"How about this, huh? Is this too goddamn big for you?"
Employees with bullhorns were scattered across the Ak-Chin Pavilion parking lot. Their amplified voices squawked at the waves of incoming concert attendees, warning them that chairs, blankets, bags, and purses would not be allowed on the premises. Having none of the above on my person, I wasn't fazed by their declarations. But quite a few of my fellow concert-goers were not so stoic about this development. Like the lady waving her burgundy purse in one of the bullhorn bearer's face.
"Is. My. Purse. Too. Big?"
Every word was punctuated with a jab of the purse toward the bullhorn lady. Her purse never connected with the other woman's body, but it seemed to get closer and closer each time. Displaying the patience of a saint, bullhorn lady notified her that yes, as a matter of fact, that was indeed a purse and it was too big to bring inside the venue.
Other folks streaming toward the gates grumbled about the no blankets/chairs rule. By the sounds of it, most of them were lawn ticket holders. But security guards, flanked by an unusually large police presence, insisted that this was all for our own protection.
I got to my seat as Thrice were wrapping up their set. The sun was setting as they played their last song. The bass throbbed hard enough to rumble my stomach, and the guitars chimed as the band were enveloped in a purple mist that swirled onstage.
A pair of large screens were set up onstage for Rise Against's set. By this time, the venue was packed. The air was a bit humid. Looking ahead of me, I could see a sea of people tugging at their black shirts, prying their clothing loose from sticky patches of sweat.
Rise Against got onstage as their dual screens played a short animated film. Using a palette of deep black and red, it depicted a squadron of fighter jets dropping bombs, with shark teeth painted on their tips, on a family. They would later screen more quick shorts, which involved a fleet of tanks duking it out with some plucky street urchins. These shorts were the most visually and theatrically interesting things to happen during Rise Against's set.
The band opened with "Ready To Fall." They played with earnest intensity: brows furrowed, veins popping, jaws clenched. They played a long set that seemed to have most of the crowd riveted, but I was bored out of my mind.
Here's the thing: Rise Against basically have one song. Everything they played that night sounded like that one song. There was little in the way of shifting moods, dynamics, or tempos; aside from an acoustic number near the end, every song was a Xerox of the one before it. All hard-driving, well-meaning rock songs that sounded like they were recorded after the band hit a fire sale for a warehouse selling guitars, wo-oah choruses, and generic platitudes.
It isn't a sin to be a one-trick pony in music. So long as the one trick is great, you're golden. But Rise Against's one trick isn't on the level of a "Blitzkrieg Bop" or an "Ace of Spades." It isn't even on the level of that one hit Sugar Ray kept trying to rewrite with diminishing returns.
To make matters worse, Rise Against's frontman took a couple of moments to address the crowd with some hilariously vague uplifting sentiments. He seemed like a nice guy, but when he talked about what it meant to be an American in 2017, it sounded so amorphous it was like the aural equivalent of a Rorschach blot. I'm not saying singers need to start dropping policy deets during their "we need to rise above and come together" stage banter. But, man. If you're going to say something, say something. Give us some specifics. You don't have to go Full Bono, but a few extra details about what you're thinking and what you stand for would be nice.
And when he threw another ink blot speech out later in the evening, saying "This next song isn't an answer to the world's problems, it's a sigh of exasperation in the face of the world's problems" as he pulled out an acoustic guitar, it became apparent that I wasn't the only one who wasn't having this shit. The dudes behind me groaned out loud through his speech, one of them vehemently muttering "Shut the fuck up! Shut the fuck up and play already!" I had to fight every cell in my body that was telling me to turn around and hug those dudes in solidarity.
After Rise Against finished their set, the crew quickly scooted the big screens offstage and got things ready for Deftones. I was stoked to see them play. Partially in the hopes that they would end this evening on a good note, and also to see if my faith in them would be rewarded.
Confession time: I used to really like nu-metal. Korn and Limp Bizkit were totally my jam in high school.
I was horny and dumb and white. And no music on Earth was hornier, dumber, and whiter than nu-metal. As a genre, it was a flaming trash barge. Ninety-nine percent of it was so heinous that making someone listen to it for extended periods of time would be considered a violation of the Geneva Conventions.
Deftones, though, were the exception to the rule.
I quickly got rid of all my Korn, Drowning Pool, and P.O.D. CDs as I got older, but my copies of Around The Fur and White Pony stayed safe and snug in my CD booklet. They were the one great band to emerge from that movement, the one group who continued to be relevant and produced quality work long after the rest of their peers shuffled off to new careers as born-again Christians and body piercers. They were a nu-metal group that you could believe in.
