Volbeat at Irving Plaza by Kyle Andrukiewicz aka Rock(jock)*
It was difficult not to attend Volbeat’s headlining show at Irving Plaza without a hefty dose of skepticism. Face it—while Lars Ulrich’s endorsement largely helped the band gained notoriety here in States, it doesn’t inspire confidence. Most know Ulrich better for his ignominious crusade against Napster than any musical accomplishment and even die-hard Metallica fans (such as yours truly) have a hard time liking him. Not to mention, Volbeat’s latest effort, Beyond Heaven/Above Hell, seems to meander in the generic sea of heavy rockabilly on radio these days. These things mean little though. Live shows determine a band’s true worth and whether they have staying power. To actually see the craftsmanship and care some musicians put into what they do can and will completely alter the way you listen to their music. If last night was any indication, Volbeat will stick around for a good, long time and mainstream music is better for it.
It took a while to reach that conclusion though, thanks to the opening act Hourcast. They only fueled fears that the night would showcase nothing but pre-packaged, radio-ready music. They looked akin to bands like Sixx-A.M. and Hinder and played a watered down nu-rock in the vein of a poor man’s Atomship. The songs all sounded the same, each kicking off with decently heavy power chords which were always abandoned in favor of bland melodic hooks. All of this was only made worse by the band’s blasé attitude and complete disregard for their job as the opening act. Rather than priming the crowd for the following bands, Hourcast displayed a sense of entitlement, as though they believed everyone came to see them. Things did not bode well for the rest of the night, especially considering the next act’s pedigree.
The Damned Things struck fear in the hearts of Every Time I Die fans everywhere when news of their formation first hit. The inimitable Keith Buckley decided to team-up with the sell-outs from Fall Out Boy and has-beens from Anthrax. Regardless of your feelings on either band, you can’t deny Fall Out Boy panders to pop radio while this generation knows Scott Ian more for his appearances on VH1 than any musical contributions. But notwithstanding Hourcast, The Damned Things introduced what would become the night’s theme—trashing pre-conceived notions and exceeding expectations.
Knowing their diverse backgrounds, the members seemed out of place standing next to each other at first but as the set went on, they began to coalesce. Buckley, as always, shined as the consummate frontman. Despite his showmanship, he somehow still appeared sincere and unpretentious, even going so far as to crack a beer during the second song’s solo and nonchalantly admire his bandmates while they showed their stuff in the spotlight that Buckley had no problem sharing. The rest of the band deserves the attention too with sufficiently technical displays by a surprisingly skilled Andy Hurley on drums and a still shred-tastic Rob Caggiano. Even Scott Ian entertained, contributing to the infectious energy exuded by a band that doesn’t need success thanks to their main projects but rather perform together for the simple joy of it. The aura even managed to engage an audience clearly in attendance for one thing—Volbeat.
While this marks the band’s first headlining tour here in the U.S., fans clearly knew them well already, launching into two “Vol-beat” chants before the set. Opening for Metallica will do that but it will also invite a lot of comparisons. In Volbeat’s case though, the similarities are warranted and well-earned. The production on Beyond Heaven/Above Hell never showcases this talent but it turns out Volbeat builds crescendos just as well as their mentors. Songs like “The Mirror and the Ripper” play so much better live where you can hear (and feel!) the rhythmic verses gallop unstoppably towards a thunderous, climatic chorus where frontman Michael Poulsen displays a vocal range his counterpart James Hetfield can only dream of. Volbeat may lack the deceptively deep lyrics Hetfield used to publicly cope with a lifetime of familial resentment but then again, Volbeat isn’t after that. The band’s charm lies in their ability to relate with the common man. Their catchy and memorable anthems embrace the fun-lovin’, whiskey-drinkin’, good-ol’ boy style Metallica spectacularly failed to capture during Garage, Inc. It comes as no surprise either, considering Poulsen confessed to a strong influence from music’s first and best everyman—Johnny Cash.
Volbeat went out of their way to point out those influences so as to distinguish themselves from the bands they find themselves wrongfully lumped together with. Early on Poulsen remarked, “Just so you know, we're not fucking Nickelback." While no one could ever confuse Volbeat with that four chord atrocity, the sentiment led a fellow concertgoer to poignantly comment, “I like anybody that hates Nickelback.” And that is where Volbeat starts to win you over. Again, while the comparison is baseless, it demonstrates a certain level of self-awareness on Volbeat’s part and shows they aspire to more.
The Danish rockers only further endeared themselves through the genuine joy they displayed in putting on such a lively performance. The band treated the audience like a fifth member of the band, both figuratively and literally, inviting some lucky fans up onto the stage for the song “Thanks.” The whole experience brought to light something many critics forget in their jaded snobbery. Bands that cater to the masses but have the talent to warrant their popularity help introduce their audiences to the music those people might otherwise never encounter. The Every Time I Dies, Maylenes and the Sons of Disaster, and Protest the Heros of the world need the exposure commercially viable but still artistically satisfying bands like Volbeat provides for the genre. If that combination opens the door to the wonderful, wide world of metal just beyond the surface for even a handful of Volbeat’s fans, then consider me one too.