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Road Reports

Who: Devin Townsend Band
Opener: TesseracT
Where: Chicago, IL, Lincoln Hall
When: 11.07.10
Writer: Etiam

When a favorite band comes to town that I've not seen before, on the day of the show I tend to get more worried than excited. Could they live up to the hype? Would the crowd respond? Would the atmosphere match my own experience with the records? This is all commonplace, but never before I have I had quite the same trepidation as before Devin Townsend's headlining show at Lincoln Hall, Chicago. Devin, dating back to his debut days as Steve Vai's vocalist on 'Sex and Religion', has always been one of metal's most redheaded stepchildren (or skullet-boasting blonde, as it were). His antics with Strapping Young Lad, bizarre press engagements, and unpredictable catalogue over the past 15 years have polarized audiences and left critics grasping for new synonyms for 'eccentric'. I have been a fan ever since I heard 'Terria', and the very next day went to Tower Records and bought every album with his name on it. But I had never seen him live, not wanting the first experience to be a throwaway Strapping set at Sounds of the Underground or something comparably hasty. I have taken this same approach with other favorite bands and generally found it worth the wait, but these circumstances seemed a little different. Yes, Devin was headlining, but after a few reclusive years and a personal reinvention (or, rather, reassessment), this trek through the States almost seemed like a comeback tour instead of a coming-out party. In the end, it was a little of both.

Opening the night was TesseracT, a young quintet from England with only an EP to their name so far. Not to be underestimated, they are already signed to Century Media and have hit the international tour circuit hard—playing in the UK, US, and India in barely more than a month's time. They are part of the new scene of technical metal that relies on stuttering, Meshuggah-based meters, impeccably clean production, and sinuous, complex structures that defy expectations. In other words, they 'djent'—the new buzzword in metal that inspires love and loathing in the mostly computer-savvy 20-something metalheads that have turned it into a DIY institution.

Wielding 7-string Ibanez RGDs and a 5-string Warwick, TesseracT's instrumentalists laid an utterly impeccable tapestry of sound over Jay's equally precise percussion (guided by click-track, presumably). Bassist Mos stole the show for me, playing his complex fingerstyle parts with a fluid grace, slapping occasionally without being ostentatious, and even stepping up to the mic for some low growls during TesseracT's final number. So far, so good. Vocalist Dan Tompkins—who joined the original members in '09—is the primary point of divergence from TesseracT's peers, with a soaring pure tenor that dips only occasionally into rasps or screamo. It is a modern style that mostly eschews vibrato, preferring to find a note and stick it with confidence, leaving little margin for error in live performance. And yet, Tompkin's seemed to nail his parts, and assumed his (admittedly small) space on stage with confidence.

Aside from not being a hardcore 'djentleman', my only issue with TesseracT was that I found it hard to trust Dan's performance. Whereas Devin used backing tracks quite obviously (some vocal parts occurring while he was completely away from the microphone), Dan's parts frequently seemed to have harmonies in the background, or high, sustained notes that exceeded those he delivered on stage. The support was loud enough to hear, but not quite loud enough to make out precisely, and left me unsure as to exactly what it was he'd sung, what had been in the background, and what I had just imagined.

Whatever the case, the audience seemed to dig it. Some were pleasantly surprised, while others flatly stated that they had come more for TesseracT than for Devin. These were few, but enthusiastic: one fan sang along to every song and headbanged so fiercely that I worried he might smash his camera—which was shaking about in one of his upraised fists—into the heads of the row in front of him. After an approximately 35 minute set, they thanked us and Devin, invited us to meet them back at the merch table, and bowed out to genuinely appreciative applause.

During the layover, Ziltoid Radio played us a fetching array of bubblegum pop ('Barbie Girl', the Vengaboys, Katy Perry) that put us in just the right state of bemusement and anticipation. With no amps to set up—Devin runs Fractal Audio's Axe-FX through the PAs—it wasn't long until the band was set up and the smoke machines were churning. Then, the man himself emerged from backstage, wearing a grey suit with the sleeves rolled up, and wielding the largest flying V I have ever seen. While the intro to 'Addicted!' rolled out of the speakers, he hammed it up with the audience from side to side and assured us that "It'll be fun! Trust me." And at that moment all my trepidation dissolved.