Deftones' set was night and day compared to Rise Against's. I honestly can't remember the last time I saw a show with two headlining bands where one group so effortlessly outclassed the other.
While Rise Against's most compelling stage presence was their dual screens, Chino Moreno had enough energy and charm for both bands. The singer would climb onto his monitors and lead the crowd in waves. As they played "My Own Summer," he leaned over the barricade to sing into the faces of the fans pressed closest to the stage. He would hold their hands and share the mic with them, letting them shout "shove it, shove it, shove it!" back at him.
One devoted fan whipped out a red handkerchief to wipe the sweat off Moreno's brow. He's apparently pretty cool with random strangers harvesting his sweat. He doesn't fear the possibility that that fan might go back to their cloning lab and produce an army of Moreno doppelgangers.
Deftones played a set that bounced back and forth across their large (and fairly consistent) discography.
I was thrilled that they played several White Pony numbers, including a ferociously loud version of "Knife Party" and an atmospheric rendition of "Change (In the House of Flies)" that got the crowd on their feet and out of their minds.
Their live sound was loud and sloppy, but in a good way. Guitars and vocals would occasionally battle for dominance in the mix, while the DJ and rhythm section maintained a steady, hard-as-nails pulse throughout the whole show.
The band plays as a cohesive, lively unit. They didn't phone in their big hits, and played their newer songs with as much enthusiasm and energy as they did with their crowd pleasers. But the star of the show, as it is on their records, is Moreno's voice. It's the special ingredient that made the band stand out from the rest of the nu-metal horde.
It's a versatile instrument, able to turn on a dime from high-pitched horror movie shrieks to low croons that slither and stretch like snakes. Moreno's voice insinuates, like the honeyed tongue of a devil convincing you to sign on the dotted line. Whereas most other nu-metal singers barked and screamed and thumped their chests, he was just as content to purr and whisper. That gave the band's music a seductive and sinister quality you couldn't find on a Korn record. And while he could still scream with the best of them, he didn't sound aggro or caveman-ish. It was music that had balls, but didn't feel the need to constantly wave its dick in your face.
Aside from Moreno's impressive singing and his command of the stage, sheer variety also separated Deftones from Rise Against at Ak-Chin. The songs alternated from bursts of Red Bull-fueled aggression to tunes with slow, dreamy textures that sounded like shoegaze. Moreno would croon on one song, rap on another, and then scream bloody murder. It was hard to predict what they would play next.
After playing a vicious version of "Be Quiet And Drive," the band prepared for their next song while bathed in lights that were nicotine-stain yellow.
Moreno started spinning the mic in circles around his body. We could hear the mic do a hard thwack each time it hit the stage floor. Moreno kept doing it, spinning it so the thwacks developed their own kind of rhythm before the whole band playing again. It was the sort of mic work that would probably give any sound guy an aneurysm, but it was a thrilling moment. The sort of thing that you just don't see at shows. That was the essential difference between the two bands. Rise Against didn't surprise me, whereas Deftones kept confounding my expectations.
I headed back to my car with ringing in my ears. It was such a good set that the ringing started to sound like applause. Hundreds of tiny hands clapping inside my ears. I knew it would make me look like a freak, but I had to stop in my tracks and clap along with them for a moment.
Last Night: Deftones, Rise Against, and Thrice at Ak-Chin Pavilion in Phoenix.
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The Crowd: Tons of hard rock fans in Deftones and Rise Against shirts, a few brave souls dressed head to toe in long-sleeve black clothing, and a flock of tattooed girls wearing "Girls With Tattoos Do It Better" shirts. Didn't see a tattooed girl with a tattoo of a tattooed girl wearing a "Girls With Tattoos Do It Better" shirt, unfortunately. Pretty sure there's a square for that on Hard Rock Concert Bingo cards.
Overheard: "Prince Rogers Nelson is alive again today!" Chino Moreno said. The Purple One got showered with love by Deftones. They played his sweet synth-y nastiness before their set, and gave him a couple of shoutouts during the show. I'm also pretty sure Moreno quoted a line from Q-Tip's "Excursions" during his stage banter. Wasn't expecting Deftones to be repping both Prince and A Tribe Called Quest so hard, but that's just how they roll.
Random Notebook Dump: I helped a drunk dude find his phone. He locked me in a grateful hug before I had a chance to evade his sweaty grasp. His shirt was so saturated with sweat it felt like I was hugging a silkscreen. A print of his body's sweat now hangs on top of my sweaty shirt like a Warhol "original."