The Mecca of Metal
The Palladium proves its worth in a niche market
by Matt Robert
Story Created: May 2, 2012 at 3:47 PM EDT
Story Updated: May 3, 2012 at 5:17 AM EDT )
On a Sunday in April, I drive into downtown Worcester, a day bright but dreary and a light mist falling. The streets are barren. A few cars move leisurely along Main Street, as does an occasional pedestrian, or a small group of them, walking past the plate glass windows and locked doors of dormant businesses.
At north Main Street, what one local impresario calls “the hysterical courthouse district,” crowds appear: mostly black-clad, T-shirted boys and girls, with hands stuffed into jeans pockets, or holding cigarettes, mulling about in front of the Palladium theater, which, in contrast to the overwhelming gray, is lit up warm and bright, with flickering lights, and a large marquee announcing the 14th-annual New England Metal/Hardcore Festival.
I find curbside parking a few blocks away, where I can already hear the large firebrick structure rattling and emitting a steady rhythm of low bass notes. I pass through the mulling crowds out front, through security, and into the Palladium, which is swarming with concertgoers that both confirm and defy the expectations you have by now formed, most moving slowly up or down side staircases that lead below to the main theater and stage, or up the center staircase of the foyer to the smaller bar/stage area, or leaning on a wall or doorway with a blasé expression, texting or talking to a friend.
They are all part of what I will soon learn is a capacity crowd on the busiest day of the three-day festival, and that several of those mulling out front have been sold out of the event.
The draw: most specifically, the attraction is a reunion show by Sunday’s headliner, Western Massachusetts metalcore band Killswitch Engage; and, in general, it is the festival, which has become a widely known, oft-celebrated event for metalheads, not citywide, not statewide, not throughout New England, not even throughout the Northeast. This festival now draws fans from…wait for it…the world over.
To Worcester? To a metal show? Yes, and yes.
“If you’re into metal music anywhere in the world, you know about the Palladium,” says Chris Besaw of Break-Thru Music, a joint business venture of MassConcerts, which exclusively books the Palladium as well as a few dozen other venues throughout southern New England, including Gillette Stadium and The DCU Center, and smaller venues, like Lupo’s, in Providence. “It’s definitely known internationally within that world of the metal and hardcore scene.”
Justin Thomas, 27, agrees. He, along with friend, Jason Gill, 32, drove 500 miles from southern Maryland to attend the event, renting a hotel room in Westboro for the weekend. As Atlanta, Georgia’s, Attila performed, the two watched from an open riser beside the bar in the main theater.
“We had to make the pilgrimage to the Mecca,” Thomas shares. “We paid a shitload of money for the VIP passes,” he says with an air of embarrassment, before quickly shrugging it off and enumerating the perks. (VIP passes cost $175 for all-day, three-day access, plus “swag” and meet-and-greet opportunities with select bands. Standard tickets cost $40, $45 and $40 for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday respectively, or $115 for a three-days pass.)
Thomas and Gill, engineers who do contract work with the U.S. Department of Defense in Washington, are both longtime metal fans, and agreed that New England was more fertile soil for the particular brands of heavy metal and hardcore music that the festival showcases, which are decidedly less commercial than some of its distant relatives like Van Halen or Nickelback, for example, who would be headlining a show a block away at the DCU Center a week later to an audience roughly double the size of the crowd that would pass through The Palladium over the weekend.
“We met people from Australia,” raves Scott McLennan, freelance journalist and former music editor with the Worcester Telegram, who covered the event in hour-by-hour dispatches on Tumblr, with photos by his son, Sam, a Boston University film student. “They’re big metal fans and they were like, ‘Coachella [a massive annual California festival] looks cool, but this looks even cooler,’ and he said, ‘I love this music, and you can’t find this music in Australia.’”
“I met people from all over,” continues McLennan, who says he witnessed a couple get married at the New England Metal/Hardcore Festival (NEMF) during a GWAR set, a band from Richmond, Va. The ceremony ended with the bride and groom getting stuffed into the satirical metal/punk band’s meat grinder. “People have a good time!”
Joshua Lovell, three-year tour manager for Worcester-bred hardcore band Four Year Strong, says “Worcester is a good market for almost all bands. They say it every time they come around, and despite the fact that obviously Four Year Strong is getting a better reaction from fans, the other bands are still psyched and still very happy with the energy they get from the kids.”
“The Northeast in general, compared to other parts of the country, is the best market for music,” he says. “But Worcester/Boston is, in my opinion, the best market - period - for underground music.”
