Lemmy Kilminster led his team to the battlefield once more, and rode away victorious. Long live Lemmy.
The sold-out crowd at San Francisco's Warfield Theater is an experienced, well-dressed rock audience. Everyone here is here for the music, the sights, the sounds, and the lights, and they too walk away victorious. No one knew exactly what to expect from Motorhead, what with their hard living leader reported to be unwell, and having many unfortunate cancellations behind them from the last year. What we got was an amazing performance from start to finish, and a reaffirmation of all that's right with rock.
As befits a night in and amongst San Francisco's legion of the damned, we start the evening with serious libation. Aunt Charlie's, a seedy stowaway for on the fringe, and out of work drag queens was the perfect place to plan the evening as we were left to our own devices by the locals, and their 60s stuffed Motown/Stax jukebox could play no wrong. Several rounds and a hundred shared tales later we were ready to roll into the rock.
Our first step was onto the tour bus of the evening's opening band, Sweden's Graveyard. I don't often quote Rolling Stone magazine, but their lone real rock writer, David Fricke, got it right:
"Like a prog-rock Free or a nimbler Black Sabbath - and a singer, guitarist Joakim Nilsson, whose growl recalls the gritty baritone of Savoy Brown's Chris Youlden. If Graveyard had made an early-seventies private-pressing LP that didn't sell squat, they would be record-collector legends." ~ David Fricke, Rolling Stone
I'm lead onto their tour bus by Graveyard's tour manager, the affable and unflappable Erikk Riiderstom, brother to the band's excellent sitcksmith, Axel Sjoberg. Graveyard has been together in one iteration, or another for many years, and the word family comes to mind, maybe even the word commune. Onstage the group seems to be operating from a single mind-set, and they have maybe the most savvy rock audience in the country in the palms of their sweaty hands. Drawing from three albums of material from which to choose, Nilsson and company might have blown away almost any other band in the world on this warm spring night, were they not preceding an act with something to prove to the universe.
Whispers about Lemmy's health have been heard far and wide over the last year - Motorhead even cancelled dates, something unimaginable in the past, but given Lemmy's legendary diet of speed, Jack and Coke, and enough nicotine to keep Sir Walter Raleigh's estate in the black for another century, there's no shock in Kilminster's condition. Though he clearly was not at one hundred percent, he gave the night 110%, and the evening was well over 100 proof. Twenty-three hundred Motorhead fans were thrilled beyond belief, and they took every opportunity to show the band their love, and devotion.
But first, Graveyard takes the stage, and though they look haggard and a bit worse for wear, they tear through their set of psychedelic laced melodic blues rock like demons in the San Francisco night. This band is a great amalgamation of taut British blues rock circa Kossoff and Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac, a solid and swinging rhythm section, and Joakim Nilsson's melodic songwriting. Their new album, Lights Out, is solid evidence that the band is developing into a headlining act - on this night, there isn't many bands that they would not have blown off the stage with their passionate take classic rock. If you have the chance to see this band, take my advice - see them. Their name would seem to indicate a more metal approach, but they're closer to Cream than Black Sabbath, and they should be around for a long time. They're lifers.
They're off to rapturous applause, and they've earned their post-gig cocktails. Well done, Graveyard.
As the road crews take back the stage, the audience finds their way in from the stalls and the beer lines with a great sense of anticipation - frankly, I haven't been to a show in some time that had the crowd in such a state. The audience at The Warfield is as savvy a bunch as you'll find. They look like rock stars themselves, and they know their music - these aren't the lame, casual weekend warriors with beer coolers that you see in summertime sheds watching one-hit wonders ply their goods before the sun goes down audience. When a tech walks out with Lemmy's signature series Rickenbacker bass, and strums a chord or two through the ubiquitous Marshall stacks, a ripple of excitement goes through the building. UFO's Doctor, Doctor signals the end of the set change, and the mood becomes on of nervous energy, and wonder.
"We are Motorhead, and we play rock 'n' roll."
The sound is perfect, the lights are all engulfing, and Lemmy is flanked by his guitarist of over 30 years, Phil "Wizzo" Campbell, behind them is Mickey Dee, who has been keeping the beat with the band for 22 years himself, and they are tight and tough as nails. Campbell in particular has steeped up his game, tossing off stunningly effective solos song after song, as Lemmy supplies a huge backdrop of power chords and jackhammer rhythms on his bass.
Kilminster's voice is a little tired, but not enough to cause major concern - he's got the crowd in the palm of his hands from the opener, Damage Case, from 1979's Overkill album, and they go from their straight into Stay Clean from the same record. Metropolis is next, and with Over The Top coming up after, the band has yet to leave 1979, and that's OK - it was the band's glory year, and you can see why.
Rock It makes an appearance, and I remember how much I loved the band's Another Perfect Day album, their one outing with ex-Thin Lizzy axeman Brian 'Robbo' Robertson. Regardless of where the songs come from in the band's catalogue, they own the material, and it becomes very apparent that while the band's bones were made by an almost punk driven ethic and fury, they are at heart riff rockers and writers extraordinaire. Campbell is spectacular, stalking the stage, and acting as between song commentator and cheerleader.
The beauty of the evening is the audience's unbridled love, and Lemmy's acknowledgement of same. He repeats again and again that this is the best crowd of the tour, and you get the feeling he means it. As for the crowd, they are enjoying every second of the show - they're getting back what they're giving in spades - Motorhead is playing like they have something to prove, and they have proved it. On this night they are as great a rock 'n' roll band as there is on the planet - seeing a band and an audience make love like this defines rock in my eyes.
Lemmy is nothing if not a seasoned pro, and he knows how to ride off into the sunset - on the rails of Killed By Death, Ace Of Spades, and an encore of Overkill. In for the kill, and out like a light - if this were to be the band's North American swan song, we couldn't complain a bit.
A perfect night of rock and roll, from the beginning to end. Rock Ain't Near Dead, and I'm here to tell you that Motorhead and openers Graveyard put on one of the best shows I've seen in years, one I won't soon forget.