By Matt Johnsen
For the sake of disclosure, I’ll begin by noting that I have a personal connection with Riot: guitarists Mark Reale and Mike Flyntz played guest solos on my band’s latest album*. But of course, we only asked them to do it because we think they’re great, and it should go without saying that anyone who would fly from Pennsylvania to Texas to see a metal band is already a partisan. I first saw them in 1995, when I made the surprisingly long drive to Long Island, NY to see them warming up for a tour of Japan to support Brethren of the Long House. I was not, then, a long-time fan of the band, having only recently discovered Thundersteel (or rather, having only recently decided to listen to the album despite what must be one of the silliest, stupidest covers in the history of metal) but I was quite impressed by their show and my review of that performance was my very first foray into “metal journalism,” as it was printed in the long-mourned power metal bible/fanzine Sentinel Steel. I saw them again in 1999 at the first of Jack Koshick’s March Metal Madness festivals in New Jersey (probably the best festival that legendary sleazebag ever promoted), and then I saw them one more time in 2006 at a go-go bar (of all places!) in northern New Jersey. Every one of those shows was among the best shows I saw in its respective year, and with every new album they release, Riot makes me more of a fan. I can’t think of another band so long-running whose output has been so consistently excellent. This truth led to my sole disappointment when I heard that the classic late-80s Thundersteel lineup had reformed: it meant that they were likely to ignore the past 20 years as if they never happened. Normally when some old band pulls a stunt like this, you wish they would ignore their last five or six albums, but Riot didn’t put out a single bad album after they retired the speed metal and screams of the Thundersteel years. In fact, they released a candidate for their best album ever in Sons of Society. But, should these unsung legends feel like taking a victory lap on the 20th anniversary of one of their most enduring albums, who am I to judge? Riot can do what Riot damned well pleases, and I will not object. Besides, it was Thundersteel which first made me a Riot fan, and the opportunity to see that band (or rather, that band plus second guitarist Mike Flyntz, who joined Riot to tour for Privilege of Power, the second and last album featuring vocalist Tony Moore, and therefore the end of what is commonly known as the Thundersteel-era in Riot’s history) was one I would not ignore, so I booked my flights, reserved my hotels, and ultimately found myself at the Scout Bar on the fringes of San Antonio, drinking a Shiner and waiting for the main attraction.
I didn’t even catch the name of the band that was playing when I arrived. They were the kind of band that one only encounters opening for some much better band, a relic of several ages, trying to meld the bullheaded machismo of Pantera with the booze-and-babes lyrical ethic of Motley Crue, but without any vision or talent. These bands are to be found in every town, killing time before the main attraction. They’re manned by louts who consider Zakk Wylde an aspirational figure rather than a cautionary tale. They often have shirts for sale, but rarely have CDs for sale. They’re the people applying their stickers to the insides of urinals at your local watering hole. One wonders if these people are without friends, or if their friends are merely too polite to point out the obvious: that they should consider a pastime besides music. I watched them only because the Scout Bar offers no escape from the perils of the local opener: there is but one room, and there is no re-entry to the venue. Making matters worse, the lighting man cued up the “epileptic’s nightmare” program in order to assure my eyes were as offended as my ears by the spectacle of Local Opener TBA, or whatever their name was. Eventually, of course, they finished their set and left the stage, their only service the lowering of the bar.
Broken Teeth, the penultimate act, at least entertained. Fronted by Watchtower and Dangerous Toys alumnus Jason McMaster, Broken Teeth are easy enough to describe: Bon Scott-era AC/DC, but with a screamier singer. As one of my show-going companions said, “They’re a great band but I don’t like their songs.” AC/DC is not, has never been, and never will be my thing, but thanks to a brother whose tastes run to the contrary, I’ve heard a lot of AC/DC in my day, and I can safely say that Broken Teeth do that style very, very well, and there’s no denying McMaster’s on-stage charisma. But, with songs so totally and shamelessly derivative, Broken Teeth would almost certainly be better off as an actual AC/DC tribute band. They mimic that band so well that they could probably draw 500 people a night, five nights a week, and they’d almost be playing the same songs they’re playing now, except they wouldn’t have written them. Sure, one of those guitarists would have to buy a Gretsch and the other would have to buy a schoolboy uniform, but I daresay it would be the best career move they could make. Mercifully for me, they kept their set pretty short and riled up the crowd (in a good way) for Riot, and it’s always a pleasure to see McMaster perform, so I won’t hold their tunes against them, this time.
The Riot set began with some kind of Powerpoint-type slide show, scored by the intro (I think) from the Live in Japan album. It was fairly well done and it did a fine job of introducing a band that needed no introduction. Although Riot was first assembled in New York in the 70s, the Thundersteel lineup was born in San Antonio, after Mark Reale disbanded the NY lineup and moved south. There he recruited locals Don Van Stavern, Dave McClain, and Steve Cooper of S.A. Slayer for a new band called Narita. They cut a three song demo before replacing McClain (later of Machine Head) with another local skinsman, Bobby Jarzombek (who had played with Cooper in Juggernaut), and Cooper with a New York-based singer, Tony Moore, and reclaiming the Riot monicker. Van Stavern (who played bass) was the speed metal yin to Reale’s hard-rock yang, and the marriage was a shocking success, creatively. It was only a couple years, though, until grunge put the lid on major label metal, and after only one more album, the third major incarnation of Riot fell apart and Reale returned to New York. But, for those two albums, Riot was a band from Texas, and the fans at the Scout Bar needed no slide show to welcome their prodigal son back to the lone star state.
