Motorhead, February 16, 2011: Shows I’ll Never Forget

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Motorhead’s co-founding guitarist Fast Eddie Clarke, who died after a bout with pneumonia in January 2018, was long gone by the time I saw the group, but the spirit of Motorhead remained consistent, I think, because Lemmy Kilmister was at the helm throughout …

With Clutch and Valient Thorr, at Eagles Ballroom, Milwaukee, Wisconsin: My teaching colleagues reacted almost angrily to my unexpected announcement.

“Motorhead? You are going to see Motorhead?” “Hear them, more likely,” I replied.
“Why?” “I’ll regret it if I don’t.”
“What was their big hit? “They didn’t have one.”
[silence]
“‘Ace of Spades’ probably comes closest,” I finally said. “Never heard of it.”

And so the conversation was repeated with various people in the days before the concert.

“Who are you going with?” “Can’t find anybody who wants to go.”
“And you’re going anyway?” “Sure.”
“Why?” [See above … ]

Since I began to take heavy metal music more seriously a few years back, there were an increasing number of bands that I wanted to check out. Fortunately, Milwaukee is a good town for such explorations. The single thing that had the greatest impact on my change of attitude was SiriusXM’s Liquid Metal station, and especially Ian Christie’s informative program Bloody Roots. I listen to this show each week, learning quite a lot along the way.

Motorhead’s early ’80s live album No Sleep ’til Hammersmith had also alerted me to an area of rock that had been largely outside my experience. I knew guys who were into Black Sabbath back in high school, some 40 years ago, but the metal genre that Sabbath ushered in did not initially grab me. Years after its release, I was unexpectedly impressed when a friend played me the Hammersmith album.

Motorhead was among the bands I most wanted to see, in part, because I knew Lemmy and his guys wouldn’t be around forever. I needed to witness what I thought of as a classic metal band. Lemmy himself never seemed comfortable with the “metal” tag, stressing that his band “played rock and roll.” No matter the name, his music differed considerably from the elder statesman bands of hard rock such as the Who, Deep Purple, or even Led Zeppelin. Motorhead was a different animal. Clever lyrics, a la Pete Townshend? Why bother? A strong melody? What’s that? A vocalist like Robert Plant? Unimportant in this context.

This recalls a friend’s astute analysis: “Some people can’t get past the fact that vocals can be used as a rhythm instrument.” Good point. And he wasn’t talking about scat vocals. Lemmy Kilmister was indeed singing lyrics at this show, but I don’t think it mattered much. Still, the guy next to me apparently knew the words to every song; I could see his lips move. Also, Lemmy introduced the songs as being about certain things, so it’s clear they must have thematic substance. But I don’t think many people in the large crowd were there for the vocals. As I said to my wife upon returning home from the concert, “Remember Dylan’s performance at the Grammys? Bob sang like Jim Reeves compared to Motorhead’s Lemmy.”

I arrived at the show quite early, knowing I would have a substantial wait in front of me. I went to enjoy the full experience, including the venue. The Eagles Ballroom is a beautiful structure on Wisconsin Avenue, built in 1926. Acts from Glenn Miller to Buddy Holly played this hall in its earlier days. I had been there a few times during my 20 years as a Milwaukee resident to see performers including Wayne Hancock, Béla Fleck, and Kenny Wayne Shepherd.

Maybe it was because I scanned older than the target audience, but everybody working the hall could not have been nicer: “Use the side door please, sir.” “Do you have a ticket or do you need a ticket?” Professional folks. And because I was early, there was not a mad crush to get in. I was frisked by a large security guard at the entrance. He hit a solid mass in my coat pocket and looked at me quite surprised. “Binocs,” I said. He smiled and nodded. I was not the Droid they were after.

I wasn’t really sure how well Motorhead would draw. They are highly respected by the metal community, but they had played Milwaukee just over a year ago at this same venue. I worried they might be exhausting their drawing power. (My concerns were unfounded.) A review of their previous appearance stressed the aging nature of their audience, so I expected a large motorcycle contingent of tough guys and lots of leather. There was some of each, but not nearly as much leather gear as I had seen at an Emerson Lake and Palmer concert in Milwaukee a few years back.

Entering a smallish bar in the building’s basement, I was surprised to find a quartet already performing. Bag of Balls was the band’s name and I was pleased: At least there was some music from a live band to kick things off, and they were working hard. The room was crowded and too warm, but not terrible on either front. After about their sixth largely interchangeable number, Bag of Balls’ singer said something about Motorhead playing later in the adjacent room. Made sense; this was a pretty small stage for headliners.

I wandered over to the cavernous main room. This was the original, 25,000-square-foot oval wooden dance floor, now a standing area for those wanting to be near the musicians. Because I was there when the doors to this room opened, I walked to the steel mesh fence that separated the crowd from the stage by a few feet. I was arguably too close to the giant stacks of amplifiers.

