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Live Report: Down at The Orange Peel in Asheville, North Carolina

Is there any subgenre of metal that appeals more to the regional mind than Southern metal? Those bluesy licks, that distinctive whole-step shimmy between the third and fifth frets; all of it has particular resonance if you, like me, have been raised on metal in the South. No matter where below the Mason-Dixon you go, it’s guaranteed you’ll find at least one band of the Southern metal persuasion in every major scene. Charlotte, N’awlins, Richmond, Johnson City; anywhere in a state that seceded in 1861. Suffice it to say, this is the metal I grew up on. So, when I learned that the Ur Example and codifier of Southern metal, Down, was coming to the Orange Peel in my current city of Asheville, I knew I had to be there.

Mindshapefist opened the night, another Southern metal band who, wouldn’t you know it, sound a lot like Down. Maybe they’re a little proggier. Either way, they were really good and the perfect opening band: proficient enough to get the crowd energized, but not attempting to upstage the opening act. I was pleasantly surprised, and I’d be remiss if I said my head wasn’t micro-banging at least a small bit towards the end of their set. MSF were a solid opener, but the point still remained that I, my friends, and all the other rednecks/Affliction jocks/racists[1]/metalheads/crust punks/et cetera in attendance were there to see Down; first, foremost, and beyond a shadow of a doubt.

As expected, Down came out and immediately wiped the floor with virtually every show I’d seen in the past year. They were a force of nature. Perhaps I am committing the sin of hyperbole when I say that Phil Anselmo is one of the last true rock stars on the road today. Argue if you wish, but I’ll stick with my statement. He commands the stage entirely; a mountain of tattoos and a scowl whose snarl has not diminished with time. When Phil Anselmo tells his followers what he expects of them, they do it with no hesitation. It’s a gravitas that few musicians carry nowadays. And, of course, Anselmo is a master of stage banter. His slow, imperious drawl dispenses wit and vulgarity in a way that is simultaneously intimidating and approachable:

“I wanna see you motherfuckers go motherfuckin’ bananas out there. Just motherfuckin’ bananas and shit.”

“Yeah, I’m a midnight tokin’ motherfucker. You motherfuckers smoke the devil grass? Raise your fuckin’ hand if you smoke fuckin’ weed.”

“We been recording for weeks and weeks and weeks and months and months and months and shit.”

“If we messed up a bit on that last song, I’m sorry. We’ve been in the studio for a long time and we’re fuckin’ rusty. So, really, that means it’s all Jimmy’s fault.”

“Sweet Christ Inversion!”

“We got all these special motherfuckin’ effects up here onstage and shit.”

It was a rowdy spectacle. A woman threw her bra up on stage for Phil to consider. Phil examined it, then handed it to Jimmy Bower. “Jimmy, I think this’d look better on you, whaddaya say?” As it turned out, it did, and Jimmy wore it for the rest of the set. Crowd surfers were welcomed to the stage with a firm handshake from Phil’s outstretched hand. The Orange Peel security team attempted to control the pit, but were powerless in the end. However, the show was a testament to Down’s integrity as a band. Anselmo not only dedicated songs to Dimebag Darrell but also made a touching eulogy to Joe Young, the recently deceased guitarist of Southern punk legends Antiseen. Phil frequently extended the mic to the crowd, who sang entire choruses for “Hail the Leaf” and “Stone the Crow.” And when the final song, “Bury Me In Smoke,” came around, not only did the crowd sing the iconic chorus, but the vamping finale consisted of each bandmember exchanging instruments: Phil ended up on guitar, Jimmy on bass, and the rest rotated wildly around until the smoke finally cleared.

Down didn’t play an encore that night, but they didn’t have to. Like Phil said, “Down doesn’t play fuckin’ encores.” As it stood, they brought the Orange Peel down (pun entirely intended), leaving the crowd energized. My friend got his finger crushed in the pit while crowd surfing, such that it resembled a stylized lightening bolt more than a digit. When I asked him about it, he said, “Yeah, I gotta go to the hospital after this, but did you see when Phil shook my hand?” Pain is temporary, but Down, or at least the power that they represent, is eternal.

— Words by Rhys Williams

1. A number were unfortunately present, identifiable by their Nazi Eagle shirts (with the logo “Deutschland und Ehre”), shaved heads, and Iron Cross tattoos. One, an affably racist fellow named Shane, drunkenly exhorted “white power!” to me and some friends and seemed hurt when we shook our heads in disgust. Such is the downside of metal shows in the South.

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