STRIKEOUT AT THE SMOKEOUT: DEFTONES, JIM ROOT RULE WEED FEST
It’s easy to be jaded after attending a billion or so live shows, but climbing the hill up to San Manuel Amphitheatre, the site of Cypress Hill’s MetalSucks co-sponsored SmokeOut festival, I was transformed into a gawking greenhorn. (I would soon be treated like one, as well.) Behind my rib cage, calm battled with rising euphoria, and not only because I stood with a hefty joint in my shoe at the gates of a tri-county puff-athon on the nicest late-October Saturday ever; mostly, I was just tweaking to look in on a magnificent but savagely wounded band at this early stage of recovery. Yes, the SmokeOut would feature the Deftones, who have played around ten shows since an auto accident left their bassist, Chi Cheng, in a coma. And despite the puzzling news that to-be sixth album Eros had been shelved, the band already had been showing positive signs and seemed poised to reintroduce themselves via a violent new song (“Rocket Skates”) and a spritely, newly-slimmed singer (the gossip had Chino Moreno at anywhere between twenty and eighty pounds lighter). Exciting!
Two hours later, right before the Deftones took the stage, night had fallen, the denizens of the cheap seats waded ankle-deep in litter, and I was pissed off as shit.
First, hours before at the gate, I flashed a grin and my press tags while surveying the security situation. Maybe my prediction was right: low-impact policing; the blind eye, not the evil eye. The checks of my electronic stuff were cursory – after all, sun-baked staffers had already processed nearly 30,000 concertgoers – so doing an about-face for the pat-down, I inattentively began to wonder about the ways in which Deftones would acknowledge the absence of the seriously injured Chi Cheng (help Chi here DBAA). Would there be a quick shout-out? A weepy dedication? A chant would be nice, or anything that would parcel a wave of positive energy detectable to even Cheng in his semi-conscious state. That’s what I was thinking when, with all the violence of an electrocution, my reverie was ended by a flattened palm on my chest and the words: “What else do you have?”
Stricken, I whirled around to see my fatty excavated from my shoe and quivering alone on a folding table among absolutely no other seized contraband. (Shouldn’t there’ve been a veritable Everest of shwag, pipes, and whippits?) The security guy remained unmoved when I loudly cursed his betrayal, and scooping up my belongings, I stomped up the ramp. Fucker. (Confidential to that security guy: Dude, seriously. I saw your girlfriend get dwarf-banged on the internet. And you have dickbreath.)
This wasn’t my first time: I was forced to abandon my dug-out at the Rush show last summer, but this was going to be way worse and hours longer. Even the setting mocked my woe: Enclosed by desert mountains and domed by sunset-lit clouds, the Amphitheatre compensated the low-budget fan with a staggering view of the serene southern California afternoon – if not of the distant stage. Obviously, I first resolved to, y’know, just have fun though unstoned – stranger things have happened – and I don’t need to detail how my efforts were continuously undermined by the presence of 30,000 people all smoking weed in my goddamn face. And these were not little secret joints either; the grass seating was a lawless zone where I saw dudes ripping a bong for the love of Geoff. But my gang couldn’t muster even one woman to covertly transport our instruments of weed, so there I was, more alone than Omega Man in a fucking Tim Burton movie as B-Real from Cypress Hill dragged on a ludicrously oversized novelty doober. Sized roughly equal to a police baton, the giga-joint nearly felled poor Sen Dog, who became the first in a series of guys too baked to play music in front of an ocean of bloodshot eyeballs.
And then came the garbage fires. It’s hard to tell if fans were being festive or if they had tired of wading through a dry pond of discarded pizza cartons and drink cups. Either way, my night had just gotten worse as I began to be assailed by hot toxic fumes. Stumbling toward the concourse, it hit me that I’d then already suffered two smoke-outs, neither the titular/good kind. My despair continued down at the blaze-free V.I.P. floor, where the air hung with the unmistakable poopiness of either excellent or awful weed. (I almost hyper-ventilated from gulping at the secondhand.) I kept ribbing nearby staff and stuffy photogs by stage-whispering “Hey man. Just a heads up but you totally smell like weed. Like, bad.”
