Sunday, June 18, 2017

RATT At The Concord In Chicago

Earlier this month, my wife (Andi) and I restarted our quest to see as many classic metal bands as possible while they are still rocking it out!  We went to see the reconstituted RATT - here's an earlier piece on Pearcy, DeMartini, and Croucier getting back together and restoring a genuine version of the band - at the Concord Music Hall in Chicago.  It was, quite simply, an amazing show, for reasons I'll shortly discuss.

In the last six years, Andi and I we have been fortunate to see Motorhead, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest (twice), Megadeth, Raven, Alice Cooper, Accept, UDO, Thin Lizzy, KISS (twice), and Motley Crue - I'm so glad we saw some of them while it was still possible!  Although both of us have loved RATT since our teen years in the early 80s, neither of us had previously made it to one of their concerts.

When we saw their concert schedule rolling out after they reformed, we hoped that they might be a surprise guest at  Summerfest here in Milwaukee - there is a block of days open in late June and early July on their tour calendar - but didn't see that panning out (Summerfest this year is astonishingly weak on metal bands - but that's another conversation!)  So when Andi saw that there were still tickets available the day of the Chicago show, we decided to clear our schedule, buy them, and drive down!

The Band RATT In The Present

There are three original members left in the band - Stephen Pearcy on vocals,  Warren DeMartini on guitar, and Juan Croucier on bass (and, quite frankly, vocals as well).  All of them were larger than life figures way back in the early days of RATT, and all three of them are still at the top of their game as far as technique and showmanship.  Of the other two original members, Robin Crosby long since passed away, and Bobby Blotzer is off touring, heading his own version of the band (minus the name).

Crosby's place on the dual lead guitar is filled in the present by Carlos Cavazo (best known for his work with Quiet Riot in their heyday).  Blotzer's place on drums is filled by Jimmy DeGrasso (who has played with a number of bands (Megadeth, Alice Cooper, Black Star Riders, just to name a few).  DeGrasso, it should be pointed out, is listed as the "tour drummer", whereas Cavazo is an integral member of the band on the RATT website - but you would not guess that from the excellent chemistry onstage between all of the band members.

When you think about it, RATT is extremely fortunate in their musical catalogue.  They have seven full-length albums, and one earlier and shorter EP - all of which have a number of really solid songs on them.  Their style definitely evolves over time, but it started out heavy, melodic, and complex, and there's no disconnect between the sound on the early albums and that of the later ones.  They can count on at least a significant portion of their audience in any given venue being familiar with their entire discography, and nearly everyone being familiar with their hits.  And they have been rocking their repertoire together for years, in some cases now for decades.

So when they get on stage, everything is totally connected.  The band to their fans.  The members of the band with each other on stage.  One song to another.  When you go to a RATT concert, you have a clear expectation of what you'll hear and see and feel - and the band clearly has a similar sense of what to expect from each other and the crowd.  That doesn't make things boring or predictable at all, precisely because of the energy and passion they bring to their craft.  It is clear that every one of those members of RATT wants to be right there, banging out those songs, with that particular audience.

It does have to be admitted that Stephen Pearcy's voice is not as strong as it was in earlier years.  He doesn't have quite the sustain that a younger version of himself could bring to the songs.  And he doesn't hit all of the highs he could in the past.  But there's still power there, and he hits every lyric when he ought to.  He's not struggling for breath as some older singers do - in fact, he's dancing around on stage, engaging with the audience constantly, doing his frontman duties and more!  

As a side note on that topic, Pearcy is nearly 61 years old.  If you listen to other metal singers in their later years, you notice that the three things that tend to go are the high notes, the capacity to sustain notes, and the power of the voice.  In some cases - usually a matter of getting out of shape - there can also be some difficulty getting enough breath (really, singing one's heart out at a metal concert amounts to an athletic performance!).  Even Ronnie James Dio - perhaps one of the strongest voices in metal, in terms of sheer power, had to sing some of his songs in lower keys (you can hear this on live albums) in his own later years.

Demartini and Cavazo both played all of the standards with a facility - and clearly sheer enjoyment - that amplified the incredible energy onstage.  There are quite a few things that - despite having listened to songs for decades - are really only driven home when you see a band live.  One of those for me (and you're welcome to respond "Duh! Sadler!" here) is just how many solos, licks, and fills there are for the twin guitar attack in RATT compositions.  You fully expect that one of the musicians who originated those - DeMartini - to know them inside and out, and he did.  He'd even add to and play around with some of those lines that after more than 30 years of repetition I would expect most of the audience members already know by heart.  Clearly Cavazo fits very harmoniously into the band as well (pun intended).  And Degrasso's drumming - a powerful presence, high energy as the entire rest of the band!

Juan Croucier - The Real Standout Of The Band

I just mentioned that - at least for me - there are certain aspects of a band's performance, dynamic, or structure that are much easier to grasp when you see them in concert than in recordings or even videos of live performances.  I have to say that, if I was confined to saying just one thing about RATT in concert, it would be this:  Holy shit!  Juan Croucier is not only an amazing bassist, and not only the glue that binds RATT's music together - he's also the unsung second frontman of the band!

Let's start with the sheer athleticism and facility he displays.  Croucier is currently 57 years old, and throughout the entire 16 songs RATT performed at Concord, he was in constant motion.  More than half of the time that he is playing, he is dancing - and not simply shuffling from foot to foot, or swaying from side to side.  He is actually dancing hard, grooving, moving all over the stage, weaving back and forth.  In fact, the guitarists look practically chilled and sedate by comparison - even though they're playing hard - and Pearcy himself is moving around about as much as Croucier!

