Through the never

Observations from a music festival in the Big After

Thump. Thump. Thump.

It was there before we’d even gotten close enough to start looking for parking. A low, rolling thunder pounding across the landscape, a sound so heavy it seemed like it must’ve been coming from a car stereo in the next lane and not a wall of speakers more than a mile and a half away. I’d seen friends who live on this end of town complaining about—or simply marveling at—the excess of it all on social media the night before.

It was exactly what I’d come looking for.

THUMP. THUMP. THUMP.

It had been long enough since my last live concert that I had to go back through old photos to confirm what the last show had been, the last time I’d stood in front of a wall of sound and soaked it in, the last time before 2020 blew in and wiped touring schedules and social calendars clear for the next year and a half.

I’d have gone to more had I known how long it’d be.

After receiving my second vaccination this spring, it took a while to let my guard down and be comfortable in public spaces again. The first time I stepped into a restaurant to eat at a table indoors—something I’d done countless times without a second thought Before—I was a ball of anxiety, scanning the interior, trying to assess which tables I’d be comfortable sitting at and which I wouldn’t. As the months rolled on and real-world evidence of the vaccines’ ability to provide protection from serious illness mounted, though, my nerves slowly unfurled. I got comfortable being in a restaurant, a store, an office, a family gathering, a baseball game. A football game. Still, as times have shifted from uncertain to certain and back over the summer, it feels like the only way to have plans right now is to have made them back during the brief flush of collective optimism that took hold in May and June and be too stubborn to give up on them in September.

For me, that meant attending Louder Than Life, an annual heavy metal festival held (mostly) annually in Louisville since 2014 that’s swelled, upon its return this past weekend, to a four-day event featuring nearly 70 bands—including black-clad luminaries such as Korn, Metallica, Anthrax and Judas Priest—playing on three stages to expected daily crowds in excess of 35,000. Reflecting the times, the event organizers required all attendees to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test prior to entry each day, a policy I enthusiastically supported but one that still elicited a hearty chuckle from me at the sight of a “health check station” sign outside an ear-splitting rock concert sponsored by beer and liquor companies.

The lineups were, well… a mixed bag.

Ongoing concerns about—or direct complications from—COVID meant that the bands that took the stage in September weren’t necessarily the ones announced back in May. Saturday night headliners Nine Inch Nails and Snoop Dogg both withdrew after deeming touring not worth the risk; recently-reunited nu-metal stalwarts Mudvayne cancelled after their lead singer tested positive, among numerous other changes. Even on a gloriously pleasant weekend of perfect weather—uncharacteristic for a festival that was flooded out in 2018 and experienced blistering heat indexes in 2019—the specter of the times tried to cast a partial cloud over the proceedings.

Even with the relative degree of comfort I’d developed over the past six months, I did wonder in the weeks leading up to the show if it’d still be worth going.

Well… it was worth it.

It might seem counterintuitive from the outside to consider a festival full of bands thrashing and screaming about doom, death, destruction and despair a restorative experience, but—and I say this as only a casual fan of the genre myself—you underestimate the positivity of a metal audience to your own detriment. I struggle to think of a time in recent memory I’ve seen people look so happy, self-confident in themselves and their interests, and uncynically excited for something. People of all ages and all descriptions grinned from ear to ear, obviously thrilled just to be there, milling about the gravel lots of the Kentucky State Fairgrounds, the only common denominator being the near-universal wearing of black.1

Every band—even the ones I’d derided as unsatisfactory last-minute additions—appeared to have their own measurable constituency, some group of fans deeply excited to hear them play in 2021. Some bands showed their advancing age—temples grayed, voices frayed—and others their appalling youth, paying on-stage homage to influences too recent in my mind to be seen as anything but contemporaries. Some bands I’d never heard of were surprisingly great, and some I had heard of were unsurprisingly not.

No matter.

I couldn’t know what it would feel like to be out in a crowd that large again, but as soon as that wall of sound washed over me, I felt at peace, and it largely didn’t matter who was on stage.

Many of us have spent the last year and a half waiting for an unambiguous sign to appear, an all-clear signal when we can declare the Bad Times officially over and decide it’s safe to never think about them again. We’ve wrestled with the troubling notion that coronavirus may never be fully eradicated, that things may never be exactly the same again. That we’ll never enter a crowd again without a small warning siren going off in our heads, never make plans again without quietly conducting at least a microsecond’s worth of cost-benefit analysis.

I don’t have an answer to those problems. I wrestle with them myself, just the same as how I couldn’t help but notice a nearby hotel that had a clear view of much of the festival grounds, a briefly-flickering ponderance of the other horrible things we simply learn to live alongside in this society, one that I quickly set aside as out of my control.

We are never the same from one year to the next; I am not the same person who stood in this place in 2019, and I’m certainly not the angry eighteen-year-old kid who fell in love with many of these bands decades ago. They’re not the same, either—in between a roaring set of deep cuts2, Metallica’s James Hetfield spoke not in the voice of an angry young rock star, but of a man nearing sixty and still making peace with himself.

It’s likely that some things will never be the same. New problems will layer on, along with new ways of understanding the world and our place in it, new ways of conducting ourselves. An extra wristband slipped on at the gates of a rock concert quietly signifies both a period of unfathomable anguish and loss and a small step toward moving on.

Some things will never change, though, like the feeling of standing in a sea of real, live humanity and feeling the thump of a bass drum rattle through your sternum.

Thump. Thump. THUMP.

It feels like being alive again.

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)

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1

I saw one person in an elaborate full plague doctor costume, which was either an excellent topical sartorial choice or maybe just something he already had before this all happened. You can’t rule out the latter at a place like this.

2

During Friday night’s headlining set, I observed that Metallica’s setlist was unusual; it was not until reviewing setlist.fm at home later that evening that we realized it was the first time since 1990 the band had played a headlining set featuring zero songs from 1991’s mega-hit “Black album”.