To my shame, my humor was mean-spirited but served to keep me from the edge of tears. But, as always, a Deftones show cures all ills. The set opened with “Rocket Skates,” and from three feet away (plus six feet beneath) the band, I could see the rumors were true: Moreno was back to fighting weight, and also, he was in Around The Fur-era singing shape. Moreno, it seemed, wanted to be everywhere on stage, and barely cut himself short of Rollins-style rocking out, especially face-to-face with the equally energetic Sergio Vega on Cheng’s side of the stage. Guitarist Steph Carpenter, however, began the show mostly facing backstage and under the watch of effects guy Frank Delgado from his perch. (A gregarious Moreno helpfully pointed out that Carpenter either had forgotten the intro to “Back To School” or, to paraphrase, was high beyond belief.)
But Carpenter didn’t sound stoned, and by front-loading the set with “Lotion,” “Elite,” and “Knife Prty,” the band issued itself a challenge to maintain the feel of that explosive first act. But even when the tempo dipped (“When Girls Telephone Boys” then “Passenger”), the intensity – propelled by Carpenter and egregiously underrated drummer Abe Cunningham – did not. You’ll recall how the overloaded 2004 Deftones allowed brisk oldies like “Root” and “Nosebleed” to sag. On this night, the effect was that of a detonated atom bomb; and Moreno, not one to be a weak link, hit every note and searing scream. Poorly placed as the second-to-last song, only the plodding “Change (In The House of Flies)” sapped momentum, especially since it required Moreno’s return to the stage after spending “Hexagram” atop the crowd. For a band in limbo, this set was a statement: It may not be the same band without Chi Cheng, but it’s a motherfucking awesome band anyway.
Following the Hitchcockian thriller that is the Deftones, Slipknot represented the slasher flick replete with ham-fisted machismo, dimestore populism, and goofy scares. If Elise at Reign In Blonde is averse to pre-recorded stage intros, she’d need sedation to tolerate Slipknot’s spooky CSI tones, followed by “Running With The Devil” in toto, then the trickle of masked men who leisurely took the stage. (Guitarist Mick Thomson spent the silent moments growling and toting invisible suitcases.) Maybe I was projecting my weed-anger, but singer Corey Taylor’s stage banter seemed puzzling and disjointed, as though B-Real’s 12-gauge joint had struck again backstage. Sample: “I gotta be brutally fucking honest here … we love playing for you guys.” Um, okay. Thanks for giving it to us straight.
Though the trimmings and flair have evolved, at heart Slipknot’s live machine remains unchanged since 2000: nine menacing guys who display little regard for their own safety. It’s fun to watch. But beneath that, they are victims of identity crisis, as though there are multiple sets of masks, instruments, and men; between the ripping, brain-free semi-metal (“[Sic]”, “People = Shit”) and the suspiciously safe, snappy hard rock (“Before I Forget,” “Duality”), the stage was hijacked by whiny balladeers with feelings and needs (“Vermillion pt. 2”, “Dead Memories”).
There may actually be 27 members of Slipknot, but the important thing is that the Kobe Bryant of this team is guitarist Jim Root. Unlike his bandmates, Root didn’t stalk or menace from his stage center-right position; instead, his body formed an inverted capital Y, knees pointed. His head-banging style wouldn’t be out of place on the 1988 Sunset Strip; his chin continuously traced a V, his perfect mane of hesher hair trailing as he showed us one cheek then the other. (Think “Down Boys” video.) In a night sadly devoid of guitar fireworks, Root’s brief solos served as high points, especially set against the imagination-free zone that is Slipknot rhythm guitar. I actually spoke the words “Damn, Root is sexy!” and spent a fanciful instant wondering if, for all I knew, behind the mask he actually was a woman. A wealthy, svelte metalhead with perfect hair playing the shit out of a guitar – it’s a beautiful dream. Or maybe I was just ripped on garbage fumes.
Help Chi Cheng here.