“The audience here is amazing in that every time the band plays Worcester, it’s like they’re playing a huge local show,” Lovell adds. “Almost like it’s just every kid that supported them when they used to play small hall shows just comes out in huge numbers. And they bring that same enthusiasm and energy.”
This great hometown support has propelled the band to significant success. Lovell says FYS is still going strong. “I just did a world tour with them. [Four Year Strong] played the UK and Europe, then went right into Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan and Australia. Right now, they’re doing some scattered college shows before they get ready to do a small UK run with Blink182, and then it’s right on to Warped Tour for the summer.”
Still, he says that the band “will always be a Worcester band. They all grew up here and they still love it and rep it. They still put [Worcester] on a lot of their merchandise items, which is awesome.”
“Bands like Killswitch Engage, Converge, Shadows Fall, and a ton more have helped build the amazing metal and hardcore scene that we have in Worcester and surrounding areas,” explains Scott Lee, production manager of MassConcerts. .
Others, however, see the concert hall as part of the magic equation. “A classic venue like the Palladium has a certain pedigree about it,” adds Lee. “A lot of the bands know the history of the place and what kinds of bands have come through here. I feel that a venue that has been around as long as it has and has been successful as long as it has might have something to do with these bands coming back.”
Palladium General Manager Chris Besaw, who has been involved in the development of this scene – one that we can now take for granted – for a long time, agrees. “One of the reasons our metal and hardcore scene is so strong is the venue,” he says. “The Palladium is a great venue. We’re open-floor, general admission, where you don’t have to sit in your seat. You can walk around. People love that. You can see the band from on the floor, from the back of the room; you can go up to the balcony. It’s a very open and free space.”
“You have to have a space that’s big enough,” he says. “But you can’t have a space that’s too big. You go to an arena, you lose that general-admission freeness, and you’re stuck in a certain area – you’re stuck on the floor and you can’t move around.”
“Old theaters happen to be a perfect spot for live music,” he notes.
“They’ve taken care of it,” says McLennan about the old theater, which has operated in Worcester since November 1928. “They constantly tweak it. They don’t fuck with what’s nice about it. They don’t try to pass off dingy as, like, ‘We’re trying to preserve it.’ They clean, and they put new things in, and they make it nice. It’s comfortable.”
As I made my way around the theater on the Sunday of the festival, which I hadn’t done since seeing The Brian Setzer Orchestra in November 1998 (as well as a dozen or so concerts prior to that, and all-day movie festivals when I was in junior high), I observed metal heads, young and old, extreme and average, roaming to one stage or another, looking for a drink or a bite to eat, or simply reclining in any of the theater’s innumerable quiet corners, many low lit and outfitted with padded wraparound booths, and was reminded of what I loved so much about the place in my youth. It’s a great venue, especially if you’re in for the long haul, as any festivalgoer must be. Many, like Thomas and Gill, would be in the building 12 hours a day on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
A SIMPLE TWIST OF FATE
The theater, though beloved, did not draw in the scene on its own. As is often the case, strange twists of fortune often play a part. McLennan has covered music in the area since the early ’90s, and has followed the metal festival since its inception. Of the ’90s music scene, he notes, “A lot of those touring bands weren’t welcome in Boston. Bands that either had a reputation for mosh pits or crowd surfing – pretty much punk and metal and hardcore – there was just a lot of resistance to booking it. Hardcore bands had a bad reputation in Boston. There was an element of violence, especially with some of the Boston bands. So, places like Avalon, the Orpheum, the Paradise, it was like, ‘you know what, we’re just not ready to deal with this right now,’ especially in the ’90s when indie rock was really taking off and there was a new band from Seattle every week they could book.”
According to McLennan, Lee really had his fingers on the pulse of what was going on with metal, so when John Peters, owner of the Palladium and MassConcerts came in around 2000 and took over, they basically hung a “Metal Welcome Here” sign at the Palladium and brought in all these big touring bands, like the Buffalo, N.Y., death metal band Cannibal Corpse and Auburn, N.Y., heavy metal band Manowar, and GWAR; all underground bands that had pretty big followings, but couldn’t get a shake anywhere in Boston.
McLennan says a ’90s metalcore scene started to take root because of guys like Lee who were managing, promoting and fostering bands like Overcast (who, he says splintered into Springfield metalcore/thrash metal band Shadows Fall and Westfield metalcore band Killswitch Engage). As these bands started to get popular and go out on tour, they’d come back to Massachusetts with their friends and play at the Palladium.
