“Just keep your elbows up and you’ll be OK.”
That was the advice my friend Josh gave me before Summer Slaughter last year, a hardcore metal show headlined by The Dillinger Escape Plan and my first of its kind. The way he and his friend Eric had been hyping up the mosh-pits, I spent serious time debating whether to wear a mouth guard, shin guards, or a jock strap. I chose none and came out with a sprained wrist.
So why was I on my way to see Dillinger again?
That’s all I could think on the car ride to the Baltimore Soundstage last Saturday. That, and why had I roped along my friend John, who had never been to a show like this. On the way we stop at 7-11 to grab Red Bulls, a crucial ingredient for the prospective mosher. Just before we headed inside, we chugged our drinks in a ritual we call “riding the Bull.”
We were early, giving us a chance to scope out the crowd, another vital step in the moshing process. We identified a few people as “potential problems” and those we planned on dragging into the pit ourselves, including a guy in a classy silver sport jacket, a guy wearing neon yellow socks with a light-up Transformers shirt, and Super Mario.
As the show started, Norwegian band Shining took the stage. Led by Jørgen Munkeby, Shining is a fascinating outfit that had Munkeby switching between vocals, guitar, and a tenor sax with ease and style. He threw his sax back and high into the air, barreling out complicated, intense riffs similar to George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” dipped in hellfire. Torstein Lofthus, the drummer pounded out an incredible extended solo to start a song before Munkeby joined in with another fiery sax section.
The soundcheck crew prepared for the next band with a lengthy and grating test before launching into a mediocre song of their own, inspiring us to poke our earplugs farther into our heads. After they began playing a second song, I realized that that were actually Retox, the next band.
“We are an opening act,” lead singer Gabe Serbian finally said, brushing aside his fauxhawk. “I hope you like us. If you do, good. If you don’t, even better.” He then informed us that Soundstage management instructed him to tell us that we should save our ticket stubs to come back the next night to see the lead singer of Creed perform. He couldn’t get through the message without laughing.
“Dude, I love Scott Staph,” came a cry from the audience. With that, Retox’s final song began. Halfway through, Serbian hopped down from the stage and left.
Trash Talk was the next band to take the stage, led by Lee Spielman, a man who looks like he was born in a mosh-pit, face swollen and long hair dripping sweat down his back, Spielman was one of the most charismatic performers of the night.
“Hold on, Baltimore. There’s no barrier to this fucking stage so I need every motherfucker diving head first off this stage,” he commanded, and the audience was more than happy to oblige. “Somebody kicked me in the fucking jaw,” he said ecstatically by the song’s end.
The light nodding and the occasional sole-mosher eager for the show to start turned into a riot under Spielman’s direction. The stage became the new frontier for most of the audience as dives happened every few seconds to mixed results. One ambitious soul actually climbed a dangling stage-light and hung from the rafters, eliciting huge cheers from the crowd. Spielman’s next orders were, “Crowd around me, crowd around me,” as he hopped down into the audience. “You with your fucking arms folded,” he yelled, singling out a person in the back, “get up here! You’re no better than any of us!”
Inches from his face, I had no idea what to expect. Then the order came. “All right, when this next song starts, I want you all to circle pit.” I looked for John’s face in the crowd, and exchanged unprepared looks. Spielman screamed, the wardrums started, and the crowd ignited, rushing in a mad circle around him. People shoved off each other, grabbing bystanders from the fringes and dragging them in, while trying to hop over the cord to Spielman’s mic.
I watched a guy fall and I rushed over to help him up, but the crowd had already lifted him to his feet before I was even halfway there. I thought back to when I fell in the pit at Summer Slaughter and sprained my wrist. Before it even registered to me that I had fallen, there were three hands extended in my direction to help me up. “There’s honor in the pit,” Josh had told me.
The Soundstage isn’t a large venue, but for a show like this, it’s miles long; an observation not lost on Spielman, back on the stage, as the song died down and he noticed a large contingent of the crowd hanging back. He split the room in half, ordering every mosher in the front to attack the back at the start of the next song.
All of us winded from the circle pit, my group stepped to the side to observe. We saw true, distinct fear take hold of the back half of the room. The song started and at first, there was no movement from either side, then suddenly, the entire front charged at the back, fists flowing wildly into the air, screaming, jumping, gnashing, unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Josh spots a guy who looks like he’s about to be trampled and rushes into the battlefield to help him.
