Posted by: Necci – Sep 03, 2010
The National is a beautiful theater. Despite its being a relatively new venue here in Richmond, the elegant design of its luxury boxes and overhanging balcony harks back to a time when architects attempted to make audiences comfortable. It thankfully avoids the airplane-hangar ambience of many modern concert halls, instead achieving an intimacy one would more readily expect in a much smaller club setting. Wednesday night was my first experience with The National, and I've apparently missed out by not getting there sooner (penury is my only excuse).
We didn't get inside the venue until well after Baroness had started, but we did catch a good portion of their set, and it was excellent. I was initially exposed to Baroness in their early days as a band, and the complex, metallic hardcore of their early EPs blew me away. The transition they went through on their first full-length, The Red Album, was interesting, if not quite as good as what they'd started out doing. But with their follow-up, The Blue Album, they've grown into their new songwriting style, and it showed in their live performance. The influence of post-metal bands like Isis and Mastodon is clear in their newer work, but live, they avoided the quiet, ambient side-trips of other bands with which they are associated in favor of maintaining the core of heaviness that has been present in their music since they started. Singer/guitarist John Baizley's vocals have never been outstanding and are still a bit of a weak point, but in a live setting they were de-emphasized in favor of the band's pummeling metal riffs. While Baroness has a following in Richmond, they were clearly performing to an audience of Deftones fans. However, this didn't stop them from winning quite a few converts over the course of their set.
Nonetheless, the night was owned by the Deftones, and they made such a powerful entrance that all thoughts of opening bands were (at least temporarily) driven from the heads of the audience. Beginning with the one-two punch of "Diamond Eyes" and "Rocket Skates," the two singles from their new album (also called Diamond Eyes), The Deftones hit the stage like a bomb, and the center of the explosion was frontman Chino Moreno, whose intense, energetic presence dominated the entire venue. Moreno performed using microphones that had been specially wrapped in tape, so that he could swing them by their cords without damaging them. This didn't completely prevent him from engaging in destruction, though, as he ended a song early in the set by slamming a microphone to the stage repeatedly--a sort of vocalist's version of the classic Townshend/Cobain guitar-smashing ritual. Unlike The Who and Nirvana, he did this with the majority of the set left to play, so it was fortunate that he had multiple backup microphones in place.
Moreno's vocal performance was just as impressive as his onstage energy, especially in light of the way he constantly switches back and forth between a tenor croon and bloodcurdling screams, sometimes within the course of a single line of lyrics. It seems like the kind of thing that he'd fake in the studio in order to preserve his voice, so I had some question as to whether he could actually do it live. All such questions were put to rest early on, as a performance of the title track to 1997's Around The Fur saw Moreno effortlessly making the instantaneous switch between croons and screams that occurs during every one of the song's choruses. He pulled off this same trick many times over the course of the evening. And he still sounded great, both singing and screaming, even on the final encores of the night, which came close to two hours after the Deftones first took the stage.
Sustaining the interest and involvement of a crowd over this long a period of time takes effort, and Moreno and company did a great deal to keep their set from growing predictable. At several points during the performance, Chino strapped on a guitar, playing melodic lead guitar lines on some of the band's quieter tunes. This was most effective on White Pony's popular single, "Change In A House Of Flies," and on the latest album's excellent "Sextape." Moreno and company were smart enough not to stick with these downtempo moods for too long. For example, the band immediately followed the contemplative two-guitar track "Beauty School" with a blistering performance of "Elite." Chino sang the entire song while hanging over the barricade into the crowd, passing the mic to eager kids in the front rows during the song's screamed chorus, as if he were the frontman for an old-school hardcore band.
When the Deftones released their first album, Adrenaline, they were lumped in with the earliest of the nu-metal bands, mostly due to their integration of a heavy, chugging sound with obvious hip-hop influences. However, fifteen years later, it's impossible to think of another band from that early nu-metal era who has not only continued to exist but remained relevant; growing musically and steadily acquiring new fans as their career progressed. It now seems sort of ridiculous to even mention the Deftones in the same breath as Korn. The difference was obvious throughout their set, though it was thrown into relief on the best of their new songs, such as the aforementioned "Rocket Skates." That song is based around a heavy, chugging riff, but it's given layers by the droning, humming keyboard parts laid down by Frank Delgado, as well as by Chino Moreno's crooning vocals on the song's verses, which are sung at a much slower tempo than the song's basic rhythm. With the simple addition of these two elements, the entire nature of the song is changed, from a fundamentally heavy riff-rocker to a song that uses heavy riffs as a foundation for a different, more melodic sort of song.
This songwriting style has been one of the main weapons in the Deftones' arsenal, dating back to nearly the beginning of their career. They first put it into widespread use on their third album, 2000's White Pony, and over the course of the night, they drew almost as heavily from that album as they did from the new one. However, for many Deftones fans, it's the earliest, heaviest material that stands out most strongly, and the band did their best to keep those fans happy as well. Delgado actually left the stage for the last few songs of the band's main set, and did not return for the encore, leaving Moreno, guitarist Stephen Carpenter, drummer Abe Cunningham, and former Quicksand bassist Sergio Vega (filling in for the injured Chi Cheng) to perform a selection of Adrenaline-era material as a four-piece. To be truthful, this is probably my least favorite era of the Deftones' career. However, they won me over with their powerful performance of early hits like "Seven Words," blasting them with sufficient energy to overcome any doubts I might have had about the strength of the material.
While I would have been happier to hear more material from sadly neglected fourth and fifth albums Deftones and Saturday Night Wrist, the Deftones certainly played plenty of great songs on Wednesday night, hitting most of their career highlights and giving plenty of performance time to their newest--and possibly greatest--album. Fans who still love the first album the most and fans who think they only continue to get better with time had equal reason to go home happy. This show also made clear that anyone who still writes off the Deftones due to the lingering spectre of nu-metal is blowing it in a big way. Both live and in the studio, the Deftones are one of the most exciting bands playing heavy music right now.
Words by Andrew Necci Photos by Jonny Sismanis