“Hello, you fucked-up Phoenix maniacs that we’ve come to know and love! How are you?” bellowed Exodus vocalist Steve “Zetro” Souza as surveyed the crowd clustered in front of the stage. He shaded his eyes from the harsh green lighting and squinted. I followed his gaze to the back of Joe’s Grotto, near the bar, an area that I rarely see deserted during metal shows. Then the legendary thrash metal band launched into its second song of a blistering 90-minute set. “Blood in, Blood out,” the title track from Exodus' 2014 release, immediately garnered a reaction from the crowd.
“Blood in!” chanted the crowd, pumping their fists. “Blood out!” A mosh pit started near the stage, and a fan in a wheelchair gamely pushed people along as they were thrown into the outskirts of the crowd.
This year marks 30 years since the release of Exodus' first album, Bonded by Blood, thrash metal’s classic blueprint. And the deliciously indulgent set Exodus provided Tuesday was part of a historical run for the band (currently on the road supporting King Diamond on its “Abigail in Concert 2015") tour. The Phoenix stop was one of a several Exodus-only headlining dates. The night promised select tracks from the Exodus archives, as well as Blood In, Blood Out songs performed for the first time, and some extra surprises thrown in. For the Phoenix metal fans who showed up, it was a killer show that might go down as one of my favorites of 2015.
The fact that the venue was only half-full blew my mind. Where the hell were Phoenix's metal fans?
The crowd was gathered front and center to experience an array of Exodus songs in the tight, perfectly honed interactive live format that Exodus is known for, and Joe’s Grotto is an intimate space for such a legendary band. Almost a year ago, I saw the band open for Slayer and Suicidal Tendencies at Comerica Theatre, and a large group of fans left that sold-out show after getting their Exodus fill.
The band surged into “Children of a Worthless God” and “Piranha,” slowly but surely whipping the mostly middle-aged crowd into a frenzy.
Alongside Metallica, Testament, and Death Angel, Exodus is credited as a pioneer of the Bay Area thrash metal scene, selling more than 5 million albums. Although the band has been through its fair share of members over the years, the current lineup was tight and relaxed. The members utilize every square inch of the stage, and you can tell they love what they do. Drummer Tom Hunting and bassist Jack Gibson provide a meaty, commanding base, while guitarists Lee Altus and Kragen Lum (Heathen guitarist filling in for Gary Holt, who's slaying with Slayer overseas on tour) shred with ease together, and many of the lyrics projected by Souza ("You aim for someone’s head to stain the floor red / Don’t start to cry, if you get a black eye / Just dive back in and give another try," from "The Toxic Waltz") tie together the heavy metal hooliganism.
Souza, who hasn’t been featured on an album since 2004 and rejoined the band in 2014, has a powerful stage presence. His character truly showed through, whether it was in his constant eye contact with the crowd, huge smiles, and welcome photo ops.
“We’ve been here a few times in the past year, and we thank you for giving us this crazy psycho energy!” Souza commented on the palpable buzz in the air. “Our sets always get cut short because we open for a lot of amazing bands. So tonight, we’ll be playing a lot of things you have heard — and a lot you haven’t. Are you ready?”
The crowd showed its appreciation with dozens of horns up, cheers, and whistles before introduced “The Ballad of Leonard and Charles,” from 2010’s Exhibit B: The Human Condition. And I glanced at the human condition of the fans around me.
As a band that garnered a loyal following in late ’80s and throughout the ’90s, it’s no surprise that I was one of the youngest fans in attendance. The majority was in their 40s and barely drinking. Headbangers were in the minority.
Okay, so it’s a Tuesday night, and the show wasn’t due to be over until close to midnight. The show also wasn’t advertised much . . . unless you read my Best Metal Concerts for November. But Phoenix metal fans are no strangers to midweek metal shows all over the Valley. And a legendary band like Exodus? I couldn’t believe there wasn’t a better showing of younger metal fans. As Joe Grotto himself mentioned to me a bit later, "Let’s hope it’s not a glimpse at what’s to come in heavy metal’s future.” With such a large fan presence missing, I couldn’t help asking a few fans around me about their love for Exodus and thoughts on the turnout.
“Honestly, I think it’s because it’s the middle of the week, and most of their fans are older. Jobs, families, things like that,” said Erik Kruis. “I haven't seen them since the mid-’90s. My buddy works here at Joe’s, so I heard they were playing.”
“Exodus is my favorite! I'm from New York and I love the type of people who surround themselves with metal. That’s why I’m here tonight,” said a tall, dark-haired beauty named Veronica, who ended her comment with a huge hug and roaring metal growl.
Halfway through the set, the crowd was officially pumped up. “Impaler,” from 2004’s Tempo of the Damned, and “Exodus,” from the band’s debut album saw another mosh pit break out, full of men and women who could’ve easily been at one of the concerts supporting the album’s release.
Souza relentlessly thanked the crowd throughout the night, at one point asking how many had seen Exodus before. The majority ruled.
All in all, the set list consisted of more than more than 20 songs, including jams like “Body Harvest,” “Strike of the Beast,” “Bonded by Blood,” “A Lesson in Violence,” “The Toxic Waltz,” and “Blacklist.” The band was on point all night and provided a killer concert.
“This is my third time seeing Exodus. The band brings the heat: When it comes to thrash, there has to be a special recipe, and it's so chaotic; Exodus shows that beauty within the chaos,” said a man known as “Thrash Master Scratch.” “There are very few bands that give themselves fully and indulge all their passion. Exodus’ trade is extraordinary.”
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The Crowd: A modern-day Airheads gathering of mostly middle-aged fans. Lots of long graying hair, and ’80s heavy metal vests with Motörhead and Slayer patches. I've also never seen so many metalheads with professional cameras.
Overheard in the Crowd: “In my opinion, the Big Four should be the Big Five, with Exodus.”
Personal Bias: Though I wish there was more representation of the younger local metal scene, I have to admit I loved experiencing Exodus in a setting packed like sardines.
Setlist: Ha! Do you really think a thrash metal band is going to submit a formal setlist?