“I started working here in 1997,” Besaw says, explaining how the old theater became the destination for metal bands the world over. “And we were just a dance club. MassConcerts came in and took over in – I want to say it was 2000 – and I’ve been here ever since. I’ve been to all 14 Metal Fests. I was at the first one, and we just finished number 14.”
“Before MassConcerts took over, Don Law used to book some acts in here, and I think they did a few shows in here before we took over,” Besaw says.
Of the building’s recent history, he notes an unlikely start for a would-be metal mecca. “We were one of the biggest dance clubs in the Northeast,” he says, adding that the club booked huge touring DJ acts, like DJ Scribbles, which brought in sizeable crowds – huge crowds – for the little city that could.
“[We’d do] 1,500 people a night, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and then a huge under-21 dance night on Sundays,” he says, suggesting that all-ages shows were always part of the formula.
Eventually, however, he says, the Palladium “transitioned over to doing live music.”
And though he doesn’t think that the focus was (or is) singly metal, he remembers that one of its first shows was California thrash metal band Slayer.
According to Besaw, metal eventually became the niche for MassConcerts and the Palladium, thanks to MassConcerts’ Scott Lee and John Peters who came up with the concept of the New England Metal and Hardcore Festival.
“The first year was definitely a building year,” Besaw recalls. “We did well.”
“It wasn’t our first festival,” he continues, noting the production company’s experience in the field. “We were involved with Warped Tour, and had done some skate festivals.”
McLennan says the scene fostered itself internally, and MassConcert’s timely and continued investment paid off, nodding to the headliners of this week’s metal fest: Winthrop metalcore band Unearth, Springfield metalcore band All That Remains, and Killswitch Engage.
“All of those bands at one point played as early afternoon openers within the first year of their first record. All of those bands have a legacy of playing the festival multiple times, getting bigger and bigger and bigger up to the point where they were headlining. Sunday night, you couldn’t get another body in there, because of that Killswitch Engage reunion with the original singer,” McLennan elaborates.
“I think that it was just very fortuitous that these bands kind of came from Massachusetts and they still do, McLennan continues. “Bands like Unearth and [Boston post-hardcore band] Vanna and [Chicopee heavy metal band] Acacia Strain – these are all bands that over the last 10 years have really become very prominent in the underground metal scene and connected with everyone else and brought them back here, and that kind of explains why the Palladium became such a destination.”
“I remember one time I was hanging out [at the festival] and there was this band,” recalls McLennan, laughing. “I want to say it was [Polish blackened death metal band] Behemoth [who played NEMF in 2007] – and the guitar player walks into the Palladium and he’s like, ‘I can’t believe I’m here; I can’t believe I’m in the Palladium!’ And Mike Hsu [of WAAF] and I were like, ‘This shit hole?’ So, it was like hallowed ground, like ‘Metal Land.’ It was the first place that they brought in bands like [Swedish extreme metal band] Meshuggah from Europe; and they brought in [English power metal band] Dragonforce from Europe.”
Besaw seconded McLennan’s bemused perspective. “A lot of them come through and say that the Palladium is the best venue they’ve ever been to. Or they can’t wait to come back. We take a lot of pride in that,” says Besaw, while noting that the success of the festival and of metal, in general, is not by chance.
“Picking the newer bands,” he states. “That’s the hardest part. Established bands are easy. You know which bands are the bigger bands. It’s trying to pick the up and comers, the people who are going to be big next year; the people who are just starting to break now, the people who are going to break in a year from now. Those are the hard bands to pick.”
Lee adds another facet of the formula: “We like to keep our ticket prices honest and general attendance is what would keep us going. We try to give the best concert experience we can so people want to come back. If the price is right, the fans will come.”
Besaw and the others assert that it isn’t just metal that MassConcerts books into the Palladium. About a year ago, when electronic music started to get big again, with dub step, they booked a lot electronic music shows, such as California electronic music producer Scrillex and English dubstep producer Flux Pavilion.
“We also do really well with groups like [Detroit, Mich., rap/metal duo] Insane Clown Posse,” adds Lee. “They chose to have their New Year’s celebration at the Palladium, when they could have had it anywhere else in the world. Mostly everything works there, though.”
Lee points to “a slew of [metal/hardcore] shows coming up,” including Meshuggah, a sludge metal band out of Savannah, Ga., Baroness, and Behemoth. And McLennan notes that “they have a shitload of heavy shows coming up all summer. Every major heavy tour is going to pass through there—the bands that have no interest in playing Mayhem Fest or any of the sheds.” To wit, he points to a Palladium schedule that is packed with a variety of metal shows, full of bands that would be wholly unfamiliar to any but the most alert, ardent metal fans.