We were all exhausted as Trash Talk left the stage, knowing it would only get crazier once Dillinger came out.
Sure enough, as the clock counted down and the lights dimmed, a palpable tension descended over the room and anxiety started to build up in our guts. We looked around the crowd, their faces darkening and fists clenching. If these people were willing to hang from rafters and go to war for Trash Talk, what would they do for Dillinger?
The screens onstage began displaying hypnotizing messages and the image of a woman in a trance. The crowd rushed forward. Long, ominous bass booms rippled through the room, vibrating through our chests and ribs, timed with blinding light flashes. A few moments later, the band filed on stage and launched into their first song, “Prancer.” Greg Puciato, the lead singer who looks like a hulking version of Macklemore, grabbed the mic, kneeled on the edge of the stage and grabbed a fan by the shirt, pulling him close and screaming into his face as loud as he can.
Whenever Puciato came close, hands reached out to grab him, trying to pull him into the crowd like the river Styx. People push and shove and punch to get closer to him.
Behind me, a mosh-pit breaks out, but I’m so close to the stage that I want no part of it. Occasionally I got flashes of my group swirling around me, pushed by the mob. There was a moment where I watched Josh on my left get shoved backward and disappear into the tumultuous, angry sea, and I didn’t see him again until the end of the song when suddenly he’s to my right.
“You want to go up?” he asked me, gesturing to the crowd surfers. I honestly wasn’t sure. I’ve watched it go particularly poorly for a few unfortunate folks. Not here to sit on the sidelines, I gave him the go-ahead. He and another member of the gang, Eric, each grab a leg and thrust me up on top of a crowd who shoved me forward onto the stage. I landed roughly on my left elbow, which started bleeding, and stand up, looking out. In the moment, I headbang a bit, glancing to Puciato, his thick neck red as he screamed wildly a few feet from me, then I leap off back into the crowd. Hands reached up both to support me and protect their owners. It felt like I was floating miles above the crowd. After what must have been five seconds, felt like five minutes, I was set gently back on my feet next to another member of my group, John, who nodded in approval but wasn’t convinced to do the same.
I can’t blame him. Last year, I wouldn’t have done it either, even after the inspiring display of watching a man in a wheelchair get carried up almost to the stage, wheels and all, managing to grab Puciato’s outstretched hand before security denied him the stage floor. Security at the Baltimore Soundstage is thankfully much more permissive.
During the band’s encore, the members sat in chairs onstage and played the same manic rhythm juxtaposed with a decidedly more relaxed posture. Puciato then grabbed his chair and threw it into the pit, a dangerous and irresponsible move but incredible nonetheless.
A fan jumped onstage during a cover of Aphex Twin’s “Come To Daddy” and Puciato handed him the microphone. Not missing a beat, the fan perfectly emulated Puciato’s style and screams, “Come to Daddy,” over and over to the crowd before jumping back in. Guitarist Ben Weinman stood on a speaker inches in front of us, looking down upon us like we were his subjects, then treated us as such, stepping forward onto the crowd. His left foot landed on my shoulder and I grab it to support him as he plays from above, standing tall. Eventually we pushed him back onto the stage and he lands smoothly, seamlessly returning to his place by Puciato’s side.
The final song began and true chaos finally broke out. It started with a fan rushing the stage to grab the setlist, met by a sly grin from Weinman, appreciating the fan’s tenacity. Another fan climbed up, trying to grab water, paper, a drumstick, anything. More join him, each of them grabbing for a piece like Prometheus trying to steal fire from the gods. Eventually there are more people on the stage than not. I joined them.
All vestiges of society disappeared around us as the elevated mosh took over. The band members took it in stride, hopping onto their amps to keep performing over the sea of zealots below. They rammed and elbowed each other, clawing at the band. The ones closest to the edge look like Persians about to be pushed off a cliff by King Leonidas and his Spartans. I considered jumping off, one final crowd surf into the night, but there simply weren’t enough people anymore to support it.
I was surrounded by faces desperate for Puciato’s blessing. He is their savior, their own personal Jesus Christ. I wasn’t at a concert. I am at church.