I was talking about the show with a friend beforehand and somehow mentioned that I didn’t know when it would really start, and she said “why don’t you just call the venue?” I said “ha…anyone who answers the phone there certainly isn’t going to know and/or care!” So yeah, it was a trip back in time; that’s what all late-90s underground-ish metal shows were like, whether Jackhammer’s, Riley’s, Smiler Coogan’s, or J.J. Kelley’s, etc. I was actually surprised that you could buy advance tickets for this one, because even that was a rarity back in the day. I remember the cover charge for Iced Earth (or maybe Nevermore?) was once $3. $3! And I’m talking like 1997, not 1957.
Circle II Circle was ok. Obviously the venue they were playing in colored my impressions, but they looked like a bar band, not an internationally touring band that has played Wacken. Though the lead guitarist does have that awesome Peter Tagtgren/Warrel Dane haggard look to him. I was also impressed by the frequent harmony vocals provided by the bass player; that’s something I don’t see enough of these days. The greatness of the Savatage songs they did at the end mostly served to highlight the relative weakness of the CIIC songs.
Then Jon Oliva came out and showed that the atmosphere of the venue could easily be overcome. His sound was more forceful, the band looked more pro, and the whole thing suddenly felt more like an “event”. He was funny, engaging and relaxed as usual, and, speaking of old-school Chicago metal, he got perhaps the loudest cheer of the night by talking about the long-gone Thirsty Whale. If I was shown photos of the two main forces in the band (Oliva and guitarist Matt LaPorte), I would guess that they would be most famous as a couple of sad-sacks who defended themselves from a goofy lawsuit on an episode of “Judge Judy”. Never would I guess that they could play such great music! So of course the Savatage stuff was the highlight (with “Edge of Thorns”->”Chance”->”Somewhere in Time”->”Believe” being one of the best 4-song sequences you’ll ever see), but even the JOP stuff was good too, with “Firefly”, a song I probably heard once before, as a particular standout. And when Zak Stevens came out for his songs, he looked and even sounded way better than he did with CIIC. And I’m pretty amazed at how great Jon’s voice still is. I thought that the trend of asking him to dedicate songs to people he doesn’t even know was a bit lame, but in the case of the guy whose father had died, it had the nice side-effect of making him play the song (“When the Crowds are Gone”) more seriously. Because while all his goofing around is generally fun, many Savatage songs do have deep emotional power to them, so it was nice to see the actions match the words, at least for a bit. Overall it still didn’t touch that 1998 Savatage show (still one of my all-time favorites), when they were still a “big”, major-label band, but it was pretty great.
I did what I consider to be a fairly accurate count-estimate, and there is no way there were 200 people there. More like 100, 120 max. That’s about the exact number I was expecting, but actually it felt more “full” in there than the numbers imply, due to the setup of the room. When Jon said that they would like to come back to the same venue (“next time on a Friday!”) and thanked the owner for paying them a bunch of money, I thought I heard a note of implied sympathy in there for the fact that the owner was totally taking a bath on this one. But just like those bar shows of yore, the per-capita crowd noise was excellent, way beyond what you’ll ever get at a larger show, if that counts for anything.
General setlist, taken from http://www.metalsetlists.com/showthread.php?t=8914 and modified from my not-great memory:
6.Tonight He Grins Again (Savatage)
9.Gutter Ballet (Savatage)
10.Walk Upon the Water
11.Edge of Thorns (Savatage) (with Zak Stevens)
13.Chance (Savatage) (with Zak Stevens)
14.Somewhere In Time (Savatage)
Encore (thankfully they didn’t actually leave the stage):
16.When the Crowds are Gone (Savatage)
17.Hall of the Mountain King (Savatage)