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Very few bands can summon the youthful energy and joy that a rock concert used to give me. Though I now spend most nights in a comfortable spot with a beer in hand, in one weekend I rocked out from the front row at two very different shows: one was Judas Priest at William Saroyan Theater in Fresno, CA and the other was Hammers of Misfortune at Elbo Room in San Francisco. The former brought me back to my youth, when a rock concert was something I’d look forward to for months at a time, and when I’d savor every second of a band’s set. The latter felt like any other Saturday night in the bay, where friends flank my sides, great bands conquer the smallest of stages and Anchor Steam flows like water.

For the first of these front-row excursions, my favorite band since the age of 13 summoned my inner wide-eyed kid. Judas Priest made a stop in the middle of California on the same night that I would be driving up to the San Francisco Bay Area from Los Angeles. After a full afternoon spent driving halfway up California, I found myself at the theater over an hour early. There were no comrades in Fresno to share a beer and conversation with, only me and my smartphone.

This was a Judas Priest concert though—this was okay.

I made my way down to my beautiful position and pressed my body against the front rail. Then I gazed upon the opening band’s banner and realized that I was also at a Mastodon concert—this was not okay.

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Mastodon is the closest thing that my generation of metalheads has to a Metallica, and we are currently ass-deep in Load territory. True to my fears, much of Mastodon’s set was comprised of weirdo hard rock from their latest record, Once More ‘Round the Sun, rather than the technical sludge madness I had grown up with on Leviathan and Blood Mountain. To their credit, the material was well-performed—a claim that they couldn’t always make in the past, at least in the vocal department. A pair of young, show-starved Fresnans to my left eagerly screamed along to every word of “Tread Lightly,” and lamented that the band didn’t play their favorite song, “Dry Bone Valley.” They were the ones who deserved their spot at the front row of a Mastodon show in 2015. Not me.

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As for the headliner, rocking out in the front lines couldn’t have felt more right. For years I had always sprung for the cheapest seats possible at theaters, arenas and amphitheaters—life is different on minimum wage. Judas Priest was always in that upper tier of concerts, too big for me to ever see them from a nice vantage point, but there I was, literally a handful of feet away from Rob Halford and Glenn Tipton, two of heavy metal’s original gangsters. They were right there, performing the same stage shenanigans that I’ve seen time after time: the “Metal Gods” robot walk, Halford wrapping his arm around Tipton during “Victim of Changes” and the “Breaking the Law” sideways headbang dance.

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I roasted my voice yelling the words to “Screaming for Vengeance” and “Electric Eye,” and raised my air-guitars high whenever Tipton stepped to the front. This was the chance to be as close as I ever could be to my favorite band as they rolled through songs that I’ve listened to since I was 13, and I relished every minute of it. An added bonus? Being close enough to see Halford rock Mayhem and Immortal patches on his denim jacket.

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The three hour drive back to the Bay Area allowed the adrenaline to settle, and I had to prep myself for a much more mellow concert experience the next night. Though Judas Priest is the band I’m more likely to turn to on a given day, Hammers of Misfortune—specifically their last album 17th Street—has had an enormous impact on my life. That album, along with Slough Feg’s The Animal Spirits and Cormorant’s Dwellings, first exposed me to the boundless musical treasures that the Bay Area has to offer beyond the long-dead thrash movement. That record and band pushed me down a rabbit-hole I’m continuing to explore every day. Getting to see Hammers of Misfortune would not only be special for myself, a first-time attendee, but also for all their local fans—the band hadn’t taken the stage in over two years prior to this show. I wasn’t even old enough to step foot in the venue last time around.

This time I didn’t arrive an hour early, but instead showed up 30 minutes after doors opened. The more I could stave off choking Bay Area traffic, the better. As I walked through the doors of San Francisco’s beloved Elbo Room, I was immediately greeted by one of the night’s performers, Shane Bergman of Walken. Already, I was in another universe. Rather than claiming and guarding my coveted post, I allowed myself some fun. I bought a beer, and caught up with friends until I saw Bergman and Walken take the stage. My journey to the front was casual, easy and best of all, cheap.

Where my proximity to Priest allowed me to witness the fine details of their stage routine, Walken was all about musical focus. Walken is one of those bands that are impossible to pigeonhole into a single sub-genre. Bergman’s hoarse shouts can easily make way for classic metal guitar harmonies, while drummer Zack Farwell might supply thrashed beats behind it all. Whatever their sound is, Walken’s sheer determination to ably deliver it was palpable from the front. Even a guest appearance from flautist Lily Rahnavard was humble, and far more understated than it had the right to be: the mantra of the set was get up, jam, roll out.

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High Spirits offered the exact opposite experience. The out-of-towners refused to accept that they were playing a bar in San Francisco’s hippest district - they treated the show as if it was a headlining slot at AT&T Park. Guitarists Scott Hoffman and Mike Bushur strolled across their small roost to line up with each other, raised their axes skyward and wore huge smiles as they shredded their solos. This set easily beckoned the most energetic front row of the weekend, with patch-jacketed heshers jamming their fists to the roof and unironically singing along with Chris Black’s tales of big city nights. Black wasn’t content to leave without an arena-level singalong with he and Hoffman leading the crowd with the refrain to the band’s titular song.

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Where my lateral choice of spot was fairly arbitrary for High Spirits and Walken, I had a particular zone in mind for Hammers: right in front of guitarist John Cobbett. Like Priest before them, the set was through in the blink of an eye with a token selection from every record making an appearance. While my eyes were fixated on Cobbett’s acid hands throughout the set, it was impossible not to offer attention to guitarist Leila Abdul-Rauf as she bellowed draconic growls in the band’s early classic, “You Should Have Slain Me.”

The air guitar was dusted off as I picked along with Cobbett’s right hand during the verses of “A Room and a Riddle,” and the air drums were pounded as Hammers’ new pinch hitter Will Carroll barrelled through the post-chorus thrash breaks. A Hammers of Misfortune show is inevitably a display of instrumental virtuosity. From my dream spot, it was impossible to not get sucked into their well-oiled musical engine.

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Nerdery and personal history aside, this was still my local Saturday night metal show. The frontline was a place where I could stand in comfort and in good company and where above all else, metal music was the soundtrack to a rollicking night out in San Francisco.

Despite my front-row adventures that weekend, I’ve been as lame as ever at shows. I’ve showed up late, left early and I’ve hung out near the back, enjoying time with friends. Whether it’s in a sports arena or the shittiest bar in town, a special band can break that apathy. Memories and nostalgia can go a long way but when the tunes are as mighty as those by Judas Priest and Hammers of Misfortune, a 200-mile drive can seem as inconsequential as a short stroll to the stage.

—Avinash Mittur

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