San Antonio, Texas really knows how to throw together a metal show, and what better time to do so than on Memorial Day weekend? They really outdid themselves this time on Sunday, May 29th, with the River City Rockfest. I still haven’t fully recovered. The line-up was an interesting mix of new and old hard rock and heavy metal acts ranging from the melodic death metal outfit DevilDriver, to German rock/metal titans Scorpions, who have had a jaw-dropping 51 year run as a band. There were even a number of “alternative” metal (read: nu metal) bands that played, including Pop Evil, POD, Sevendust, and Disturbed, even if the big draw were really Scorpions and Megadeth.
There were so many bands, in fact, it was literally impossible to see them all. There were roughly about 300 yards between stages, and the sets were staggered a bit to give fans time to make the trek back in forth, which I did a lot of. Due to heavy rains in the preceding days, it was super humid, but there weren’t many clouds, so the Texas heat was also in full effect, leading to a lot of water consumption. My 54-year-old Dad, my younger brother, and his girlfriend, also attended; we’ve been to quite a number of shows together over the years, and my Dad is mostly responsible for my decent into heavy metal mania.
The first set of the day we caught was DevilDriver; fronted by Coal Chamber vocalist Dez Fafara, They play a melodic form of death metal similar to the Swedish bands In Flames and Soilwork. Sporting a hugely overhauled line-up, they blazed through such classics as “Clouds Over California” and “End Of The Line” with the intensity of a well-seasoned band. The crowd knew nearly every word, including the new songs (an impressive feat considering the album had only been released two weeks prior to the show), and there was a pretty decent sized moshpit going, despite the heat. Despite being on the smaller of the two “main” stages, DevilDriver put in an arena-worthy performance, and won the crowd over within the first few seconds of the first song.
Shortly after DevilDriver’s set, Hellyeah fired up on the main stage with “Demons In The Dirt.” Since I have seen Hellyeah a number of times, though, I opted to catch Denison, Tx’s Texas Hippie Coalition. Led by frontman Big Dad Ritch, they play a form of groove metal they’ve dubbed “red metal,” in homage to the red dirt that covers West Texas. Equal parts melodic and crushingly heavy, the band played their songs with a redneck sneer and swagger reminiscent of the early days of Pantera. Lots of horns were thrown up when Big Dad Ritch announced arguably the band’s most well-known tune, “Pissed Off And Mad About It.” Ritch has a southern (profanity-laced) charm about his stage presence that can’t help but to make you grin, while still wanting to take a shower afterwards. Stil, the crowds were on their best behavior and, despite the screams and horns being thrown up, weren’t quite as rowdy as the DevilDriver crew.
Not really interested in catching Sixx A.M., Motley Crue bassist Nikki Sixx’s new band, I stuck to the smaller stage again, wanting to catch Austin-based The Sword. Handpicked to tour with Metallica, The Sword have been poised to conquer the retro-metal world for a while, and have even been featured on Guitar Hero. With stoner-friendly Black Sabbath style riffs, they changed the pace a bit, though there were a few sound issues. Most of the band’s newer material is a little closer to hard rock than heavy metal, with an emphasis on psychedelic blues-rock, but there was still enough of a wallop in the low-end to get some heads banging.
After grabbing some refreshments, I wandered over to the third (and much smaller) stage for local/regional bands not signed to a major label. I was thoroughly impressed by San Antonio’s The Heroine who played a fairly classic-sounding hard rock, laced with a lot of blues. The attitude, showmanship, and overall stage presence they brought with them really shamed a lot of the bigger bands, and had an almost punk rock edge to it, despite the music itself being closer to The Rolling Stones turned up to 11.
I left The Heroine’s set a little early, though, in order to catch a set I was extremely excited about: Hatebreed. I’ve been listening to this band for years (since Satisfaction Is The Death Of Desire, to be precise) and yet I’ve never gotten to see them live, despite their relentless touring cycle. The wait was well worth it, with a set that mixed a little bit of everything from the band’s two-decade career. The crowd was insane, with everyone jumping, shouting the words, and forming two circle pits simultaneously, before turning into one of the largest moshpits I’ve seen in a while. That Hatebreed can play new tunes like “Looking Down The Barrel of Today” alongside classics like “Destroy Everything” and “Smash Your Enemies” with the same intensity is a testament to how tight the members have become as a live unit. Ending with arguably the band’s biggest hit, “I Will Be Heard,” it’s hard to imagine anyone walking away dissatisfied.