The guy next to me had his earplugs in place, so I thought I would follow suit. Mine worked best if I had my stocking cap on, to keep the plugs from popping out of my ears. Before too long the first of the advertised groups took the stage. I was glad that they were making an effort to be on time: With three bands, I knew this would be a long night. The group’s name was Valient Thorr. I thought at first it might be sort of a joke name, a band with a sense of humor — willing to gently mock the very genre they also embrace. After all, they seemed clueless about the correct spelling of their own name and claimed to come from Venus. Then I thought that with a name like Valient Thorr, they might be a gay metal band. That would be cool — and something different! I’d welcome it. But I was wrong on that front, too. Everybody was very serious and starkly hetero about this music, Venusian or not.

Valient Thorr had the most stereotypical look of the night: very long and unkempt hair, prominent tattoos, and a flying V guitar! They employed the standard lineup of two guitars, bass, drums, and vocalist. I was directly in front of the lead guitarist, but the other guitar at the far end of the stage also seemed to be constantly soloing. The sound was loud, of course, but I was unable to distinguish what each instrument was playing.

Lyrics were largely unintelligible, but before the last song, the band’s vocalist directed the audience’s attention to the banner hanging behind the stage. “That’s not just some band logo,” he shouted. “That design symbolizes ‘Peace through rock and roll’!” OK, his heart was in the right place, it seemed. This impressed me much more than the tough guy Satan-worshipping attitude that some bands claim to embrace. Copping an attitude, as we used to say; or, I hope it’s just a promotional act. Maybe this is where a lack of intelligibility in the lyrics is an asset to enjoying the music.

As to musical genres and sub-genres, even the most popular of the so-called alternative country acts have admitted that labels are immaterial; they were struggling bands just trying to get their music heard. Jeff Tweedy of Wilco said that his seminal band Uncle Tupelo never billed itself as alt-country, but they weren’t going to argue if this tag helped sell records and get people to their concerts. Ralph Stanley never called his own music bluegrass, but if you bought a ticket he wouldn’t dispute the point with you. Perhaps the same is true of some musicians from the rock genre. If a band can sell records or fill concert halls by riding the tail of Satan, what the hell? (Literally.) Even so, none of the bands on this bill were actively proselytizing the audience on behalf of the devil.

Valient Thorr’s front man seemed very appreciative of having the opening spot on this leg of the tour. More than once he said how nice it was to “play the big stage” and to be opening for Motorhead. He told us to hold tight for Clutch, and then left to the same great enthusiasm which the crowd showed for their entire set. Even so, there was no chance of an encore on a night that had such a tightly packed schedule as this. That’s fine; I’d heard what Valient Thorr could do. The roadies were efficient: Monitors and drum sets switched out, the banner replaced at the rear of the stage. Mics checked, and here we go!

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Fred Phillips offers a personal tribute to the late Motorhead co-founder Lemmy Kilmister, a rock and roll legend who was one of a kind – warts and all.]

Clutch sauntered into view looking more like well-groomed construction workers than a rock band. Short hair, black T-shirts and black baseball caps, both without logos or demarcation — normal attire that would have been inconspicuous in its own audience that night. These guys came to play and, like the previous musicians, were deadly serious about what they were doing. A quartet, Clutch ripped through their 45-minute set. These guys were – well, if a band such as this can be subtle, they sometimes were. Still positioned near the front of the stage, I noticed that this guitarist took surprisingly slow, even thoughtful solos on his Les Paul. That, and he was dripping sweat from beneath his baseball cap from song one.

Unlike most of his rock-guitar contemporaries, Clutch’s Tim Sult had a very dark tone. Not dark like a Kenny Burrell fat-note jazz sound, but Sult played almost all of his solos down on the low E and A strings. This is very different from most guitarists who go screaming up past the high octave range on the B and high E strings. Refreshing. Restrained. Also, Sult was not trying to include every lick he knew on each solo: They were well paced, and I could clearly hear what he was playing.

Clutch had a better mix than the first band. At least, it sounded better to me through ear plugs and a wool cap. What an odd way to experience music. I felt sorry for some of the folks around me who had no ear protection. Live and learn. It took me a few days of ringing ears after several concerts in my youth to become convinced that ear safeguards might be worthwhile.

Speaking of which: This concert was certainly among the loudest shows I have attended, but not the loudest. My top concerts on that front belong to Grand Funk Railroad in Des Moines 1970, and the Doobie Brothers in St. Paul 1982. But the dubious winner (surprisingly) must go to Earth Wind and Fire in Ames, Iowa, 1977. That was a true soul review lineup — the Emotions, the Brothers Johnson, and Earth Wind and Fire. I wanted to enjoy it, but the sound at that show was like having ice picks stabbed into my ears.

