"Do you like German heavy metal?" the band's frontman asked in a rising falsetto. Hells yeah we do, especially when it's dressed up in denim and fingerless biker gloves, then squeezed into leather pants -- the kind with drawstrings. And so did the other 700 or so metalheads along for the ride -- an audience as far-flung and weatherbeaten as the lineup they came to see (some, like the bands, traveled from as far as Sweden, Germany, and Spain). At one point, three Mexican dudes played air guitar together like teens at their fist rock gig.
"Let's go back to the '80s!" Grave Digger singer Chris Boltendahl later bellowed. By that point, we'd forgotten the decade had ever even ended, what with all the galloping riffs, upper-register wails, and concussive double-bass drumming. The middle-aged metalheads of Grave Digger celebrated the first American gig of their 23-year career with songs like "Circle of Witches" and "Lion Heart"; the metal moms and dads watching, with their silver hair and Saxon shirts, voiced rabid approval.
"I do sit in an office during the day," confessed Seven Witches frontman James Rivera earlier in the night. But on the weekends, the dude evidently becomes a villain from Flash Gordon, decked out in black satin and spiked wrist guards, and belting out melodic power metal rooted in the sound of decades past.
Even more nostalgic for Reagan-era rawk was a set from blond badass Doro Pesch, who's so metal you could add her to the periodic table. Clad in black leather with big silver hoop earrings, she looked like Debbie Harry's pot-smoking older sister. Spending her birthday bounding about the stage like an aerobics instructor, Doro was greeted at the end of her set by a female fan who brought a cake to the stage. "Instead of 'happy birthday,' we're going to sing 'heavy birthday,'" the gal announced, leading the crowd in tribute to the panting Teuton.
The night ended with an anticlimactic set from Swedish mope metallers Katatonia, whose dark, languorous sound was much more contemporary than any other band on the bill -- and thus cleared the floor almost immediately.
Saturday night began with the first Cleveland gig in 15 years for Shok Paris. "Is this bringing back the memories for ya?" Tony Soprano-sized frontman Vic Hix queried. Clad in black Aviator shades, a white EZ Wider headband, and a black leather jacket adorned with a sheriff's badge, Hix looked like an extra from Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years. The band played a well-received set of teched-out trad metal, with guitarists trading solos like drunks trading blows.
The award for Best Syncopated Hair Twirling goes to the business-minded Swedish death metal combo Dismember, the heaviest band of the fest. How hardcore are they? They took to the stage to the sound of artillery fire, with a backdrop depicting their own severed heads. The lady next to us headbanged the lenses right out of her glasses.
The weekend's biggest draw proved to be still more Germans: the chest-pounding Primal Fear, whose monstrous frontman looks like Telly Savalas on creatine. The aroma of Head & Shoulders engulfed the room as longhairs whipped around to the band's Muscle and Fitness metal. When Primal Fear's show bled into the next band's time slot, the promoter took the stage to cut them off. "That's bullshit!" came the response from angry fans.
Ending the festivities was Metal Church, who won loud approval for old favorites like "Watch the Children Pray," even though the band boasts but two original members. Like Budweiser and ponytails, some things never go out of style with the metalheads.
"We are metal, we never fuckin' change," Rivera astutely observed earlier in the weekend. "We may get gray hair, but we never fuckin' change."