As to whether a similar scene could be cultivated for other kinds of music, such as blues, Cajun, and funk, like Paulie’s annual NOLA Festival, in Worcester, or events at Wachusett Mountain, for example, Besaw was doubtful.
“I just don’t think there are enough people in the area that are into blues [to generate a similar festival]. You have to have enough people that are into a certain type of music to make something this big out of it,” he explains. “MassConcerts has definitely cultivated the Palladium into what it is today by bringing in acts that people have wanted to see, and by knowing our genre and bringing in the acts that people are really interested in. They’ve cultivated it into being kind of the capital of metal around here.”
Killswitch Engage, whose reunion created the most buzz at this year’s festival, originated out of the remains of two earlier, important metalcore bands, Boston’s Overcast and Aftershock. (Overcast, too, would have a reunion at the NEMF in 2006.) Their Wikipedia page lists among their accomplishments slots on tours and festivals such as Ozzfest, The Reading and Leeds (England) Festivals, and Mayhem Festival tour, a 2005 Grammy nomination for Best Metal Performance, two albums that have gone gold (500,000 units sold), and one that cracked the top 20 on the Billboard 200. The band’s 2005 DVD “(Set This) World Ablaze” centers around a concert filmed at the Palladium on July 25th of that year. (The DVD has also been certified gold.)
“Worcester is typically a B market, or a secondary market, with a lot of things, but, as far as the metal and hardcore scene, we are defi nitely an A market,” said Besaw. “When bands are routing their tours, they make a point to come through here just so they can play at the Palladium. Bands will even skip over playing Boston to play here, because they know our crowds will be bigger here, and they just love coming back here over and over again.”
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Besaw acknowledges the rewards of fostering a new or overlooked scene, and investing in a niche, but also notes an additional practical benefit, one you might hear discussed at any chamber of commerce roundtable.
“Worcester’s a good location due to the fact that you’re not in the big city. You don’t have the issue of getting in and out of Boston. We’ve got the Mass Pike nearby; 290 runs right through it. You get a lot of people from western Mass. who come up. You get a lot of people from Connecticut that come up, a lot of people from New Hampshire that come down. It’s more the central location of Worcester that just makes it a great market.”
McLennan notes that the staff, too, is part of the Palladium’s equation of success. “The people who work there are kind of fans of music,” he says. “They’re there because they like what they’re doing. A lot of people have been there for a long time or they’ve been to 14 metal festivals, and they get it and they’re fans. Some of the bartenders will rig their shifts to be at the main bar when the bands they want to see are playing. They’re there as much for the music as they are for the work.”
Understanding their customers, says McLennan, sets the Palladium staff and MassConcerts apart. “They don’t let you act like a jerk, but they don’t hassle you unnecessarily, either. They know how to be hands off…They try to make sure that nobody gets hurt, but they’re also not going to incite something by being heavy handed.”
Cory Sargent, a security guard for the event, who, on Sunday was stationed by a side door, reported that he had seen “no problems” despite Sunday being “the most packed” day of the weekend, which he estimated to be capacity at “about 1,800.”
Another effective business strategy seems to be the all-ages show. Even before the metal madness of this generation, the Palladium used this common ploy to fill otherwise slow nights, such as Sunday. Besaw sees the all-ages paradigm as practical. “You can come with your friends that are under 21, with your friends that are under 18,” he says. “Everybody can come here. It’s not age restricted.”
THE ELEMENTS OF METAL
Amidst all this talk of the business end of metal, you’re probably asking, “What is it that the fans are coming to hear?” Or “What’s the appeal of all that screaming and volume?”
“I like to hear some beauty, and it’s good to hear a little bit of melody,” says Thomas. “But no band is going to come out and play an Ozzie tune or anything like that.”
Most of the bands on the extensive bill (approximately 80 bands appeared throughout the festival) would frighten, or at least puzzle, unsuspecting mainstreamers. Attila, for instance, who is labeled on its official Wikipedia page as metalcore/deathcore/party metal, played a typically rapid-fire metal set replete with wailing drums, bass and dual guitars, while lead singer Chris “Fronz” Fronzak provided the obligatory scream/growl lyrics, even, at one point, moving beyond indecipherable toneless lyrics to a long, Guyoto-Monk-style guttural emission that was pure low-register – no melody, no rhythm, no words. None of this evoked to me quite what most would call beauty, melody, or “party” music. This isn’t the comical kids’ stuff of mid-eighties David Lee Roth videos. This festival’s music was, by and large, dark, intense, and sometimes goading or confrontational.
