Spoken, Danko Jones and Volbeat rolled into Aragon Ballroom in Chicago this spring for what I anticipated to be THE best ticket of the new concert season. The line for the doors to open was long and the crowd waiting to get in ranged from old rocker dudes to little young things freezing in their minis and t shirts to everyone in between. Aragon Ballroom is a historic venue in the area and I have seen some good shows there and some very bad ones, mostly due to sound and the high stage and lack of multiple levels (other than the VIP balcony). We got in well before the opening act Spoken went on and found spots up front after making the obligatory stop at the merch stand to buy my daughter a Danko Jones t-shirt. Spoken is a band with a new album, Illusion, that is doing quite well on the modern rock and christian rock fronts. You never know how a band with a message is going to go over with the meat and potatoes type of Midwest crowds but Spoken handled this high profile spot about as well as one could possibly imagine. First of all, other than a few comments and thanks towards the end of their set you would be forgiven for not even being aware that they are a Christian band. The SPOKEN guys were loud, real loud. Vocalist Matt Baird has a unique approach that matches the band’s soft-to-heavy approach in that he himself also goes from a sweet melody to an earth shattering gates-of-hell opening howl. I like their album but they are a bit heavier live, their single “Through it All” went over very well with the crowd as did most of their set but I kind of prefer the more melodic stuff to the bludgeoning. Baird went above and beyond the job description for a frontman by literally getting out into the crowd towards the end of the set and making a tremendous impression. Even the most obvious Volbeat fans in the crowd seemed to sense the hunger of Spoken, good for them.
There was a fairly short tear down time before Danko Jones. I love Volbeat and they are one of my favorite bands but I will admit I was most stoked about finally getting to see Danko Jones who are also one of those bands I just refuse to take out of my car changer. Again, this tour slot did not come without its fair share of challenge for the Canadian veterans. The most critical thing I can say is that Danko’s indie rock, one guitar, bass and drums sound came off a little thin after the wall of sound from Spoken and preceding the wall of sound of Volbeat. In many respects this is an expected byproduct of the not so wonderful wound inside the Aragon and is really exactly what you would want to see from the band in a headlining spot at a smaller venue so if you were prepared for the power-trio you knew what to expect. Danko Jones has a cleaner, more rootsy sound without much effects and it matches the no-nonsense stage presentation. Danko’s setlist did NOT disappoint. It was as if the guys sat down and really thought about what ten tracks they could blow us away with and leave us wanting more, opening with “Had Enough”, including favorites like “Lover Call” and “First Date” and finishing with their signature set closer “Mountain”(which name checked everyone from Clive Burr to Eric Carr to Randy Rhoads this time!). It was a really great show and whatever may or may not have been missing from the sound (based on your opinion) the guys more than made up for with unbridled energy. It was infectious seeing bassist JC and his ever-present smile while rocking out as well as seeing and hearing drummer Atom Willard just killing it on drums. Seriously, Atom Willard looked and sounded like a young Dave Grohl.
As for Danko himself, I gained a whole new appreciation for what he does. I don’t believe I have ever seen a frontman handle the guitar duties while singing and engaging the crowd quite the way that D.J. does it. Danko was a ball of sweat after leaving the stage and gave every ounce of energy humanly possible in the name of rock and roll before later coming out during Volbeat’s set to sing their cover of the Misfits’ “Angelfuck”. He did such a good job in the guest spot it almost makes you wonder what he’d be like as a stand-alone frontman.
Speaking of Volbeat, there was NOT a short tear-down between sets leading up to their set. It literally felt like forever and the crowd began to get a bit tipsy and aggro as a result with a few tiffs developing before the lights even dimmed which sort of sucked and killed the mood. About two songs after the band kicked off with “Hallelujah Goat” the offending, drunk, belligerent types were whisked out of the pit in front to the cheers of both band and crowd. I have never seen a Volbeat show that was not the best concert I have ever seen in my life and this was no exception. They were great last summer with Hank Shermann on lead guitar temporarily but are even better now that Rob Caggiano has joined the band fulltime. I have always made my love for Anthrax and Rob known but as much as I enjoyed him with Anthrax there is something visibly different going on when Rob is onstage with Volbeat. Instead of simply playing great he has loosened up tremendously and looks much more at home in Volbeat. Some of this is as a result of his onstage interaction with Michael and Anders and some of it is no doubt a result of him writing and being more actively involved in the creative process in Volbeat. The entire set was paced perfectly and Volbeat interacts with a crowd like no band on the touring circuit which is exactly why fans are so damn loyal. The set is very thorough and included everything from “Sad Man’s Tongue” and “Heaven Nor Hell” as well as new songs like “My Body” and “Hangman’s Body Count” which went over as well as any of the classics. Volbeat probably played almost twenty songs including a four song encore which finished with the old-school crusher “Pool Of Booze, Booze, Booza”. Admittedly, I am a major fan but I think Volbeat is currently the best live band on the planet (and there are some very good ones!). With their amazing new album “Outlaw Gentlemen and Shady Ladies” just out there should be ample opportunity for you to go see them and you will be glad you did.