Excalibur Club, Chicago, IL, October 13, 2007

by Dr. Abner Mality

I've always had a lot in common with the "Gothic" scene, but was kind of turned off by the "fashion show" mentality and wimpy music. But hey, man, I love vampire chicks, bondage and Satan as much as any red-blooded American boy, so how could I turn down a chance to experience "Gothicfest" at the legendary Excalibur club in downtown Chicago? I missed the first edition back in 2005 with Hansel und Gretyl in Villa Park, so I was even more gung-ho to see what this "dark lifestyle expo" was all about.

I joined our very own Sgt. and Mrs. Deth on the trek to the depths of Chi-town on a gloomy October day. Before we hit the Excalibur, we dined at a very cool Italian restaurant called Quartino's. Let me tell you, you won't find places like this outside of the biggest cities. We each got to share our entrees, which were Angus Beef tagliata, an awesome thin-crust mushroom and prosciutto pizza and penne arrabiate with calamari. All for a reasonable price. Mrs. Deth finished everything off with a dessert that added 20 pounds to me just looking at it.

Excalibur is quite the place. It looks like somebody plopped a brownstone castle right in the middle of Chicago's tourist district. If the giant dragon head sticking out the upper window didn't clue you in that this was the place, then the crowd of black-clad Goths posing in front of the hearse parked out from surely would have. Once inside the establishment, we found ourselves in a wonderland of the macabre, with just about every square inch festooned with skulls, gargoyles and Halloween accessories. Decapitated heads and other body parts hung from the ceiling like mistletoe at a Christmas pageant. I already felt really comfortable here!

It's also truly maze-like and somewhat confusing to get around. We were in a series of small rooms connected to each other stretching over three stories. Each room was full of sinister touches and boasted a bar. There were two full stages with bands alternating. It was a bit of a chore zipping back and forth from the lower floor stage to the upper floor stage, but you soon got the hang of it. When a band was not playing, that stage area was pumped full of thumping techno music and industrial rock. In between the two stages was a kind of "monster market" full of booths hawking goth merchandise. I was in this area a grand total of maybe 30 seconds before some guy from the Ninth Gate was trying to hard sell me on something.

Most of the reason to go to something like this is to people-watch and check out all the freaks in action. Lots of
yummy looking but sad faced females parading around in various states of over or under dress. The accompanying pics should reveal just what I'm talking about. The red haired Amazon with the face paint was one of a whole squad of dancers who kept things hopping around. One chick in a Marie Antoinette outfit including a wig that must have weighed 40 pounds was whirling about non-stop the whole night.

It's easy to see the variety in the Goth subculture. We had a lot of Eric Harris/Dylan Klebold Columbine types in long black dusters, long-haired vampires, mohawked punk rockers, gothic bikers in plenty of leather, Victorian gentlemen with top hats, Marilyn Manson type dudes, thug-goths in bandannas and baseball hats. One guy had to be at least seven feet tall...I wonder if he played for the Bulls? Some folks seem to have wandered in by mistake. One was a dead ringer for Tommy Chong, there were a couple of overaged lesbians in jeans and workshirts and an older black guy who REALLY looked lost.

The marketplace was cool but somewhat disappointing. I was hoping to pick up some rare horror DVDs but I didn't see anyplace hawking any. Well, there was the Graveyard Theatre bunch, but they were pushing just ONE DVD. There were some places selling goth CDs but not as much as I thought. I was hoping to cop some black metal, but not much luck on that front. On the other hand, there was lots of bondage and fetish gear for sale, usually with some gruesome and barely dressed diva manning the booth. Just about got myself one of those spiked leather half-masks for my next job interview but passed. Mrs. Deth did manage to get a neat little mask. And I bought an AWESOME Phantom of the Opera T-shirt with art by the great Basil Gogos for a reasonable price. This was courtesy of a store called Horrorbles located in lovely downtown BERRRRWYNNNN!

We missed the lovely Ms. Ammunition of the 313 Suspension team hanging in mid-air from hooks impaled in her tender flesh. Darn it! However, I got a look at her back and the neat red holes where the hooks had been earlier were easy to see. To each his (or her) own, I guess...

The band set-up here reminded me of Milwaukee Metalfest, but unlike that event, there really wasn't anybody here
outside of Grigori 3 that I was dying to see. "Gothic" music is a big black umbrella that covers a lot of territory...all the way from ambient, barely there atmosphere right up to crushing black metal and hitting everything in between. Looking at the line-up for both days of the festival, I can see that they tried to satisfy every taste. But overall, the emphasis was on the rockier end of the goth spectrum.

First band I caught were local favorites Fashion Bomb. Obviously Marilyn Manson inspired, these guys were one of the more energetic bands. Nothing terribly original, at least they didn't mope and stare at their shoes. Music was crunchy metal riffs with a frosting of techno. I have a secret liking for this stuff when done right and these guys did it right.

None of the bands exactly drew a huge crowd and in some cases, there were only a handful there to witness bands that had travelled across the world to play. All the way from Australia came the menacing Volkmar, who couldn't have played to more than 15 people. I hope to God the promoters got them some kind of reimbursement. I actually found their combination of sludgy Celtic Frost riffs with Bauhaus weepiness pretty interesting. Drawing a bit of a bigger crowd was the eclectic Ghost Orgy, one of the stranger bands I have ever seen live. They are dominated by the outgoing Phillipino goth goddess Dina, whose operatic vocals are excellent and whose theatrical stage presence made up for many of her band's shortcomings. Ghost Orgy's music is indescribable, based in metal but sounding really off-kilter. In the live situation, Dina saves a lot of it, but nobody could totally rescue this material.