To a newbie like me, the subtleties that contrast one sub-genre or band from the other are lost on me. To the conditioned ear, though, distinctions can be heard.
“Metal is about aggression and anger, but also sorrow,” says Thomas, “the subject matter changes.” Thomas prefers, he says, “bands that preach unity over hate and discontent.”
“Some bands,” he adds, “can be intense, unrelenting, while others can be really cerebral.”
“It’s aggressive and cathartic,” explains McLennan, in an effort to describe the appeal of metal. “They’re all loud, and they’re all aggressive, and they’re all screaming, and they’re all bashing guitars; but you see a band like [Richmond, Va., heavy metal band] Lamb of God for the first time and you just say, ‘Holy shit! I’m seeing something completely revolutionary!’ It’s new and it’s fresh and it’s the way the band connects. I felt that when I saw The Dillinger Escape Plan, [a Morri Plains, N.J. mathcore band], which is very mathematical; it’s thick and it’s knotted, and it’s very dense, but very intricate. You see something like [California metal band] Huntress, and it’s got this flamboyant woman singer and it really hearkens back to Judas Priest, with all that guitar architecture – two or three guitars soaring up in huge-scale solos. They all just have an element of restlessness and aggressiveness and they strive for a ‘not going to take shit from nobody’ sort of attitude. That’s the unifying principal of it. It’s not the kind of music that wallows in its own bad feeling. There’s something gratifying about that.”
“It’s like horror movies,” he adds. “You know you’re going to be scared, you know you’re going to be shocked, but you like it. And I think there’s a very similar element to heavy music. It’s a very extreme music. It pushes your buttons, like a horror movie.”
WHAT'S IN IT FOR ME?
So, the fans love it and the bands love it. But what’s in it for MassConcerts?
“I don’t know if they look at the dollars and cents over the course of the three days versus what’s the influence and impact of being the place that does this once a year,” says McLennan about the festival and why promoters continue to organize it. “When these bands are on tour and the House of Blues all of a sudden decides, ‘We want you guys,’ their [response] is probably going to be, ‘Well, we’ll stick to the Palladium.’ I think there’s a lot of loyalty.”
“It is [profitable],” assures Besaw. “It’s like everything else: when it comes to concerts it’s a bit of a gamble. I’m sure there have been years along the way that have been a struggle, but it is profitable.”
“Our income comes from a few different aspects,” he explains. “Obviously ticket sales are our number-one generator of income. We have a bar, we do serve alcohol, but we also serve soda, water, energy drinks. Our under-21 crowd is purchasing beverages, too. We do have some sponsors for the metalfest, too. This year, our big sponsor was All In Merchandise. They definitely helped us get the weekend done and paid for.” The show also included sponsorship by major musical instrument manufacturers Tama and Ibanez, and energy drink manufacturer Monster.
“It gets its money the same way that Newport Folk Festival gets its money,” says McLennan. “They probably charge vendors to be there, they get sponsors to be there, ticket sales are robust. I don’t think anyone’s playing necessarily for free, but…”
As for expenses, Besaw enumerated a few. “You always have to pay the big bands; they’re not doing it for free. Our biggest expense is our entertainment, the bands. Sound and lighting is a huge expense. We have a staff of about 75 people over the weekend. We have a lot of help from the police department, EMT’s from the city of Worcester. We hired four police officers that were here all day, all weekend. It’s a pretty big expense, but it’s important to keep it safe for everybody.”
WHAT'S GOOD FOR THE GOOSE ...
So, is this just a blip on Worcester’s economic radar, a feelgood story about a small ray of positive revenue generation? Is it a call for other city businesses, or the city government itself to stand up and take notice?
“There’s definitely a huge economic runoff,” assures Besaw. “We’re bringing in probably, over the course of the weekend, in and out of the building, about 7,000 people. A lot of those people stayed in local hotels. I know some of those hotels were sold out. We allow re-entry during the day. So, these kids were all out in the streets, going to local restaurants, going to local stores across the street. Everybody who’s in the area is benefitting from us bringing these people to the city.”
In the end, though, it comes back to the fans and the entertainment value they perceive.
“That Killswitch Engage reunion,” says McLennan. “It had to happen at the Palladium. That band, reuniting with its original lead singer, in that building, was probably one of the more spectacular things that I’m going to see all year! It was insane energy and everyone just belonged there. It was crazy.”