Next up on the mainstage came Megadeth, one of the biggest draws of the festival, and easily one of the biggest crowds of the day. Lately, you never really know what you’re going to get with a Megadeth show, considering how many albums the band has released over the years. The set kicked off to a pretty good start, though, with “Hangar 18,” which really set the mood for the frantic pace of the rest of the show. There were a few surprises in the set-list, particularly “Trust” and “She-Wolf” from Cryptic Writings, and even some older numbers, like “Peace Sells” (the title track from my favorite Megadeth record). Although frontman Dave Mustaine was pretty personable, if you’ve been to a show of his in the last few years you know that at some point you’re going to hear some kind of crazy political comment. This wasn’t the exception. In introducing the new song “Post American World,” Dave mentioned “being tired of the rest of the world bitching about Americans coming over,” which is apparently what lead to the writing of the song. No Megadeth set would be complete without “Holy Wars,” and they tore through it with the intensity of a band half their age. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised with the set, and impressed with the new lead guitarist. Hell, even Dave’s voice (which can be a little inconsistent live) was pretty spot-on, and the crowd was practically eating out of his hand by the third song.
By this point in the festival, the sun was getting ready to set, everybody was hot, tired, and in varying states of inebriation. I don’t think anybody was quite prepared for the awesome performance that Scorpions were about to put on, which was easily the best show of the entire festival. When I looked it up (out of curiosity) to see how long Scorpions have been around, I did a double-take. This band has been around since 1965, and they put all the other bands to shame with their energy. Casual listeners probably only know the big hits “Rock You Like A Hurricane” and “No One Like You,” but the hardcore fans were treated to some really old material that sounded just as good today as it did when it was first written. My favorite moment was the medley that consisted of “Top of the Bill,” “Steamrock Fever,” “Speedy’s Coming,” and “Catch Your Train.” Many of these songs are older than most of the bands on the bill for this festival, and yet the crowd went absolutely ape-shit, and sang along. Vocalist Klaus Meine sounded fantastic, fill-in drummer Mikkey Dee had a pretty face-melting extended drum solo, and the duel six-string attack of Matthias Jabs and Rudolph Schenker was awe-inspiring. Scorpions played for nearly an hour and a half (I mean, who’s going to tell them they’re over their time limit), and never lost steam. The light show, the sound, and the band performance were all flawless, making this truly one of the best live shows I’ve ever witnessed.
I don’t know how anyone is expected to go on after such a performance, but I moved on over to stage two to catch alternative/nu metal titans Sevendust’s performance anyway. The sound was insanely heavy, with the breakdowns taking on a very modern tone; listening to the riffs, I can almost hear how Sevendust anticipated the rise of djent almost a decade before the genre was birthed. If you didn’t know this was a Sevendust set, though, vocalist Lajon Witherspoon certainly wasn’t going to let you fucking forget it, with him namedropping his band every 2 or 3 minutes. It got a bit irritating, but the musical performance was so tight and heavy, I was able to tune it out. Lajon is an excellent vocalist, who can go from a soulful croon to a furious snarl in an instant, and perfectly matched the muscular-yet-melodic tone of the music. Sevendust seem to have outlived the whole nu metal movement, and are one of the few bands in the genre that haven’t aged poorly, despite having stuck to the same sound over the years.
By the time Disturbed took the main stage, I, my Dad, my brother, and his girlfriend were all exhausted, but I still had a morbid curiosity about how they sound now. Once again, I was pleasantly surprised at how intense the band sounded in a live setting; with probably one of the most unique voices in music, David Draiman didn’t miss a note, and guitarist Dan Donegan had a really thick, heavy tone on his guitar. The set was made up of mostly older tunes, so it was a trip down memory lane, back when Jncos and bands with turntables ruled the airwaves. Following their megahit “Stupify,” Disturbed performed a rather emotionally riveting version of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound Of Silence,” which was both moving and bizarre at the same time. The pyrotechnics were pretty cool throughout the band’s performance, and Draiman’s stage presence was almost like a mad conductor, with big sweeping arm gestures and shout-outs to the crowd that were rather uplifting.
I’ve never been to a festival where I thoroughly enjoyed every band’s set, but for the first time, River City Rockfest delivered just that. I can’t even begin to describe how rare it is to thoroughly enjoy each and every band, one right after another like this, but every one of the bands played their asses off, the crowd had a blast, and the festival was extremely well-organized. A great time was had by all, and I certainly look forward to attending this event again in the feature.