Saint Vitus/Dixie Witch/The House Harkonnen/Orthodox Fuzz

Last Friday night I went to Trees to catch the opening date of Saint Vitus’ world tour. Having never seen the venerable Vitus I was twitchy with anticipation.

Orthodox Fuzz took the stage first, to a spartan but excited crowd. A local band from Fort Worth, Orthodox Fuzz seemed perfectly named; stoner metal grooves married to classic Southern rock, with big meaty riffs and a solid sense of swing from the rhythm section. Also the first time I’ve seen a bottleneck slide employed in a stoner doom setting, and after hearing it I wonder why it doesn’t happen more often. Their set was short but strong, and got the night started off in the right direction.

I got a chance to speak with one of their guitarists, Brian Hershaw, between sets and am glad to say it was a welcoming experience. I explained I was relatively new to Dallas, and he proceeded to introduce me to several members of local bands and tipped me to the upcoming Metroplex Heavy Fest, two nights of heavy music at The Boiler Room. He also let me know that they have a new EP in the works (their first with Andrew on vocals) and a recording session this Friday; I wished him the best of luck and am anxious to hear the results.

The second local band to take the stage was The House Harkonnen. Described on their Facebook page as “Texas Bred Slop Rock”, they mixed some old school thrash and death, some doom, some hardcore, and a fucked-if-I-care attitude that grew on me song by song.  I spent some time listening to their recordings over the weekend, but they didn’t grab me like the live set eventually did. I hope to catch these guys again soon.

Third to the stage was Austin’s own Dixie Witch. I admit I completely missed their late 2011 release, Let It Roll, so was completely surprised by the psych and hard rock guitar heroics of J.T. Smith. He took their power blues and Southern boogie into some surprising places, with melodic leads and muscular riffs that would make Mark Farner turn his head. What makes it work though is that Smith’s guitar actually puts the focus on the tight, powerful rhythm section of Trinidad Leal and Curt Christensen. After all these years they’re eerily attuned, with Curt seeming to know when Trinidad is going to add a fill and adjusting his bass playing accordingly, matching each zig with and appropriate zag, each extra tom thud mirrored and amplified.

But let me return a minute to how Smith puts the focus on the rhythm section. Here’s the analogy I’ve come up with, and it’s a doozy. Imagine, if you will, a young child’s coloring book. The lines of the drawing are thick, strong, unmistakable. These lines are the rhythm section, unflappable, unbroken. Whatever color is added inside the lines does not distort the figure; these are like the riffs, strengthening the overall intent. But no child feels confined by the parameters of the drawing, making every horse have wings, every sun haloed with wavy lines of light and heat. These are the leads and solos, the color outside the lines. However, they make no sense without the broad black anchor, the focus of the figure. There is no Pegasus without both horse and wings.

To extend this well past the breaking point, the aforementioned zigs and zags of the rhythm section put those black lines in motion. They put Pegasus to flight.

In short, Dixie Witch blew my little mind. The preceding paragraphs are ample proof.

There are seminal bands I’ve never seen (like Black Sabbath, and without Ward I’m not sure I want to see the current incarnation), but few are as pivotal and important to the music I love as Saint Vitus. I was admittedly nervous, because even though I’ve heard only glowing reports of their live prowess since their reunion a few years ago, I would have been crushed if they were merely good, or just okay. I had nothing to fear.

Saint Vitus hit the stage not long after midnight. Dave Chandler took to the mic with some friendly chatter, and throughout the night the spotlight never left him. Though the talk over the past few years has been mostly about Wino’s return to the fold, have no doubt that this is Chandler’s band, especially live. His tone, his presence, his personal style dominated the proceedings. This is not to say that this is not a band in every sense, a collaboration of like-minded musicians. It just surprised me how much I couldn’t take my eyes off him as they performed.

Saint Vitus did a great job with the setlist, crafting a real overview of the band. I never imagined I’d get to see them play “I Bleed Black” or “Clear Windowpane” or “Dying Inside”; that new songs like “Blessed Night” (the show opener) and “Let Them Fall” fit in seamlessly is a testament to the strength of their songwriting and the individuality of their sound. They owned the stage, the sound, and the crowd. By the time “Born Too Late” stopped ringing in my ears I had a rictus grin from ear to ear. But I wasn’t alone; standing next to me was Trinidad from Dixie Witch, with a similar face of rapturous joy. I’m sure many in the audience felt similarly, judging from the applause, fist pumps and arm punches after each song. The tour kickoff for Lillie: F-65 was nothing short of amazing, and I sincerely hope that the band and their audiences continue to have such good fortune.

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