Down- The Palace

Image © Garth Jones, 2008.

Actually getting into The Palace is a little like getting into Camp X-Ray- a lot of humourless dudes with the totalitarian air of Homeland Security, DMZs and Mexican border crossings about them go about the very serious business of divesting cheerful, semi-drunk and vaguely stoned metal types of their tribal raiments. It’s all metal (*ahem*) detection, frisking and the ominous implication of cavity checks or worse if you were to make a fuss.

God help anyone who attempted to smuggle a wallet chain or the de rigeur studded metal belt through the checkpoint.

Having cleared the comically tight security, our worst suspicions are confirmed- the inner sanctum swells with good natured throngs of drainpipe jean and tour-shirt clad music fans, clearly up to the suspicious business of enjoying the gig.

Eschewing a support band (in hindsight: who would dare? Although the guileless optimist in me prayed for an opening set from COC, secreted into the country under cover of indifference), we’re instead presented with a handy Down Primer; around ninety or so minutes of documentary cliff notes from the road, interspersed with a genealogical exploration of the band’s forebears. “And lo, Black Sabbath begat Thin Lizzy, who begat Metallica, who”… and so on.

And then, at the hour of ten, the rumbling sonic portents and low, subliminal harbingers coalesce- the shared euphoria becomes audible, then almost tangible, and Down take the stage with a surging, blast furnace majesty.

There’s potential black majick, some good bayou vudu, in the ether.

The good Reverend Anselmo, once the very embodiment of the aggro agent provocateur, has traded his hulking skinhead volatility with swamp thing shaman-like intensity. He’s a cajoling big brother to the seething mosh, a good natured drill sergeant stalking his stage with low, dark humour, driven by a reinvigorated mission statement: uplift and redemption.

Anselmo’s vocals are ragged, soaked in anguished catharsis, having buried the arid, opiate heart that drove Pantera’s darkest moments somewhere deep and hallowed.

Brother Pepper Keenan is all inestimable southern cool, a casual six string hero- Doc Holliday with an ESP endorsement; in league with the mighty Kirk (Crowbar) Windstein, an indecipherable slab of man who plays like he’s plugged directly into his own nervous system, the duo dispense sledgehammer harmonies, keening and overdriven- all rising, crashing drama and washes of greasy feedback squeal.

Spidery Texan bass-man Rex Brown (nee ‘Rocker’) is never far from a heroic looking spliff, and channels the loose limbed, head-banded, monitor machine gunning spirit of all those sour mash fueled, Confederate flag shrouded heroes of yore; his rhythmic cohort, shotgun Jimmy Bower (another hulking Crowbar expat), propels the seething maelstrom with brain rattling, fundament loosening intensity.

Out rapturous tribe is subjected to exhaustive readings from all three books of Down; the music, like its drowned spiritual home, is all about the swing, the gut and the heart; liquid movements of sound swell and ebb, slabs of rising tidal force rendered sonic.

The band thunder through tumultuous, visceral takes on ‘Losing All’, ‘3 Suns & 1 Star’, ‘Bury Me In Smoke’, ‘Temptation’s Wings’; they add mordant, cataclysmic urgency to the second album’s occasionally derided sheen- you can feel the tar of history all over the groove-dirge that is ‘New Orleans Is A Dying Whore’, and ‘Ghosts Along The Mississippi’ thrums and roars with the boiling, scabrous grandeur it always threatened.

It’s a loose, monolithic set, a little ragged at the edges, and sprawling at times.

Much of the night is spent in celebration of fallen brothers- ‘Lifer’ is a vital, barnstorming eulogy to Dimebag, almost four years gone. Layne Staley’s ghost is disturbed as Anselmo reclaims the grueling, cautionary blues lament of ‘Learn From This Mistake’ with the grit and purpose of bitter experience.

Putting the lie to the histrionic security measures, the set’s emotional peak is reached with the light and shade of ‘Stone the Crow’, ‘Freebird’ for the underground, which is delivered in a completely uncontrived air of singalong catharsis, a redemptive, communal experience symbolic of the night’s celebratory nature.

Indeed, there’s plenty of cheerful bonhomie on display, and when the dread ‘technical difficulties’ impede, the band exhibit admirable good humour.

Between Windstein’s clowning hijinks and constant threats of pants removal (you had to be there, clearly), Anselmo’s long, weed driven riffs and Pepper’s endearing, doomed attempts to keep the Aussie flag aloft, it turns out that a night with Down is very much like an audience with a fraternity (in the best possible sense) of lovable, beer chuggin’ good ole boys. There’s a palpable road warrior camaraderie on display, and they damn near lay waste to the crowd, encoring until well past the witching hour.

For an outfit rooted in so much blood and blackness, to all appearances Down seem to have outgrown the inherent nihilism of their name- tonight’s performance was about community, friends both absent and new, and the redemptive power of it all.

Quite possibly the gig of a lifetime.

© Garth Jones, 2008.