day of tomb, tunnel, corpse and cemetery exploration these two Californians were cooked. I took a handful of pictures of Blanca standing at the lobby wall as we left Le Bataclan. We made our way back to the Latin Quarter by train. A night of escargot (snails) and foie gras (duck liver) were ahead – all magnificent French flavors washed down with several pints of French traditional Belgian beer (the French are not known for their beer). With a love in our heart for singer Riely Gales comments and an L’Esprit du Clan song in our hearts, Blanca and I were complete in knowing that this night would not end in disappointment for our stomachs or livers. Thank you Le Bataclan, Power Trip, Venom Prison and Metal fans of Paris – Prost!
Over the next four days, we would visit Leonardo da Vinci’s special lady Mona Lisa in the massive and endless Louvre Museum. Then it was off to the Pantheon to see the final resting place of my favorite philosopher, Voltaire. A ninety-minute train ride northwest would take us to Rouen, the city where Joan of Arc was interrogated, tortured and tried for heresy – found guilty – then burned at the stake (the actual spot where this took place nearly 600 years ago is now a small garden with a single wooden plaque). Just north of Paris in the town of Giverny is the home and garden estate of the late French impressionist painter Claude Monet. The immaculate and lush foliage around the grounds is where the artist drew inspiration for his most famous works. My photography didn’t capture the grandeur or serenity of this enchanting place, I tried to no avail. (Google Monet paintings for reference)
France is open in every sense of the word. Parisians are welcoming to everyone in a way the feels like family or at the very least a close and protective community. The city of Paris is as diverse as a major metropolitan city like Manhattan or San Francisco yet with the personal touch, flavor or gravitas of a smaller city like Austin Texas. To walk the streets of Rue Mouffetard (one of the city’s oldest roads dating back to Roman times) or to stand at the wall in front of the Palais de Chaillot to look out onto the Eiffel Tower is a must not just for music fans, fans of Trivium, Power Trip or Venom Prison….but for any soul on this planet during their lifetime. The beauty and essence of Paris often elude even words. Paris you ask? C’est Bon! – \m/ \m/
All photos © Ramar Lumière Photography