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It's not exactly like unraveling there's no Santa Claus, but it's not unlike it, either. When a friend tells you about a three-day festival of stoner rock and doom metal and mentions that the organizer is a guy by the name of Ancient Rob, your thoughts naturally gravitate toward the old Druid on the cover of Led Zeppelin IV.
But as it turns out, 43-year-old Rob Levey ain't that ancient, nor is he particularly doomy. When you look up his inevitable MySpace page, you see a whimsical picture of a guy in a human jukebox costume tooting on a cornet, which turns out not to be him, either. I never actually meet Ancient Rob in the flesh, more because of scheduling conflicts than a need for him to preserve an air of mystery.
"I'm at a weeklong seminar for my job," Levey says over the phone. "I work at a travel agency, and we learned some international stuff I just started this job five months ago, so I'm getting a little bit of training."
Who better to corral the stoner and doom set than a 9-to-5-er who gets up every morning and must fight the urge to wear the pentagram necktie? Besides, Levey has plenty of doom cred, accrued even before the first Stoner Hands of Doom festival was booked. For 13 years, he was the lead singer in a D.C. doom unit called Iron Man, which recorded for the Hellhound label with like-minded acts raised on Black Sabbath, such as Internal Void and Count Raven. Having toured extensively in those years, he sees the need for something like Stoner Hands of Doom. With his wife Cheryl handling administrative duties behind the scenes, the Leveys' SHoD festivals have been held in Youngstown, Ohio; Portland, Oregon; Dallas; and, of course, Phoenix.
"When we started it, there wasn't really anything out there to showcase underground bands like there was in Europe," Levey says. "My goal was to get a bunch of bands that you wouldn't normally see, that weren't easy to see because they weren't out there touring all the time."
San Francisco doom merchants Acid King, one of the featured acts at the Dallas SHoD, is on the Phoenix bill for the closing night's "black ceremony." Singer and guitarist Lori S. remembers the previous event fondly as three days and nights of concentrated manic energy, gravel-gut bellows and sludgelike tempos with a nice community feel to it. Huh?
"Music lovers get to see all their favorite bands that play the kind of music they like all in one place, bands they might not even know about," she says. "There's the socialization thing they can meet other people they've talked to on the Internet that they've never met. I know a lot of people are staying at one hotel; it's a big social gathering where people that have a common love for the same music get drunk and have a good time."
For an underground band like Acid King that's released three albums in 11 years, SHoD is a nice whistle stop. "We went to Europe and Japan, but we haven't toured the States in five years," Lori S. says. "We've done small little trips, but not across the entire U.S. I like to tour once a year, but now because of gas prices, it's barely affordable. For our kind of band, it's not all that glamorous. We all have jobs. Our music is a big part of our lives, but it's not the part that makes us rent money. If you're a band driving towards a certain goal of getting really big, you have to tour 300 days a year. None of us has any desire to do that. We like to play and write our songs; we do it for ourselves. Our goal isn't to become number one."
That sort of manifest destiny seems in keeping with the slacker sentiment of stoner rock. While everyone seems pretty clear on the boundaries of doom rock, the stoner category encompasses everything from Fu Manchu to Hawkwind.
"I come from a slower, little more depressive side that's what I was into originally," Levey says. "But then when I started listening to the stoner rock Kyuss was probably the best known band I realized I dig that, too. It's got a more '70s feel to it. [Now], you've got local bands like Greenhaven and Graves at Sea. I think the genre has spread to a mix of old punk rock and old rock 'n' roll with newer equipment [and a] newer sound to it."
The big overriding question of how much drugs there are at a stoner and doom festival is one everyone must answer for him or herself. The vendors sell indie music, not roach clips or bong freshener. Headquarters will probably raffle off some ginormous bong, but the confinement inside a bar ensures that you won't see the naked chick on acid getting passed around that's the staple of any outdoor rock festival footage.
"Pot is a real gray area," Levey says. "As far as smoking, most people are gonna go by what the club is like. Usually, we'll see something out back and outside the club. The one we did two years ago, these guys from Portland did some melonball shooters, but I think they had something else in them that they were selling at the club. I never got one myself, but I heard they were a lot of fun."