|Pictured above: Page Hamilton bang out our generation’s Hotel California. Photo Credit: Tim Furnish.|
Growing up, I used to make fun of my dad for still listening to the same music he loved as a teenager. It was 1990, Pops, it was time to let Chicago go. But my dad was a teenager in the late 1960s, one of the greatest eras in the history of rock music, and the bands he loved then helped him forge his own personal identity. They were who he was.
This eventually dawned on me many years later, as I, too, still clinged to the same bands and records that shaped my concepts of self and the world. I was a teenager in the mid-1990s, another great era in rock music. And I, too, was still listening to the same shit long after. Like Helmet.
Helmet emerged from the late 1980s noise rock scene fronted by a smart guitarist named Page Hamilton, formerly of Band of Susans. Behind Hamilton in Helmet was guitarist Peter Mengede and one of the greatest rhythm sections of that era, the combo of bassist Henry Bogdan and drummer John Stanier, who together specialized in strange time signatures, syncopation, and repetition (Helmet even wrote a song called “Repetition”). The band’s signature sound of heavy, driving rhythms and weird noisy guitar solos quickly became popular.
They hit big mainstream success with their second album Meantime in 1992. I loved that record, and so did millions of other people. Helmet had become a big deal, and fans had big expectations for a killer follow-up.
In 1994, when I was 15 years old, Helmet released Betty. It wasn’t the same record as Meantime, but it was definitely still Helmet: repetitive and grooving with Hamilton’s vocals still shifting between growls and clean singing just like on Meantime. His weird, noisy solos were still there. But Betty was really different in a lot of ways. Some songs, like “Clean,” were pop radio accessible. And the album overall had a weird, psychedelic feel to it, like having a dream and a pounding headache at the same time.
After Betty, Helmet went on to write a ton of bad songs and break up, losing Bogdan and Stanier for good (Mengede had already quit in 1993). Hamilton resumed the band later with new members and put out three more records I’ve never listened to. The most recent one, Seeing Eye Dog, came out in 2010.
In 2014, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Betty (their last truly successful album), Helmet launched a world tour. The shows would be just them playing Betty in its entirety followed by a second set of various other songs. I did not hesitate to buy a ticket when I learned the tour would stop in Louisville at The New Vintage. I never got to see Helmet in their prime, so this was my last best shot to see them play the songs I actually knew and liked.
The New Vintage might be the oldest continuing, rock-oriented, small music venue in Louisville. Though the sign outside has undergone numerous changes (the place has been known as Uncle Pleasant’s and the Flash Back at various times), the interior has remained dark, dank, and potentially disease-spreading for something near thirty years. It’s the best kind of rock venue, really.
My wife and I arrived a little early and found two of the few chairs along the back wall. We joined a near-capacity crowd consisting mostly of men no longer in their prime – chubby, balding, and bushy-bearded, wedding rings on hands clutching plastic cups of beer. More money was spent on babysitters than on live music and alcohol that night.
The show was advertised as starting at 9 PM. But this being Louisville, Helmet didn’t actually take the stage until an hour later. Let me add to the chorus of complaints that this is bullshit and no way for a supposedly professional band to treat paying customers. If you’re a punk band with an average age of 17, you get some leeway for not yet being a well-oiled music machine. But when you’re 55 with nearly four decades of experience under your belt like Paige Hamilton, taking the stage an hour after you’re scheduled is shitty and you should feel bad about it.
But I digress.
Helmet launched into Betty with their signature, noisy intro of the first song, “Wilma’s Rainbow.” From there it was non-stop nostalgia as they plowed through the entire record with no breaks. Despite two decades of passed time, they still sounded tight and the songs still felt fresh. That rhythm section still pounds right through your chest. Current bassist Dave Case and drummer Kyle Stevenson are fine replacements for Bogdan and Stanier. The songs “I Know” and “Tic” still sounded mean. “Biscuits for Smut” and “Milquetoast” still galloped along. “Rollo” and “Clean” still sounded oddly trippy.
The Betty half of the set was no disappointment at all. Heads were banged. Fists were pumped. A guy wearing a black tank top, baggy jeans, and his hair gelled to a point on top of his head was tossed out by security. Overall, a fun, nostalgic ride through the past.
The second half of Helmet’s set was less impressive. They played several newer songs I didn’t recognize and also didn’t like. Pop songs with only faint hints of the grooves the band’s reputation had been built upon. Here and there they played a great song from Meantime like “Unsung,” but mostly the set devolved into long, boring breaks as Hamilton chugged beer and mumbled sarcastic quips into the mic. He’s not an uncharming frontman, but we didn’t wait twenty years and pay $25 to listen to him talk for thirty minutes about being old and smarter than everyone else.
By midnight, two hours after they started playing, my wife and I left for home. We’re old and we were tired and Helmet had lost our interest. I don’t know how much longer they played.
On the drive home, it dawned on me. I had become my father, paying too much money to see a band way beyond their prime in a desperate attempt to preserve a sliver of my youth, still fresh in my mind but long gone from my body. I am that guy buying Eagles tickets in the twenty-first century. It was still mostly worth it, but there’s a reason I tend to avoid reunion tours of bands from my youth. I should try to remember that next time, but I’m old and sometimes I forget things.