Probably the heaviest band of the evening was 13 Winters, coming from Maine to again play in front of a sparse crowd. The Gothicfest event as a whole was well attended, but the Excalibur is so full of diversions that very few people stay in one spot for long. 13 Winters was a combination of Frost-type sludge, epic black metal and keyboard-dominated symphonic parts. Their female singer was multi-talented and rattled off some spine-chilling shrieks, while the bass player also handled keyboards and a violin as well as singing! On the opposite end of the scale were the dreadful Deepest Symphony, three guys who tried to pass themselves off as a full-fledged symphonic metal band by using obvious backtracking and computerized "assistance". How bad was it? The lead singer was caught lip synching when "technical difficulties" reared their heads. If you can't fuckin' play live without these sort of cheats, then stay home! A real disgrace, and the band fully deserved the "crowd" of five or six who witnessed their travesty of a set.

One of the most entertaining events at the fest did not involve live music or self-mutilation. Martin Atkins, former
member of Public Image Ltd, Pigface, Ministry and more, has written a book on the humble art of touring rock and roll, entitled "Tour: Smart" and tonight offered a "seminar" on the whole subject. The acid-tongued Atkins came across as hilariously blunt, foul-mouthed and absolutely self-assured. Many of the concepts of succeeding in the music business are simple common sense, but, as Atkins drolly observed, no business is more devoid of this quality than rock n' roll.

Assisted by a Powerpoint display, Atkins laid out easy rules for succeeding in music:

1. "Don't be an asshole". Common sense stuff like, if you are using the promoter's office for a dressing room because of lack of space, don't steal or mess with his stuff. "This is something the members of Dope have yet to learn," quipped Atkins.

2. "Move to Boise". According to Atkins, there are about 1200 live music events in Los Angeles every week and over 1700 in New York. That makes those the two worst places for aspiring musicians to relocate, because you are the smallest fish in the ocean. Better to find a mid-sized city and build yourself up as the buzz band there to try and attract interest. In my experience, this has never worked for any band from Rockford, Illinois yet, but as usual, Rockford proves the exception to every rule.

3: "Prepare for the worst in order to play at your best". It's easy to put on a great gig when you have five perfect
monitors, a terrific sound system and a great backline. Far harder to do it when you have NO monitors, the sound guy is an amateur and you're playing Billy Bob's Bar-B-Q. That's what you have to prepare for, though, and try to play at a high level. It's called making a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

Atkins also spoke about how the shittiest band on Myspace can now reach more people than the Beatles ever did, but why that means nothing. Myspace is a poorly understood tool that has most bands at its mercy...very, very few have learned how to use this tool effectively. I agree with that. He suggested that old-fashioned showmanship and crazy promo stunts are a good idea. For example, he said send out 50 copies of your new CD baked into a cake. Make sure to send one to the West Memphis 3 in their prison cells. When the media gets hold of the story of a CD baked in a cake sent to guys wrongly incarcerated in prison, your fortune will be made.

"You know that nobody sells music anymore, right?" he asked the crowd. Maybe not, but it's still a sad friggin' day. I'd like to believe quality plays some part in the equation and that stunts like the CD-in-a-cake are not totally necessary. But Martin was fascinating to listen to and obviously has first hand experience with this subject. If you have a chance to check him out delivering this seminar, do so and I'd recommend "Tour: Smart" to any rock band wanting to take their show on the road...gothic or not.

While in the "funeral parlor" section of Excalibur, Sarge, Mrs. and I ran into the members of Grigori 3 doing a photo shoot. I haven't seen G3 in a dog's age and they were one of the bands I was really looking forward to tonight. We managed to make some small talk with the lovely lead singer Gwen, sporting new red dreadlocks, and grab some pics with her, which you can see here. She is a real sweetheart and it was great bumping into her in front of an open coffin.

The gig by Grigori 3 put the cap on our evening. In front of by far the biggest crowd we had seen so far at Gothicest,
the band delivered an excellent set of material culled mostly from their latest CD "Exile". It's been a few years since I've seen them but the approach is basically the same. Gwen's hauntingly ethereal vocals combine with shimmering synths and techno-beats while jackhammer guitars pulse out choppy riffs. I think the band has put a bit more emphasis on the electronics,which is strange seeing that they did not have a keyboard player. Clouds of mist filled the dance area as lasers flashed and twinkled and a series of strange images cavorted on an overhead screen. I was kind of hoping they'd play my favorite tune "Defende" but time constraints no doubt played a part. We should have a review of "Exile" here shortly.

Attrition and Bella Morte were up next to finish off Gothicfest, but we made our exit after Grigori 3 made theirs. I had fun tonight and enjoyed playing a little bit of dress up with the Goths. I'll always be more of a metalhead, but the Gothic beast lurks within my soul like a chained basilisk awaiting release. I think all of us may have that same beast inside and events like this allow him a little time to roam free.

Maybe they'll be able to do this again next year!