It wasn't the loudest, longest, most mind-blowing, outrageous, or ecstatic concert experience of our lives, but that was part of the point of this tour. Devin put that extremism behind when he put SYL to rest and shed the skullet. The four records he's now releasing, and this tour in support of the first two, is an affirmation of that change. The outlandish showmanship made for great theater, but was destructive, unsustainable. A new man now, Devin embraces his audience as we (well, most of us) embraced 'Ziltoid the Omniscient'—Devin's doppelganger. That record was a canary in the coalmine, so to speak, and once Devin's fans stuck with him through that experimental transition, he must have realized that we would cheer his dweebdom, because we were right there with him.

And on the other hand, the performances were simply outstanding. 'Supercrush!', with his vocal performance—unabashedly melodramatic—was sensational. He didn't always go for every high note, but hit those that he did try for with verve. The remaining zeniths were turned into his distinctive harsh high that can't quite be called a shriek—it's too controlled and, somehow, melodic for that, but still seething with energy. Evidently, some stops on the tour have been plagued by sound and technical issues, but we had no major problems to combat. True, his guitar was too quiet in the mix, diminishing the impact of some ultra-heavy riffs as in 'OM' or 'Supercrush!', but its consequence was mostly positive, sine we could hear Devin's singing and commentary that much more easily. Moreover, Lincoln Hall is a fairly new venue that doesn't seem to handle many metal shows quite yet, so I suspect that the mix could have been far worse. (Altogether, their staff was friendly, the show affordable, and the venue itself quite clean. A good first impression for this new indie artist destination.)

Devin performed songs from almost every record, and despite the vast differences between set numbers such as 'Bad Devil' and 'Deep Peace', he sold both with equal fervor. And it worked, for no matter how weirdly different each album might be from its predecessor, every album is inimitably his, and that spirit of continuity was manifested on stage. 'Infinity' material was what the audience loved most, though many sang along to 'Ziltoid' material with almost equal amounts of glee. Devin himself seemed to enjoy the 'Ziltoid' material especially, with a crushing rendition of 'By Your Command' (which easily survived the plot-developing voiceovers throughout), 'Color Your World', and 'The Greys' at various points throughout the set.

The single most memorable moment was during 'Bad Devil', between the verses of which Devin was scattering enlightening commentary ("This song is a metaphor for sex!", etc.). When the song's horn section breakdown arrived, Devin leapt from the stage with his guitar in tow and turned the center of the standing room into a dance hall hoedown. When he hunched down the fans crowded around, and as the song kicked back into high gear, they raised their hands and drew back almost like 'Blues Brothers' choreography.

As entertaining as it was to watch Devin's antics, without a strong backing crew this tour could never have happened. His drummer, Ryan Van Poederooyen, and second guitarist, Dave Young (who also delivered some MIDI keyboards through a PRS Mushok baritone when not playing a Flaxwood), are former collaborators whose work has always been excellent. His bassist may have been as well, but I didn't recognize his face and only heard him introduced in jest as Ace Frehley. All three nailed their performances and played cool-handed straight men to Devin's jester, from lewd banter to microphone-enhanced flatulence.

In a sense, this tour was almost like group therapy, with Devin leading the discussion. He was a fountain of free association admissions, some silly ("I love unicorns!"), others serious ("Raise your hand if you were the Dungeon Master,"), and most somewhere in between, (something outrageous about rolling a thirty-sided dice to check how many times characters could copulate with the "orc chic"). The more he talked, the more comfortable the audience became, and after the first few songs, we began to respond to his alarmingly direct salutations ("Hi!", "How are you?", "Thanks for coming!", each directed to specific individuals in the audience). He would gawk and cross his eyes for the camera, which the audience of course loved, and by the set's end fans felt comfortable enough to reach up and rub his shaved head, or in one case even push a finger against his nose. To this he crossed his eyes even further, trying to see the finger with an expression of mock horror.

No other song could quite bring the crowd together like 'Bad Devil', but two others were unmatched in bringing us together with Devin—'Deadhead' and 'Deep Peace'. On these songs, Devin put aside the heavy backing tracks and revealed his sensitive side through distinctively delicate lead playing and the purest singing of the night. The melancholy counterpoint of these 15 minutes ('Deadhead' being his final number) was the crowning achievement of his live show. Pure pensive gloom or unfettered shenanigans—each of which he has enough material for a full set—would have left everyone unfulfilled, including him, I think. In achieving just the right blend of the two, we were taken down into his darkness, back up into his joy, and then sent out onto the street with a warming affirmation wholly uncharacteristic of a metal show. And Devin knew that this would happen, with our help. Just as the set was beginning, Devin leaned out over as much of the crowd as he could and beamed at us like a rapturous child. After fixing his eyes on as many people as possible, he shouted out to the ceiling, "Let's make this beautiful!" And we did.

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