Concerning this night’s volume levels, I was a little worried: If Clutch and Valient Thorr were this loud, then they may be saving the really high wattage for headlining Motorhead. And Lemmy’s band was loud, but they didn’t seem that much louder than the others. Of course, my ears were already numb by this point. I briefly removed an ear plug once or twice during the opening bands’ sets. Wow. The high end of the sound spectrum returned, but at what cost! So, I replaced the plugs and lived with muffled sound at a tolerable level. I do wonder what the decibel measurement would have been.

Both of the main stage opening bands were absolutely traditional in gear: Fender basses with four (not five) strings, all cords plugged into amplifiers (no wireless connections), drum sets with a single bass drum, and the requisite Gibson Les Pauls. No doubting the pedigree of the equipment! I also liked the fact that the guitarists stayed on one instrument all night. They had racks of other axes sitting nearby, but each guy had a guitar he liked and played it throughout the set. No switching around for special sounds or alternate tunings. No need. I interpreted that (rightly or wrongly) as performers who had few pretensions. Just play the thing. And while Les Paul guitars are a gold standard for many players, Marshall amplifiers are the long-favored weapons of choice for assaulting a crowd with loud music. And this stage had stacks galore of Marshall amps. In fact, it seemed that each player in every band had his own double stack of Marshalls. Visually impressive; aurally frightening.

The other, more important similarity Valient Thorr and Clutch shared was each group’s ability to hit some sustained grooves at various points of their sets. This fluctuated between Valient Thorr’s competence, and Clutch’s more accomplished musicianship. Clutch was no newcomer to the field: They were on tour supporting their ninth studio release. Although quite stable in personnel make up since 1991, they had just dropped their organist, returning to a four-piece band and to their original guitar-dominated sound. That was OK, really. The presence of keyboards at this show would likely have been too exotic for most of the crowd.

As the singer of Valient Thorr had earlier enthused, Clutch’s front man Neil Fallon also indicated the group’s great pleasure in being on this tour. “When you wake up every morning and realize that your band is going to play with Motorhead that night – it’s amazing!” Clutch played its last song and departed. Their set had actually sped by for me.

The roadies again took the stage. This break lasted quite a bit longer and the crowd grew somewhat restless. When I had initially entered the hall, I grabbed a place on the far side of the stage. My random choice turned out to be fortunate. The center section had become a mosh pit, with some pretty fierce slam-dancing breaking out during Clutch’s set Between bands, with recorded music on the sound system, the frenetic dancing continued. I didn’t mind watching, but had no desire to participate.

One good thing about being so close to the stage was the lack of beer in my area of the hall. It was a long walk back to the bar areas, especially through the large and densely packed crowd. As such, drunks seemed few and nobody was spilling drinks on each other. That is, on me. Photographers were taking pictures of the excited and happy crowd. It was still a good, if intense vibe.

Huge security men positioned themselves in front of the stage — not so muscular as just plain large. Lights dimmed and Motorhead hit the stage. Yep, this was different. The cords were gone; this was a wireless outing all the way. The drums stood on a highly raised pedestal — and this time it was a double bass drum set up. Loud? Yes, but not that much louder than the other bands. I was relieved, but I don’t want to downplay the intensity of the volume. Even though I became resigned to the stunningly high levels, I still couldn’t help but notice that my blue jeans felt at times as if they were being blown by a pretty stiff breeze around my ankles. Shock waves of sound.

Lemmy Kilmister’s bass guitar looked to be a modified Rickenbacker — a large, beautiful instrument wrapped in tooled cowhide. It resembled the trappings of country artist Hank Snow’s acoustic guitar. Very cool. Lemmy came to the microphone and announced, “We are Motorhead! And we play rock and roll!” The crowd screamed approval, and with that the trio roared into their anthem “We Are Motorhead!”

What struck me immediately was how healthy Lemmy appeared. I was expecting a road weary, bedraggled presence. But Lemmy looked great and he alone was completely running this show. The huge, thick sound of his bass carried the songs. The rest of the band also made their presence felt. Unlike Clutch’s Sult, who stood still and played guitar with head bowed beneath his cap, Motohead’s guitarist Phil Campbell was a showman – striding the boards and repeatedly coming to the very lip of the stage to engage the crowd. In fact, I could have reached him if he and I had both stretched out our hands.

But I had no desire to touch Campbell, and I’m sure the security guards would have taken exception to it. Campbell had the more traditional style, playing fast licks high on the fret board. He wasn’t playing a Les Paul, but the design of his white guitar was similar. And, as with all of the guitars that night, the strings’ tuning pegs were where they were supposed to be. That is, at the visible end of the fret board’s neck. No weird, modern, empty-ended guitars — not in the world of metal, which is surprisingly conservative in its own way.

