Baroness, Pallbearer, Tombs @ Union Transfer

Review by Morgan Y. Evans
Photos by J.M.

Baroness roared back at their life-affirming Union Transfer return show, proving you can’t keep a great band down. After the August 2012 bus crash in England that nearly derailed the band, many wondered if John Baizley and company were finished right as they were about to really break even bigger with Yellow & Green.

The awesome Baroness Relief campaign started by Rennie at Relapse and some friends saw many bands donate cool stuff for auction to help buffer medical bills for the beloved band, and the whole scene was rooting for this night to happen. The accident led to the sad departure of Allen Blickle and Matt Maggion, but the good news is the band is just as great as ever with former Trans Am drummer extraordinaire Sebastian Thomson and Billy Boyd as Pippin the Hobbit-esque bassist Nick Jost (a very smooth player who looked like he was having a blast). The night was emotional, inspiring and incredibly positive.

We drove three hours in the rain for this show and arrived a tad late, but the show was off to a delayed start anyway due to some monitor problems. A crew friend said that someone who hadn’t smoked in months even lit one up, but thankfully what must have been a super stressful situation resolved and the show was fantastic all night long. After waiting for months (or wondering if they’d ever see Baroness again), one extra hour wait just built fan anticipation even more.

NYC’s underrated Tombs took the stage first for a half hour set that featured wacky drum levels but really impressed me. I had been waiting to hear them for awhile and have been really engrossed by their music ever since the show. I picked up Fear Is The Weapon and want all their shit now! They have a certain coldness ala Joy Division, a ghostly yet percussive quality that echoes the brittle pain of black metal and doom through post-whatever the heck. John Baizley of Baroness later remarked in the night how great it was to have them on the bill as he and Mike Hill of Tombs have shared stages for over a decade. We didn’t get photos of them but I want to give them a big shout out for being astoundingly awesome.

Pallbearer were next and it was easy to see why they got so much acclaim for their Sorrow And Extinction release (which boasts a very Michael Moorcock reminiscent fantasy art). The band were lurching yet soaring at the same time, the vocals kind of similar to the melodic yet melancholy power of Primordial.

As Baroness took the stage the simmering thrill in the air reached a boiling point. Philly was a great spot for the return show, as the fans and local magazines and labels really care and it is about the art and scene more than corporate influence. Union Transfer is a killer room, both modern and rustic with a lot of character, spaciousness and a cool staff.

This was destined to be a historic night, but when guitarist Pete Adams and Baizley delicately eased into a slower take on “Bullhead’s Psalm” I actually nearly teared up before the band quickly barreled into the one two punch of “Take My Bones Away” and “March to the Sea”. The crowd was overjoyed and it was interesting to see so much stage diving. If I had been through so much physical therapy and resuscitation like the Baroness guys recently have, I would not want bodies flying by me on stage!

I am pretty sure the lighting of each song was color coded to match the albums. Baizley and Adams dueled away like they were in Thin Lizzy and grins were frequent. You would be hard pressed to guess this was their first show with the new rhythm section who were precise yet human. The band played a lengthy set from most eras. A highlight of the show was when an eager fan yelled a request for the sludgy “Tower Falls” from the first EP and Baizley enthusiastically promised to learn it and come back and play it just for that guy. Baizley was quite vocal onstage and noted that this was essentially the first time they’d talked between songs. He also said he wished he could shake the hand of every fan and just seemed so happy to be back where he belongs.

Some people have criticized Baroness for experimenting with more indie rock influences and mellower sounds on Yellow & Green. I would argue that having no growth breeds stagnancy and that every full length of the band has show dynamic range that sets them far above many “peers” who paint within a limited sonic palette. Creative “risks” done right pay off (the Soulfly collaboration on PRIMITIVE between Max Cavalera and Sean Lennon sounded truly weird on paper, for example, but is one of the best Soulfly tunes ever). The YELLOW & GREEN material blended seamlessly with older songs live. There is a pervading sense of fearlessness to the psychedelic-textures embedded in the bridge sections of BLUE anthem “Swollen and Halo” that bears full fruit in a newer song like the slower, spacey and massive “Eula”. Other highlights included a stomping “Isak,” the hypnotic and danceable “Little Things”, the menacing “Board Up The House” and set standout “The Line Between”, a song that really wrestles with questions of existence and morality. If anything, a lot of the new material sounded older. Perhaps the long wait lent familiarity, but there was a sense of purpose and near deja vu to the night, like this was all preordained in some greater plan for rock transcendence.

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