Zakk Wylde's Black Label Society and Hellyeah at the Forum Theatre, Melbourne 28/2/2012

It was an all Southern affair in Melbourne as the shred king addressed his subjects from stately chambers, occupied in the name of the Black Label Order.

Sultry, rainy, miserable. To the perpetually meteorologically bemused residents of Melbourne, experiencing all four seasons in the space of as many minutes is a given; we see rain, take a piss and by the time our flies are half way done up, it’s sunny once more. Ho hum, pass the butter. After two days of summer, it rained and rained. Fortunately this humid night just lent itself to the atmosphere. With beer in hand as the aroma of cheap cigarettes wafted over me, I felt like I was back in Atlanta, GA hanging out with pre-fabricated good ole boys wearing denim and leather kuttes direct from the merch desk - the real 1%ers were most likely cooling their boiling blood with beer as they planted themselves on the edge of the pit, their arms as thick as oak trunks folded together and just as immovable. The Forum feels part hippodrome and part cathedral de la muerte - Grecian figurines adorn the moshpit and the bars concealed to the side evoke the haciendas of Tijuana. Too far South for our metal berzerkers, perhaps?

Not for the ring-in band Holy Grail, filling in for Black Tide at the last minute. These guys couldn’t decide whether they were from Huddersfield or the Sunset Strip. Or perhaps Gothenburg, Sweden. Clad in black, skin-tight jeans held up with bullet belts and suitably leonine hair, Holy Grail routinely failed to ignite a fire underneath the crowd; it was just a case of ignorance feeding apathy. Their Hammerfall without the “hammer” and the NWOBHM meets 80s hairspray rock with occasional death growl formula waned pretty quickly; the moshpit appeared frozen in time, much like the band’s sound. Herniated sing-a-longs became impromptu vanity showcases for vocalist Paul Luna, looking rather sad as the throng of punters grit their teeth waiting for Hellyeah.  In this day and age, you can tell how revered a band is by the number of phones aimed at them at any given time. Holy Grail, I imagine, was not the talk of Facebook come Wednesday morning.

Making an uncermonious exit, the first howl of approval tore through the hall as a hulking Hellyeah curtain loomed down on the stage filling it end to end. If I hadn’t looked up, I would’ve figured it was because the DJ abruptly switched Acca Dacca for Dream Theater, much to the chagrin of almost everyone in the joint. Following some more ill-chosen cuts, Hellyeah; rather, drummer Vinnie Paul emerged, climbing his ostentatious kit like a conqueror, settling in to open with Hellyeah! quickly stirring the mosh into a frenzy. LCD screens shone like constellations in the fleeting darkness, singer Chad Grey grabbing his crotch as he zipped across the stage, unleashing the electrifying spirit of the the South (despite the bulk of the band hailing from very much north of the Mason-Dixon line.)

“Guys ready for a metal show?!” Grey barked at the crowd. “We’re like the plague - you can’t keep us away!” Pummeling drums battered out their ingnominious metaphors with guitarist Greg Tribbett laying down bone-rattling riffs; though one could tell that Hellyeah is very much Mr. Vinnie Paul’s band, his percussive flourishes taking pride of place in the mix. Tom Maxwell, dressed up like Hank III (if Hank III could stand living in Baltimore, MD for more than a week at a time) also emulated his cool, southern swagger, even busting out the slide guitar for their uber-American, lighter-raising, Stars-and-Bars flag-draped “man ballad” Alcohaulin’ Ass, as Grey’s lethargy crept in; yet his gravelly shouts sounding none less potent. It sounded like Cadillacs driving across deserted interstates, making mandatory stops at Waffle House only to find girls wearing barely more than a smile sitting in the next booth. In slow motion. On the grainiest black and white film stock available in the tri-county area. (The video isn’t too far from the truth, as I discovered)

Grey continued to rattle off his homespun bravado (“I’m gonna sit here all night and drink and I don’t give a fuck”) as well as thanking everyone conceivable (I’d like to thank the security, the guys giving out the tickets”) stopping short of the inconceivable, strangely enough. and of course, that dyed-in-the-wool caricature of Southern grit (direct from Decatur, IL) “Don’t ever quit!” before showing us all the Cowboy Way, busting open a can of spidery-fingered napalm across their frets, ever so cheekily rebellious and granite-edged, evoking the spirit of well, you know who. But was this but a mere taste of the guitar fireworks of Zakk Wylde and his Black Label Society?

