Metal With Soul

Veterans of Ozzfest, the Warped Tour, and even Woodstock '99, Sevendust makes its home on the road.

Metallica, Kid Rock, Sevendust. 7 p.m., Saturday, January 1, Gund Arena, 100 Gateway Plaza.216-420-2200. Sold Out
Sevendust: Hard rock from the dirty South.
Sevendust: Hard rock from the dirty South.
Some folks get sweaters for Christmas. A new lawn mower. A Furby, perhaps. But the five distinguished gentlemen in the Atlanta-based metal combo Sevendust will soon receive a much more bombastic holiday gift: a two-week tour with Metallica.

It's the gift that keeps on giving.

"James Hetfield is my idol for sure," raves Sevendust guitarist John Connolly, phoning in from Atlanta, where the rest of the band (singer Lajon Witherspoon, guitarist Clint Lowery, bassist Vinnie Hornsby, and drummer Morgan Rose) has embarked upon a frantic last-second Christmas shopping binge before starting the tour. "[I like] Hetfield's "fuck you' mentality . . . he did it his way. They played the music they wanted to play; they didn't compromise. He's always been true to whatever he wanted to do. He's one of the best guitar players in the business for sure, from a metal standpoint."

Sevendust has made a habit out of doing things its own way, too. Initially, Rose and Hornsby (two veterans of Atlanta's metal scene, who played in Snake Nation and then Crawlspace before forming Sevendust) recruited the Nashville-born Witherspoon in part because his style of singing contrasted so much with your typical hard rock band -- an African-American who used to sing R&B, Witherspoon sounds more like Sam Cooke than Ozzy Osbourne. Sevendust has quickly reached the upper echelon of harder-edged bands currently terrorizing suburban parents and Gore family members everywhere. Its 1997 self-titled release lit the fuse, but this year's ironically titled Home finally consummated the band's long, hard push toward detonation. Full of sharp, staccato guitar riffs, fiercely anguished lyrics, and pulverizing rhythm dynamics, Home provides a perfect complement to Sevendust's real claim to fame: an almost inhuman dedication to the road.

"I think it's a contradiction in terms," Connolly says of the album title. "It's the one place we weren't for 21 months. But honestly, I think Sevendust has become home to all of us. Wherever Sevendust takes us, whether it's in the studio, on the road, overseas . . . that's more home to us than anything else."

It's a good thing the band likes to tour. The past 21 months has led it to some disparate destinations -- last year it manned the main stage at Ozzfest, and this year it squared up to an even bigger challenge: the Warped Tour. The band definitely noticed the dichotomy.

"On Ozzfest, we fit in," Connolly recalls. "But on the Warped Tour, we didn't fit in at all -- we stuck out like a sore thumb. But as far as gaining new fans and opening people's eyes to what we were about, I definitely think we gained a lot from the Warped Tour. A lot more than I thought we would. I think you just adapt to your surroundings. If there's a guy standing out there who doesn't look like he's gonna have a good time, or doesn't want to have a good time, we'll do everything in our power to make sure that he does. And if they don't, we'll get everyone around him to get him out of the way, just so everyone who wants to have a good time has room to do it."

It's clearly not as easy as it sounds. But for a band supported more by word-of-mouth than by MTV or mainstream radio, touring and performing for as many different people as possible becomes an absolute necessity.

"We understood that being a heavy band in today's music world, it's important to get out there and tour," Connolly continues. "You've gotta take your music to the fans; you can't wait for your fans to come to you. MTV and radio are great tools to market your band, but the way you're really gonna build a fan base is to get out there and give people a show. Metallica proved that it does work. If you'd told me, right after Ride the Lightning came out, that this would be a band that would sell in excess of 60 million records and sell out places from coast to coast, at that time, I would've said you were crazy -- it's too heavy, there's no radio accessibility. But the one thing they did do: they toured their asses off."

Between Ozzfest, the Warped Tour and an extended series of headlining gigs, Sevendust certainly did that. The band even delivered a knockout performance at the single most media-saturated gig of the year: the self-destructive debacle known as Woodstock '99. Ah, the fires, the vandalism, the crowds, the reports of sexual assaults. Months later, the media still can't decide who to blame.

One theory, unfortunately, points the finger at bands like Sevendust, Metallica, and Rage Against the Machine. After all, Limp Bizkit leader Fred Durst encouraged the crowd to tear the place apart. Did the heavier, metal-edged bands drive the crowd to mob violence?

"Heavy metal has always gotten a bad rap," Connolly says, with a mix of resignation and frustration. "The media wants to blame the bands, they want to blame the promoters, they want to blame the site, but nobody's ever blaming the fans. Out of 200,000 people, you're gonna have at least 5,000 people who are gonna be complete idiots. Maybe they should've made water free. Maybe they should've had better conditions. But you know what? Maybe the fans shouldn't have fucked up their living areas. Maybe they shouldn't have burnt those places down. There's a certain point where you've gotta put your foot down and say, "You know what, fans have gotta be responsible too.' If the fans aren't responsible, then the fans have to take some of the blame too."

Connolly is quick to point out, however, that those few bad apples fall well short of spoiling the bunch. "We have some of the most respectful fans for heavy music that I've ever run across," he says of Sevendust's personal following. "If you got out and met the people who really support this band, and you'll see they're genuine people; they love comin' to shows, and they love seein' us."

The media have long since declared Woodstock a tragedy for brotherhood, innocence, and idealism, but the members of Sevendust have endured much more devastating losses, particularly when Snot frontman Lynn Strait died in a car accident on December 11 of last year. Sevendust had formed a close relationship with Snot, a punk/metal outfit poised to achieve a similar level of fame and artistic success. Strait's death prematurely derailed a promising band and a heartfelt friendship.

"We celebrated the anniversary," Connolly says quietly. "I can't say "celebrated,' but we made it known that it was the one-year anniversary of Lynn's death. Snot did more for this band than they could ever imagine, on all levels. Musically, friend-wise. it was so unfortunate when Lynn died, because this was a guy who had lived so much. I mean, this guy was on 24-7. Anything that we can do to help the memory of that band live a little longer. There's a special kind of brotherhood between Sevendust and Snot that I don't think will ever die."

Sevendust honors that brotherhood by forging ahead with a promising, increasingly prolific career in the modern metal theater of war. The Metallica tour provides just one more battle along the way. But if Metallica is still the blueprint for hard rockin' success, the question must be asked: When will Sevendust's long-awaited symphonic record hit the stores?

Connolly laughs at the thought. "I don't think there's room for us to have symphony in our lives at this point. I can't say never, but our plates are gonna be pretty full just dealing with the five of us -- any more than that, and we'd start to lose our minds."

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