Not only does Croucier remain in near-constant rhythmic motion while not missing (as far as I heard) a single note in a song, he does tricks.  Tricks with his bass guitar. He flips it around his body, walks it back and forth, turns it over and points it at the crowd!  I've seen other footage of him walking it around as if he is riding a horse!  He strums and picks with larger-than-life arena rock flourishes. He doesn't do this in rare spots during songs in which the bass is silent - no he does all of that while he is playing.  It is at the very core of his musical performance.  He does take some flack from some detractors (not least from Bobby Blotzer - which strikes me as almost Michael Schenker-level sour grapes!) for his stage performance.  But as someone who used to play bass, and used to be in shape, years ago, I found the sheer physicality of his playing inspiring!

Another thing I had not realized is how central Croucier's singing is to RATT.  He bills himself on his website as "the other voice of RATT" - as I read before the concert (admittedly thinking to myself "What? Is he kidding?") - but early into the concert, I saw with my own eyes (and heard with my own ears) just how dead-on that was!  The guitarists do sing harmony on some of the choruses, but Croucier supplies pretty much the whole of the strong high-end vocals in RATT songs.  I do love Pearcy's raspy voice - you can hear the early version of it on the poorly recorded Mickey Ratt stuff from the '70s - but when you think about it, even in his youth he never had a powerful high-end to rely upon.  That's supplied precisely by Croucier in all of RATT's work - just listen, for example, to "Nobody Rides For Free", and you'll see exactly what I mean.

I could also add that if you listen to RATT songs as compositions, it becomes clear pretty quickly just how important Croucier's bass lines are the structure of each of the songs.  You can see that demonstrated graphically - right on his fretboard! - when the band plays on stage.  Perhaps the best way to describe his sound is bouncy and yet heavy, precisely in the groove, and in constant communication with all the rest of the band - adequately describing a musician's style is as difficult as characterizing flavor profiles in strong but complex beers or cigars.   Suffice it to say - and this will be my last work on Croucier for the moment - you can imagine RATT without Blotzer, and unfortunately have to without Crosby - but it's not really RATT without Croucier!

The Show And The Venue 

Let me start by heaping some well-deserved praise on the Concord Music Hall - if you get a chance to go to a conference there, you definitely want to!  The acoustics are simply excellent - and that makes a huge difference.  I've been to shows where the band is totally at the top of their game, the mixing isn't band, but the acoustics of the place still just muddle everything up.  We set ourselves in the back, out of the main area in front of the stage, and the sound was exactly right.  Loud enough that our ears were ringing when we left - and that's two people who have gone to a lot of concerts! But crystal clear.  I'd say the mixing could have been a bit better on the bass - but as a former bassist, I'm perhaps a bit over-picky on that front.

The stage is small for a venue its size, but not too small for the bands to put on a real show.  RATT was preceded by a local Chicago metal band, Diamond Rexx - a four piece band, so they had plenty of room to move around.  Even with all five members of RATT on the stage, there was enough room for them to not be cramped - and to really engage with the audience (and again, it's really Pearcy and Croucier who are the frontmen - both DeMartini and Cavazo play great, and clearly are having a great time, but by comparison, they're both a bit mellow.

I'll also say a few other things about the venue.  Concord Music Hall is really well laid-out.  It's easy to get around - whether to get some refreshments, buy merch, find a restroom, or if you want, to go up into one of the two balconies.  I walked around a good bit and didn't see any place that would be a "bad seat", where you couldn't hear or see the stage well.  Four bars - two on the main floor, two downstairs.  The staff was both quite professional, and seemed like they enjoyed their jobs - often you get one of those, but not both!  Andi and I are definitely planning on going back when there's another good metal show that we can make (our day-job schedules can make that a bit tough).

RATT in concert - particularly this iteration of the band - is, like I wrote, amazing!  When you listen to their songs off their records, they're excellent, tight, fun compositions.  When you actually hear them play live, all of that is there - but there is another dimension - they really are heavy.  Not just in terms of the drums and the bass - or even Pearcy's voice - but even the riffs, licks, and solos.  I love their recorded works, but I've got to say now, RATT is a band that you have to hear in concert! 

They played sixteen songs - all pretty much standards from their catalogue - which admittedly is exactly what the audience was there to hear:
  • Wanted Man
  • I'm Insane
  • Dangerous but Worth the Risk
  • You Think You're Tough
  • Walkin' the Dog
  • Way Cool Jr.
  • In Your Direction
  • Lovin' You's a Dirty Job
  • Slip of the Lip
  • Nobody Rides for Free
  • Lack of Communication
  • Lay It Down
  • You're in Love
  • Body Talk
  • Back for More
  • Round and Round
If you think about the discography, they're starting and ending on Out Of The Cellar - and six of those sixteen songs are off that album.  Not surprising, since it was such an excellent LP!  The RATT EP was represented early on with "You Think You're Tough" and their "Walkin' the Dog" cover.  There were four songs off the Invasion of Your Privacy album, one off Dancing Undercover ("Body Talk"), one off Reach For The Sky ("Way Cool Jr."), and one off Detonator ("Lovin' You's a Dirty Job") - and of course, the ultimate "one off",  "Nobody Rides for Free" (written for the Point Break soundtrack).

There were a few problems with the microphone early on in the set - you couldn't hear Pearcy much on a few of the songs early in - but Croucier filled in admirably - and that was really the only issue marring the otherwise great performance.  I don't know whether the mike issue should be attributed to the road crew or to the Concord, but the band - eminent professionals they are - worked around it, not missing a beat.

So, all told, a performance not to be missed! If RATT is coming anywhere near you - whether you've seen them previously or not - you definitely do not want to miss that show!

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