No.

Zakk Wylde is very much in a league of his very own. Ever since the release of a plastic replicant of a guitar made its way into hands of apathetic teenagers across the Western world, Guitar Heroism was a tag that was now devoid of all meaning. So what if Jimi Hendrix could play a right-handed guitar upside down and left handed. Today, all you have to do is change the settings in the “Options” menu. Though critics will deride Mr. Wylde as simply living in the shadows of his predecessors, one can only assume that they’ve assailed him from afar, sitting comfortably in the confines of their bedrooms, hurling their electronic salvos toward battlefields he would never even glance at - because he was in his, practicing and mastering his craft. As the majority of smokers (presumably something taxable) filtered back in, their conversations were fixed on one subject - the forthcoming hour and a bit of axe fury.

Zakk and company had their gear shrouded in black, roadies testing their equipment from clandestine corners of the stage busting out their own hidden licks. Without warning, a black curtain drops. Kids are howling and even jaded veterans are buzzing with excitement. Zakk’s appearance now delayed by at least half an hour was growing ever more pronounced - before he cruelly piped in pastoral strings as if it was music to dig up roses to. It didn’t prepare us for Zakk sprinting up to his gothic microphone, adorned with skulls and crucifix - in a full American Indian chieftain’s headdress to glorify Crazy Horse, flanked by his muscle-bound axe enforcers, laying down the foundations for the house of shred Zakk built.

Beers were raised in place of horns, despite Zakk’s forswearing of his favored amber elixir, his mastery of his chosen instrument evident right from the first note. Ditching the getup for the stomper Funeral Bell, he held his arm to the sky, pick aloft only for it to plunge down like thunder.

Pitch-perfect playing hammered his crystalline licks into the floor and ceiling, even his vast backdrop adorned with dragons coiled around skulls and other such omens of death shuddered in its wake. Bassist John DeServio pounded his chest as Zakk played on, scurrying off to the fringes of the stage to ham it up for waiting cameras (and believe me, there were a metric shitton of them scattered about the place).

The stench of sweat gently floated over me, although the bulk of the pit only moshing ever so modestly in support of one of the last metal guitar heroes. Their lilt turned to frenzy for the favorite Bleed For Me giving his “tiger” signature guitar hell. With another chest bump showing affection for his Lord above he upped the tempo with Suicide Messiah and became his own wah pedal for Fire it Up, eschewing electronic enhancements.

Our fleet-fingered axeman carried himself with indomitable presence, letting his guitar do all of the talking for over ten incredible minutes, busting out untouchable chops inspired in part by his rock “godfathers” Ozzy, Randy and company. Like a man possessed, Zakk brewed a storm of pinch harmonies, absorbing the adulation from the congregation of the Australian Chapter of the Black Label Order, with the spotlight deservedly focusing on him and him alone. We could see the twinkles of sweat bead off his maddeningly rapid fingers, heads shaking in a mixture of awe and disbelief all the while forgiving his craven self-indulgence: it’s his name on the door, after all - and he was earning it with each passing minute.

After only an hour, he gave a short sermon to his Melbourne Chapter and handed down a challenge: “Are you ready, motherfuckers?” for the hotly anticipated Stillborn, one of his more popular singles from The Blessed Hellride record. Guitar changes were carried out with military precision, and stage invaders were repelled with just as ferocious a discipline.

Holding his axe above him, he gave his legion of Society Dwelling Mother Fuckers something to supplicate before and swear allegiance to; the Australian Chapter flag. The Gothic “BLS” replacing the yoke of colony, skulls in place of the Southern Cross. Then with a salute and a rapturous roar, the Cult of the Black Label departed.

By the end, the temperature had been raised - it could’ve been thirty degrees out but we’d never had noticed it. Ears were bent out of shape but smiles were planted on most of our faces; a few fans had a grumble at the truncated set-time and his choice of songs, as one is liable to in this age of overabundance and option paralysis. “Sometimes the world tells you no, son” I mused to myself. “But today one man kicked it in the arse and we were privileged enough to witness it.”