Past work can buy artists a lot of favors; artists like Nas and Eminem are still coasting off of albums that are more than old enough to rent a car without issue. Rock music and its numerous offshoots are no different, for an excellent example one need look no farther than System of a Down, the seminal alt-Metal (in truth they defy classification) hasn’t released an album since 2005’s Hypnotize/Mesmerize yet they still enjoy huge crowds no matter where they land on the touring schedule. As rumors of infighting surround the band, and the current administration continues to support policies that fly in the face of SOAD’s politics, their show at the remote Glen Helen Amphitheater felt more urgent than ever.
By the time Clutch took the stage the venue was already in complete chaos. While not full to the back wall, the crowd spanned the entirety of the venues massive perimeter as Clutch played their odd Margaritaville-Metal mash-up. The crowd, for the most part, seemed to be fairly into it, though the sold-out pit and orchestra/loge seated sections were sparsely populated, with attendees likely scrambling to get a few drinks in them before the major acts took the stage. In general, the quality of the show was again hampered by the venue logistics. This venue itself is gorgeous, sounds good and has excellent staging, but every part from parking to organization was proving to hold back the positive moods of the nearly 45,000 in attendance. Glen Helen mainstays (Clutch opened for Tool here in 2017) Clutch seemed to have the love of about half the venue as they played crowd-pleasing songs like “Psychic Warfare.” All in all, they did a solid job as an opening band before making way for the recently reunited At the Drive In.
Outside of System of a Down, At the Drive In was by far the most interesting group to take the stage. Having only reunited last year with the decently well-received Interalia, their fans have been hungry to catch them live at every single date and this show provided, by far, the highest-profile stage that they had played since their reunion and may be the largest non-festival audience they ever play. They came out hot to a roaring crowd and a much more thoroughly fleshed out pit and seated section. They were the first band to make use of the screens littered about the stage sides and behind the band itself. They played hits like “One Armed Scissor” and “Napoleon Solo” to great fanfare, but not before heckling the audience over their seeming lack of energy. At first, it seemed like typical rock bravado but it did eventually cross a little into mocking the audience’s constitution in the rain and cold but eventually came around to a more crowd-pleasing tone. At the Drive In not only was the band that received the most energy from the crowd, but they were furiously energetic themselves, showing age on their faces but never in their performance. By the time they left the stage both them and the audience were sweat-drenched and spent, leaving Incubus with a difficult task.
By the time Incubus came out it was officially cold (by Southern California standards at least) and anyone without a jacket was starting to seriously regret their decision to “travel light.” Luckily any forecasted rain had long since passed, leaving only errant drops to land on the screens of those recording the show. Incubus, met with the unenviable charge of following up At the Drive In, met the challenge admirably kicking off their set with “Privilege” and almost immediately they had the hearts of everyone in the crowd, again proving that the last time you released a great album is something fans will readily overlook. Their deeply early 2000s sound was clearly bringing people back to the past in the best way possible. The rain ended up picking up to a moderate mist during their set but in truth, no one in the audience cared at all. If anything it was welcomed by the pit who were doubtlessly beginning to sweat in the humid, swirling mass of body heat generated by a 3,000 person mosh pit. While one may have assumed that hits like “Drive” and “Pardon Me” would have taken the cake for crowd engagement, the excitement of the crowd remained impressively even throughout the whole of the set, making for an excellent send-off before SOAD brought the house down. Though to be honest, the highlight of the set was their cover of Ginuwine’s “Pony.”
Some bands truly have no business playing live. This isn’t meant as an insult, simply an observation that the complexity of instrumentation and sheer vocal ability should render it impossible to play in real time. SOAD should be one of those bands (seriously just listen to that drumming) but somehow they pull it off. In person, the effect is positively mesmerizing. They came hot out of the gates with “Television/Radio” and the very appropriate “Prison Song.” To say the crowd was electric would be an understatement. Most people will honestly never be part of a crowd quite like this. It was legendary—one can only imagine what it would’ve felt like to be in the pit itself, which, from a distance, appeared to border on downright dangerous. The stage design deserves a shout out as well, primarily composed of a diamond shaped LED screen, it captivated the audience as mobile elements in front of it would move, both hiding portions of the LED and allowing the stage lights to reflect off of these black rectangles in strange and interesting ways. When they played their biggest songs, tracks like “Chop Suey!” and “Aerials,” it felt as though the crowd could have been heard from miles away. Some crowd members did start to leave as time went on in a (likely vain) attempt to avoid whatever chaos was bound to sour the evening in the parking lot. Yet all in all this was everything a fan could want in a show, hits, deep cuts and most importantly, a crowd that really got the music and really cared.
In some sense, it doesn’t seem to matter all that much if a band disappears for a time. Both At the Drive In and System of a Down proved that tonight. So long as what they put out remains at an incredibly high standard and continues to excite fans, they will always be there. Few bands can rock a venue in the same way that System of a Down did tonight, and that’s no small feat when it comes to a venue of 45,000. In all honesty, it should be impossible, but SOAD managed to show that when it comes to metal, not even Californians’ fear of the rain and cold can stand in the way. So long as Glen Helen Amphitheater continues to book bands at a caliber this high, they’ll always manage to outshine the venues remoteness and seemingly unresolvable parking difficulties, and that too is quite the feat.
Photo Credit: Mauricio Alvarado