I didn’t recognize the types of drums that Mikkey Dee played; probably custom jobs. Dee was an energetic drummer who would have been more of a presence if we could have actually seen him play. But with such a huge drum kit, he was largely hidden from view — although the few glimpses I got of his face indicated that he was having a great time. A drummer who kept things interesting and a hot guitarist who added energy and color to every song. They were both indispensable, but this was Lemmy’s band and Lemmy’s show: He was the focal point of the stage throughout the set.

After their eponymous opener, I did not know many of Motorhead’s songs, but I assume some were from an album that the band had released that very week, The World is Yours. Earlier in the night, I heard two guys quoting a recent interview with Lemmy about the new album: The interviewer had asked him, “Why do all of Motorhead’s albums sound alike?” To which Lemmy answered, “It’s the same band.” Those two guys loved that response, as did I. And this comment summed up the evening. The songs were very similar, but also exciting and well executed.

At one point Lemmy announced, “Here is an old one. It’s from 1983 — before you were born!” A girl’s voice behind me protested that this did not apply to her, but she (and I) were among the exceptions. The song was admittedly unfamiliar to me, but I thought it was good that Motorhead was acknowledging their older fans by playing some of its back catalogue. I took a pen and paper with me, planning to take a note or two, but there was no chance of having enough room to do this. I was pretty packed in, increasingly pushed into the unyielding steel mesh fence.

The crowd was changing, the mosh pit expanding. I felt two hard blows. These were not accidental shoves; some of those in the impromptu mosh pit were intentionally beginning to flail into non-dancers. I was an indirect recipient of the domino effect this caused. I had already checked the exits, and it looked like the path to the door would be a slow one. Having experienced uneasiness at the size of the departing crowds during a recent night at Milwaukee’s Summerfest, I had already planned to make my exit before the encore. A couple more strong body blows convinced me: Time to leave. I made slow progress down the fence. There was a green exit sign close to the edge of the stage The crew behind the fence, although still very polite, pointed me away from this escape route, around the periphery of the crowd to the distant doors. OK, probably illegal and undoubtedly a fire department violation — but OK.

In fact, that exit strategy was fine. Being stage side for the whole night, I didn’t have the opportunity to do much people watching. Now, I slowly wound my way around the outer edge of the large ballroom that was crowded, but not impassible. I was amazed to see a coat check room in operation. I stopped at the merchandise alcoves for all three bands and almost bought a Clutch album, but they all looked pretty beat-up for being new copies. Continuing my trek to the door, I passed the bar. As is true at all such gatherings, several people were there just for the event and not to hear the band. I had come for the music but, even so, I wanted to get out before Motorhead’s set ended.

I knew I would miss “Ace of Spades,” which I did want to hear, but that would be near the very end of the show. I returned to the side door where the same people who had welcomed me when I arrived were still there. I told the woman that I had had a fine time, but it was getting just a wee bit violent near the stage. She didn’t seem especially shocked at this, but was glad I had enjoyed myself. She thanked me for coming to the show, and I was out the door. On the street, I was surprised at how little of Motorhead’s sound was heard outside the hall. The Eagles Ballroom, now on the National Record of Historic Places, is one solid building. That recognition seemed appropriate to me as I drove home. After all, it was the historic nature of Motorhead that got me to this show.

I enjoyed the night; I wanted to be there. I raised a fist in the air once or twice in pure excitement and occasionally pointed at a guitarist in admiration. As Motorhead’s set progressed, I saw body surfing up close and almost became an unwilling member in a mosh pit. And I escaped unscathed. Who could ask for more?

The next morning, I woke up feeling like I had been in a minor car wreck. My body ached. My head throbbed; I felt pretty hung over. What the hell? I knew that I had nothing to drink the previous evening. Ah, yes. The Motorhead concert! Of course. My ears rang a bit, especially the left, but not terribly — similar to the aural aftereffects of a rough plane ride. I went to school to teach my classes. The few colleagues who knew of my plans were intrigued as to whether I really, actually went. I showed tangible evidence by taping the ticket stub to my office door.

2018 POSTSCRIPT: That 2011 Motorhead concert changed my musical life. Since that night, I have been to dozens of metal shows, including Anthrax, Lamb of God, Doyle, Fozzy, Kings, and many local Milwaukee bands, such as Direct Hit, Zor, Scathed, and Conniption. Come to Milwaukee – we got your metal!

Tom Wilmeth is the author of ‘Sound Bites: A Lifetime of Listening,’ which has earned raves from the likes of Gary Burton and Hal Holbrook. It’s available now from Muleshoe Press via Amazon.

Tom Wilmeth

Tom Wilmeth

Tom Wilmeth, an English faculty member at Concordia University-Wisconsin since 1991, has given presentations and published widely on the topics of literature and music. Author of 'Sound Bites: A Lifetime of Listening,' he earned a Ph.D. at Texas A&M in College Station. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Tom Wilmeth
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