A Spring Clean for the May Queen
Down @ The London Astoria, May 29, 2006
by: Jackie Smit
For virtually any act with a public profile to speak of, a ten year absence from one of live music's world capitals is a long time. For a band like Down, it's bordering on a fucking eternity. Nevermind the fact that we're talking about easily one of the most revered "supergroups" in recent memory, there's also the matter of two of its members' alma mater in Pantera, whose last UK dates were cancelled in the wake of 9/11 -- one more reason to hate Osama Bin Laden, in other words. It stands to reason therefore that to comment on tonight possessing a tangible sense of occasion is like saying that Michael Schumacher knows how to drive a car, and clearly this is a fact that hasn't escaped the band's attention either.

It's ironically fitting then that tonight plays host to no official support acts -- a blessing in some ways, given the amount of stick that practically anyone who would have taken the stage was bound to be at the receiving end of. Instead, we're treated to a Down "home movie", which effectively consists of reams of drunken buffoonery, spliced in amongst classic promo clips by Motorhead, Led Zeppelin and Metallica. Special guests indeed. Truth be told though, it serves as a piss-poor build up to one of the year's most anticipated performances; and even if hearing "For Whom the Bell Tolls" is much preferred to, say, ten seconds of a Johnny Truant set, the antics and the nostalgic VH1 Classics-like trip down memory lane soon wears a little long in the tooth.

There's a good reason for this of course, and it's one that's very quickly underlined when the lights do finally go down and the London Astoria erupts into the sort of explosive response reserved only for those elite few who have ascended to godlike echelons of the metal genre. I'm talking noise levels on a par with what you'd hear at a Slayer show, which for anyone who has had the pleasure of attending one, should put things in perspective. But musically, Down isn't -- nor are they ever likely to be -- about triplet-led thrashing, schlock horror lyrics and atonal riffs. "Lysergik Funeral Procession" -- our first taste of things to come this evening -- lays down an impressive gauntlet of down-tuned, Southern fried, Sabbath-tinged sludge; the kind you'd imagine could only have been spawned in the suffocatingly humid bayous of New Orleans.

Kirk Windstein and Pepper Keenan lead the way, while Rex Brown and Jimmy Bower provide the pulse, but it's Phil Anselmo who conducts the symphony. All the flack that he has taken in the time since his former bandmate's tragic death -- much of it brought on by virtue of his own arrogant behaviour -- and all the potshots taken at him by the press since December 2004, or in many cases since Pantera's demise, amount to absolutely nothing for the next two hours. The only thing that matters within the confines of these walls is The Metal, and boy, do these grizzled veterans bring it.

With only two albums to draw material from, nigh on the entire tracklistings for both 1994's _Nola_ and the stupendous _II: A Bustle in the Hedgerow_ are wheeled out and delivered with the confidence and conviction of a band who should be selling out arenas. "There's Something on My Side", "Losing All", "Ghosts Along the Mississippi", "New Orleans Is a Dying Whore" and "Temptation's Wings" are among a lengthy list of veritable stunners, which almost without fail tonight's sizeable audience sing out in perfect time with the band. Even the more subdued numbers in the quintet's repertoire -- "Learn From This Mistake" and "Jail", which is introduced as a song that's never been aired Stateside -- play out with all the intensity of a pitbull.

Contrary to expectations, at no point during the evening is there even a hint of a Pantera cover. Rather, the band bow out with a dual salvo of "Stone the Crow" and "Buried in Smoke" -- a graceful exit, or as graceful as one can get from a band whose frontman will repeatedly refer to them as the best band on the planet throughout their set. With a performance of this quality however, such chest-beating appears to be founded on only the slightest hint of exaggeration.

(article submitted 20/6/2006)

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