Freaks. Zeros. Head Cases. This is who we are. Nashville Machine Head fans made a declaration on Saturday night as they descended upon the sold out Exit/In like a swarm of locusts, clenching fists of dissent and preparing to exhale the vile darkness from within.
Early November, as days turn blue to gray, four years after their last visit, Machine Head returned to Music City during the second leg of their North American tour for what was supposed to be a celebration of their ninth and most current studio album, ‘Catharsis.’ However, on September 28th of this year, front man and founder Robb Flynn took to Facebook Live and dropped a ten ton hammer. After announcing that guitarist of 15 years, Phil Demmel, and drummer of 23 years, Dave McClain, had quit the band and that bass player Jared MacEachern “kinda quit but didn’t know if he was quitting for sure,” the celebration quickly turned into a state of beautiful mourning as the band decided that there was business left unfinished and that this leg of the tour would serve as a eulogy to this version of Machine Head. A version that many fans, including myself, consider their strongest. I defy any metal fan to deny the importance of albums like ‘Through The Ashes Of Empires’ and ‘The Blackening’ (both recorded with founding bass player Adam Duce), especially following the nu-metal detour they took with their previous two albums which struck a nerve with their core fan base. Following the deafening silence from the bomb he just dropped, Flynn went on to say that while this is the end for this line up of Machine Head, this most certainly was not game over for the band.
After the doors opened at 7:00pm, in came the flood of Head Cases, ready to ooze their blood, sweat and tears for Phil and Dave one last time. After the choir filled crescendo ending to “Diary of a Madman” by Ozzy wrapped up, the clean strumming of the intro to “Imperium” began and the crowd let out a huge roar. I was surprised that the walls of the Exit/In, now packed butt to gut, didn’t come crashing around us. Robb and the fellas came out on fire and didn’t let off the gas for most of the nearly three hour night. Robb was his usual charismatic self, constantly engaging with the crowd, making sure to get the appropriate level of response before moving on with the set. “Nashville, Tennessee . . . are you ready for a fast one? (Mediocre applause and cheer) No, no, no, no, no . . . I said Nashville, are you ready for a fast one?! This is “Volatile!” He somehow managed to keep the same intensity and level of energy up the entire night until there was nothing left in the tank.
It was apparent that this band, this music was his catharsis. Following their seventh song and a quick guitar solo from Phil, Robb came back out, acoustic guitar in hand, slowly strumming the beginning of “Darkness Within.” He approached the mic and addressed the audience, “Welcome to the Freaks and Zeros tour Nashville, Tennessee. Saturday night in Nashville! Are we ready to rage or what? How ya doing in the balcony up there? I see a lot of phones, I see a lot of people on phones that are staring at their phone and not watching the damn show! How you doing up there? Put your phones down dammit! You’re never gonna watch that shit, it’s gonna sound like crap. You know whatcha need to do is put your phone down and live in the moment man. Live in the moment!” He couldn’t have been more right. We’ve become a blank generation filled with anxiety, the constant need to check social media, comparing ourselves to the thousand lies being fed to us through carefully manicured stories that meticulously hide the damage inside the curator. When all we really need to do is be still and know the present.
He continued, “We’re all a bunch of weirdos, we all don’t fit in. That’s why we were drawn to this aggressive kind of metal music, man, because we don’t fit in with the rest of the world. This is the shit that keeps all of us sane right here, right? Because what’s going on out there (pointing outside) don’t make any sense. I can tell you right now, when I look into this audience, everything in here makes a whole lot of sense. This is what I need. This is the shit that I need to help make sense of the world, man. When I look out into this audience I know, that just like me, somewhere along in your life music came and it filled this hole inside of you. It filled this hole and nothing else did. We’re so lucky that we get to do this night after night, travel all over the world, man, but I’ll tell you what, we need this too Nashville, Tennessee.” And even though I’m sure Robb delivered a version of this sermon in every city he’s played on this tour, I didn’t doubt the sincerity of his words. The burning red fire in his belly evident through his raging three hour performance.
It had been 11 years since I last saw them perform live, fresh off the release of their career-reinvigorating album ‘The Blackening.’ Still full of desire and fire. Heading into this night I was anxious to see how touring with members who had already quit the band would affect the performance and chemistry on stage. Living in a nation on fire, politically and some parts quite literally, a band like Machine Head, who’s never shied away from politics, should have plenty of rage to overcome. What I witnessed was a band that still cared about putting on a great show for their fans. Let’s be honest, I’m sure playing the same songs night after night for 15+ years can become old and grind you down, but Dave, 15 songs deep, still cared enough to throw in a six minute blistering drum solo, though it could have used a little more cowbell. Phil played to the crowd the entire night, often miming the words to the front row, treating us to a little Sabbath “N.I.B.” and at some point even some Journey “Who’s Crying Now,” ironically perhaps. Grinning most of the night and often tapping his chest as a thank you to the fans. Was he up there just going through the motions? Only he knew for sure, but as seasons tend to wither, I could sense that Phil realized this season of his life was quickly approaching an end and he was appreciating the here and now.
Bassist Jared MacEachern was an absolute animal on stage, prowling stage left like an unleashed psychotic wolf under a kaleidoscope of swirling hair, growling vocals and rumbling bottom end. If Robb is going to salvage Machine Head going forward I truly hope he can hang on to MacEachern for his roaring stage presence and high harmonies to Flynn’s snarling vocals. It was good to see Phil and Robb come together for their dueling guitar solos as well, their final harmonies serving as a musical elegy to one of metal’s best six string duos.
By night’s end, Machine Head went on to perform a 23 song setlist that encompassed their entire catalog. While I was selfishly hoping for an Iron Maiden cover or some other surprise, they stuck with classics like “Old,” “Davidian,” “Aesthetics of Hates,” and “From This Day” and of course hit some newer tunes in “Killers & Kings,” “Catharsis,” “Beyond the Pale,” “Volatile,” and “Game Over” just to name a few. As the band was wrapping up their encore with “Halo,” Head Cases throughout the building began to wipe the tears from their eyes as many came to realize their chance to see Robb, Phil, Dave and Jared share the stage again had come down to none. Robb and Jared were about to bid a farewell to their brothers in arms. And while hope begets hope and fans can wish for the guys to ultimately change their minds down the road, the only way to ensure you see this lineup of Machine Head again is to bite the bullet and grab a ticket to one of the few remaining shows. The regret will be none but your own.