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Mama Told Me Not To Come: My First Deathfest

Wednesdayish/Thursday – Day One

I’ve never been to Baltimore, so when I finally geared everything up for my flight Wednesday afternoon, I was admittedly giddy. Yes. Giddy. I love traveling, and when you throw a metal festival with a lineup like this year’s Maryland Deathfest (At the Gates, Agalloch, Crowbar, My Dying Bride, Triptykon, Dark Angel, Mitochondrion, etc.), then it’s just an added bonus to the excitement. [Ed. note: Mitochondrion and Aeternus encountered visa/boarder issues and have since dropped off the bill.] The trouble with traveling, though, is it generally necessitates flying through the air in a metal tube packed with a disproportionate number of screaming children and flight attendants who either look like Guy Fieri or have grinned so forcefully for so long they resemble the people from the “Black Hole Sun” music video. The flight from Birmingham to Charlotte was uneventful, save for the guy in the seat next to me who spent the duration yelling about his new Beats By Dre headphones while wearing them. After a two-hour layover in Charlotte, which involved me searching for the airport’s mythical “Smoke Lair” like an inept and whip-less Indiana Jones, I was on the 7:50 to Baltimore.

It was the greatest flight in the history of US Airways thanks to a passenger who I can only refer to as 33C. She essentially brought everyone on board into her conversational dimension of pretzel descriptions, the inadequacy of Subway sandwiches, and genuine concerns over who was “driving” the plane.

For much more, follow Jonathan on Twitter @jonathan_k_dick.

I landed in Poe’s home and was picked up by the friendly complete strangers who are letting me floor surf. The next morning I immediately became aware of the fact that Ram’s Head, the venue for the first night of MDF festivities, was a solid 3.5 miles from where I was staying. My host, an incredibly kind yoga instructor/metalhead, saw fit to give me his bus pass because obviously no reasonable person would walk that distance. Having a proclivity for seeing what’s clearly reasonable or logical and promptly running in the opposite direction, I decided to walk to the venue and take in the sites of all that is Baltimore. After having some damn good coffee at a place called Spro, I set out on my walk with the sincere hopes that my iPhone Maps app would not lead me down a path inevitably ending with a headline of “Man From Alabama Found Naked and Confused on Highway Mumbling About Heavy Metal.”

After hitching a brief truck ride and receiving a bottle of water from a guy named Cliff wearing a surprisingly new-looking Rusty Wallace t-shirt, I was about halfway to Ram’s Head. I popped my headphones in, turned on the new Swans record, and did that weird thing where my steps lined up in perfect time with the beat of the music. I always feel weird when that happens, so I deliberately tried to change my pacing which, ironically, made me look even stranger. Onlookers saw an idiot in a Judds shirt walking like he’d studied under the tutelage of John Cleese at the Ministry of Silly Walks.

As an English teacher, I obeyed my obvious academic/moral obligation, and visited the grave of Edgar Allan Poe. The song playing in my headphones as I walked through the entrance of the graveyard was “Sun-Toussaint,” just as Gira shouts “Bring the Sun!” In an otherwise fragmented trip, everything seemed to collapse into some beautifully strange synthesis. Occasionally I get reminded of music’s power and the context of physical surrounding that can make the experience that much more visceral. I took a few pics of the graves, sent them to my confused mother who asked why I was in a cemetery in Baltimore, and then hauled ass to Ram’s Head.

Watching excited people entering a venue may very well be one of the most perfect things in the world. I don’t care if it’s Coldplay or Crowbar, seeing people grinning and high-fiving strangers and lying their asses off about shows they’ve seen is sincerely one of my favorite things to experience. It’s like the Bill Brasky sketch from SNL except everyone is just one-upping each other about their favorite band or best seen show. It’s mostly refreshing because, for the most part, you’re not likely to find a single mention of any gossip, controversy, bemoaning, or politicizing in that crowd of (mostly) black shirts with (mostly) indecipherable band names on them. Even the gigantic dude looking like the love child of Andre the Giant and Sloth who’d been thrown out not even five minutes into Seven Sisters of Sleep’s set was happy, albeit drunkenly happy. After his exit, he sat outside and talked/yelled/growled about the many reasons he loved heavy metal – one of which happened to be his unfortunate habit of getting thrown out of shows. After people-watching for a while, I traded in my stub for a wristband and a handstamp, plugged up my ears and headed in.

The crowd at Ram’s Head was locked and loaded from the first hint of feedback and didn’t let up until the last colossal note reverberated off the back wall some six hours later. Familiarity with the bands Thursday night was optional. Banging your head and conversational yelling during song breaks was mandatory. A few noteworthy moments in a stellar first night included my inability to stop thinking about whether Whitehorse’s vocalist would side with House Lannister or Baratheon, all the while being duly impressed with the Australian band’s unfiltered brand of sludgy doom that easily rivaled anything else in terms of pure heaviness. Torche were predictably outstanding with the only disappointment coming from the fact that frontman Steve Brooks did not don a Hawaiian shirt (an obvious fashion misstep immediately noted by fellow BV/IO writer Andy O’Connor). The gaffe thankfully did nothing to impede Torche’s routine for sets as loose as they are ridiculously (read: perfectly) loud. Coffins made quick work of switching gears from the pop doom glory of Torche to their well-known, distinctively vicious brand of doom-teethed death metal, with newish vocalist Jun Tokita more than proving himself with one of the genre’s mainstay bands. Closing out the evening was Crowbar, and despite being neck deep in a fantasy about finding brown orthopedic shoes for the walk the next morning, I was transported to New Orleans via the sonic dominance of Kirk Windstein’s howl paired with the battering ram of music hurtling out of the PA.

I have a tendency to walk out of a show right before I know it’s about to end. Not to avoid the crowds but the opposite, rather. I love watching and hearing and just constantly being amazed at how such a huge group of people can take six to seven hours and forget any hangups, drama, or bullshit – all in the name of metal. For all its melodrama, the visit to Poe’s grave immediately came back to my mind as I hopped in the back of a cab to head home to my temporary digs. While I enjoyed the brief nostalgia of seeing the tombstone of the inarguable inspiration for an infinite number of bands, lyrics, and terrible films with John Cusack, the real inspiration was the crowd of strangers a little less than a mile down the road walking in the opened doors of Ram’s Head who, even if only for a brief few hours, would become a family of sorts, united by the same heavy that got us there.

— Jonathan Dick

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