Big Al’s Metal Shop

Despite the blinding cold of last weekend, rock fans in this town could take solace in the warmth of another place: this past Saturday saw on the order of one million tanned, drunk, writhing bodies on the sands of Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro. Nothing out of the ordinary for a Brazilian summer, except that they were all guests of the Rolling Stones, as they hosted a pre-Carnaval party to end all pre-Carnaval parties.

Why should that make ’Burghers smile, you ask? Well, it reminds us that a country as glorious as Brazil exists. But even more so, it reminds us that live music is the lifeblood of any city’s culture, whether there’s sand or snow between your toes. While Rio will always be Rio, Pittsburgh was recently named the best city for rock in America. Perhaps this was a bit premature, with the recent spate of venue closings in Oakland and the Strip. But this Saturday also saw the return of Pittsburgh to its glory days, as it once again hosted relevant, meaningful concerts in a mid-level venue. Yes, the year has begun with Opeth playing one of the most eagerly awaited shows in recent memory, and it only gets better from here. Next month continues the European invasion with Children of Bodom playing a headlining show — a sell-out, hopefully. And if we may dare to dream, a few beloved lost venues could always come online again, no?

Until that happens, there are other signs that Pittsburgh is on its way to truly earning its distinction as the best city in America for rock. On the club level, we’re starting to get a fairer shake as far as national and international acts go. Tours that would usually pass us by are now stopping in. For example, Overkill plays the Rex Theatre on the South Side
tomorrow. Now, if you haven’t been, the Rex has chairs all the way to the stage. Not exactly metal-friendly, but fans have made it work so much so that the Rex returned the favor last year by booking important acts like Kings X and UFO. After the shuttering of Club Laga in Oakland, the Rex has stepped up its bookings, and the year ahead looks good.

So, back to the Opeth show at Mr. Small’s in Millvale, where Devin Townsend’s band and Dark Tranquility opened. If you remotely like metal, you were there. No hype necessary for this one. If any band has a chance at developing a Phish-like following, it’s the Swedes that, er... rock. Mixing space-prog-metal with intelligent lyrics is not the shortest path to success in the arena of heavy music. At least not in the current musical environment. While radio is no longer enamored with rap-metal, you’re still not likely to hear an Opeth song on commercial radio. But it doesn’t matter. Good music finds a way to its audience. As the word of mouth grows, so will the club sizes for Opeth. If you missed them this time, go on a road trip and see for yourself. The crowd, with its attention and devotion, reflects the ethic these musicians devote to their craft. You may even find yourself sitting down somewhere just so you can listen to the music in its unspoiled entirety.

Now, most bands would be frightened to go on after the Tasmanian devil known as Devin Townsend. I have personally seen him lay waste to crowds large and small as the leader of Strapping Young Lad. It’s always fun to watch him heckle the audience, tormenting and teasing them. It’s even cooler to see large men cackle at being made fun of. Having said that, the DTB is a much different affair. Not the straight-forward assault that is Strapping, the DTB is an outlet for another side of Townsend’s soul, introspective and a perfect match for Opeth. Touring behind a new album, Synchestra (out now on Pittsburgh’s own Inside Out Records), Townsend and company are out gently lulling audiences into a peaceful state while his Strapping mates commence writing their next album until he returns. Actually, that’s not completely true. Synchestra is a beast of an album at times. There is ferocity, but it is the kind of fierce outburst for which a caged tiger is known, rather than a free one. This to me is the sense of Synchestra, a release of emotion from a place deep inside Devin’s psyche. How it translates live is completely up to the listener.

Oh, and if you missed the Stones in Rio, don’t worry. They filmed it for a DVD.

All the best.