The band finally came out and busted into the instrumental “Narita,” as the slide projector was dismantled. My friend thought they should have opened with “Thundersteel,” and maybe he’s right, but the real mystery to this whole affair was, “What’s Tony Moore going to sound like after all these years?” and the instrumental tease of “Narita” did a lot to prolong the exquisite agony of waiting to find out. “Narita” finished, they blazed straight into “Fight or Fall,” and out came Tony. He looked good, and he looked happy, but I for one had a small lump in my throat as I waited for those first, impossibly high notes to come out. And when they did, well, the place went apeshit, because Tony Moore Still Has It. “On Your Knees,” the wickedly fast first proper song on Privilege of Power was next, and it really did feel like 1990 all over again. I should mention now one of the more visible reminders that it was not, in fact, 1990 anymore: Don Van Stavern’s wig. In the 80s, the man had comically poofy blond hair (think Dee Snider on a bad day) and was taken to wearing a rather ridiculous leather cap. Well, he strode out on stage with said cap, and said poof, and I expected after a song he’d throw off the hat, hair attached, and we’d all have a laugh. Except, when he took off the hat, the hair was still held to his head with a well-tied bandana. I’m not sure, then, if we were meant to believe that his wig was his actual hair, or if we were meant to grin at the silliness of the thing. This is the guy, after all, who tormented us in the 90s with Pitbull Daycare. But, joke or no, he rocked the wig hard and after a little while, I even stopped staring at it.
“Metal Soldiers,” one of the mid-tempo rockers on Privilege of Power, came off a lot better than I thought it would (I had hoped they wouldn’t play it at all) and it was a good segue to some really old stuff, as they followed it with “Outlaw,” one of the many, many classics from the impossible-to-deny Fire Down Under, the crown jewel of Riot mk-I, released in 1981. Tony Moore, never minding his stratospheric range, is unique among the four recorded Riot singers for his reedy voice which is almost completely lacking the bluesy grit of the other three. It was not a given that he could convincingly sing the songs recorded by original vocalist Guy Speranza, but I can report that in fact, he did just fine. But, that detour to the dawn of the 80s was short, as “Outlaw” was followed by two more Thundersteel numbers, the wickedly catchy “Johnny’s Back” and the seething thumper “Sign of the Crimson Storm.” If I’m not mistaken, Moore actually sang some of the high harmonies in “Johnny’s Back,” as if to say, “If you thought I couldn’t do it, well, fuck off. I can do it.” After another trip to Fire Down Under for the awesome “Swords and Tequila,” they debuted a new song, which would be the only song less than 20 years old played all night. “Wings Are For Angels,” revisits the Riot theme of Vietnam, and the song positively smoked. It opened with a ridiculously syncopated drum beat (the closest Jarzombek came to a solo all night) and then made its way through the quick and complex riffs that were the hallmark of the Thundersteel-era. Moore’s melodies were catchy, and the song was a hit with the crowd. It was at this point in the show that I was forced to remind myself that this was not a band returning (despite Moore’s many claims of, “We’re back! After 20 years we’re back!”) but a band continuing, and I thought of all the great music they might have made without Moore coming back. It was a funny place to be, because I loved the new song, but the embarrassment of riches that is Riot can lead one to such paradoxical dilemmas.
These thoughts were fleeting, however, as the next song was the furious “Storming the Gates of Hell” from Privilege of Power. Moore’s replacement, Mike DiMeio, was a fine singer in his own right, and he more than made up for Moore’s lack of throaty gravitas, but he was mostly unable to scale the heights of Moore’s melodies, and as a result, the band’s setlists these last 20 years gave short shrift to Moore’s albums, and gems like “Storming the Gates” went unperformed for decades. For as much as I love Thundersteel, these Privilege of Power tunes were the real treat of the evening. That said, the band flipped the time-machine into high gear for two more oldies next, “Tokyo Rose” (from their 1977 debut, Rock City) and “Road Racing,” from the neglected middle-child of the Speranza years, 1979’s Narita. The back and forth contrast between the speedy power metal of the late 80s and the rootsy proto-metal of the late 70s made for an incredibly buoyant set. Springing forward 10 years, they nailed the spectacular “Dance of Death” from Privilege of Power and finally closed the set with the song they maybe should have started with, “Thundersteel.” The band left the stage, we clapped and yelled, and they came back for the obligatory encore (how I do love it when bands skip this needless ritual!) which was shockingly not “Fire Down Under” but “Warrior,” another song from Rock City. One song, another round of thank-yous, and they were done. It was a furious and draining show, and as with all Riot shows, probably among the best I’ll see all year. Who knows if they’ll make more of this go with their late 80s lineup? If it takes off, then I’m sure I’ll see them again. But if cards fall the wrong way, as they have for Riot so many times in the past, at least I’ll be able to say I was there when the hand was dealt.
(*Matt Johnsen plays guitar in the excellent Pharaoh. Their latest album Be Gone was released in 2008 by Cruz Del Sur.)