I first saw Serj Tankian and his touring band, the Flying Cunts of Chaos (FCC), just a few months ago on October
20, 2007, during his preview tour for his first solo release, Elect the Dead, which came out three days later. I poured my heart out to Serj Tankian himself after the show, and I gushed in my review about not only the performance, but also about the impact of the man and his previous work with System of a Down on my humble life. Having had such a moving experience and writing such a highly affectionate piece makes it all the more difficult to write a follow-up, but I certainly did not expect at the time I'd have the good fortune to see the man perform again just a few months later! Luckily for me, Atlanta was the first stop on the official Elect the Dead tour. I was also fortunate that the same dear friend who went to great lengths and great distance to join me at the concert in October was also able to give a repeat performance and she had yet another friend in tow this time. It amuses me to no end that I once followed the Grateful Dead to D.C., and now, I have friends who follow Serj Tankian. I wonder if he is aware of his quite literal loyal following.
The show would go on at 8 p.m., so I assumed that we would have plenty of
time if we left my house by 5:30. Wrong! After being stuck in Butthead traffic
for about an hour and nearly killing my dear friends with my reckless (but
thankfully wreck-less) driving, we arrived at The Roxy mere minutes before
the doors opened and found ourselves in a line down the alley that went all
the way to the back of the building. When we finally arrived inside the venue,
we learned that Michael Haytayan of Serjical Strike Records had generously
left us three tickets at will call, though we had eagerly bought tickets during
the Project 96.1 presale. (I'm not exactly known for my patience.) Unfortunately,
there were no VIP passes this time and Serj would not be doing a meet-and-greet.
Still, that did not thwart us three rather petite and stealthy women from slithering
through the already formed crowd to the front center of the stage where we
joined friends we had made at the first show, also standing at the front. It's
just a shame that Serj's peaceful persona has not rubbed off on some of his
fans, as the taller, younger, bitchier college girls behind us made threatening
remarks behind our backs but deliberately loud enough for us to hear -- as
couldn't see over my 4'9" self and my similarly small-statured counterparts!
Again, we would not be discouraged. After all, my friends had traveled by land
and air and in my Honda of horror to come to this, the opening show of the
official tour. Damn it to hell – we were going to enjoy it!
Of course, I was absolutely thrilled that the opening act was Fair to Midland (FTM) from Dallas, Texas. My only disappointment in Serj Tankian's October show was that FTM were not opening in Atlanta as they had opened for him in other cities. I was introduced to FTM's music via Serj Tankian's label, Serjical Strike Records, which released their first full-length album, Fables from a Mayfly: What I Tell You Three Times Is True, on June 12, 2007. In the last several months, that CD has been playing almost constantly in my car, and I had been assured they put on an incredible show. I was not disappointed!
FTM has a sound that is extremely difficult to describe. To say they are original
is an understatement. I'm quick to throw out the label of "prog-rock" because
of the elements of the epic and grandiose, operatic, classical, and even baroque.
One could also call it art rock, throwing out descriptors like psychedelic,
eclectic, and flat-out weird. This is extremely complex music that weaves a
tapestry of different genres with narrative yet cryptic lyrics. It's easy
to see why Tankian would sign them, considering his own propensity toward avant
garde musical compositions and obscure poetic lyricism. This is certainly his
cup of tea, particularly with the emphasis on keyboards, masterfully played
by Matt Langley. Other members of the band are Cliff Campbell on guitar, Jon
Dicken on bass, and Brett Stowers on drums. While certainly it is the diversity
of the ensemble that creates the uniqueness of the music, their sound would
not be complete without the voice of Darroh Sudderth, a slight man with enormous
operatic ability who puts me in the mind of Freddie Mercury. That is not to
say his voice sounds like Mercury, but that it has its own distinct sound and
incredible range and power. The benefit of seeing Sudderth perform live was
to finally see just how he creates his characteristic vibrato effect. Interestingly,
rather than achieving the effect vocally, he actually does it manually by beating
on his neck with his fist.
Fair to Midland, under seasonal yellow lighting.
The set began with Walls of Jericho, a song that is very typical of the unique FTM sound. It was a suitable first taste of FTM for many in the audience who had obviously never heard them. The irony is that our front row view was often obscured by the photographers from Project 96.1, a station that does not even play them. Next, FTM played Kyla Cries Cologne, followed by my favorite FTM song and the second single from the album, Tall Tales Taste Like Sour Grapes. I simply love the structure of this one – the almost Celtic intro, the shifts in tempo from slow and melodic to hard and driving, and lyrics like "To get a word from the wise would be a welcome surprise. Keep an ear to the ground so to drown out the sound. The dead air is what made me whole." If I recall correctly, it was during this song in particular that I finally understood why FTM get lumped into the ever-expanding category that is "metal". When the band hit the hard-rocking bridge, Sudderth took flight in what I can only describe as a whole-body spasm, arms and legs flailing wildly in midair. Meanwhile, Campbell was head-banging full-force, his long hippie locks whipping the air. It was such a frenetic display, I was sure they would collide at some point. After such frenzied fits of energetic explosion, Sudderth would often end up seizing on the floor. To say it was theatrical would be an understatement. It was volatile… and after such bursts of musical and physical energy, they would effortlessly fall right back into melody, as if it never happened.
The set continued with The Wife, the Kids, and the White Picket Fence, a song that seems to me to comment on the daily humdrum lives of those of us who "blend right in" throughout our daily existence. Next up was Upgrade^Brigade, followed by April Fools and Eggmen, which again has some amazing lyrics: "Common sense won't pay the rent and doesn't grow on trees, but splitting hairs can get you anything you need. Who would have thought connecting dots might get you to the point, but charity is a rarity, almost as much as modesty". As on the album, this song was followed by A Seafarer's Knot, bridged by an interlude of harpsichord-style keyboards. The final song of FTM's set was the first single from the album, Dance of the Manatee. Sudderth's voice really shone in this one with amazing highs turning to growling, gravelly lows as he sang, "Hang us those limbs hold no virtue. Those told to hold project on my cue. Oh, take a gander the bigger they are the harder they fall!" In a swirling crescendo, he pointed at us all and declared, "I guarantee, what they've done for you, they've done for me!" It was a truly climactic ending to a highly energetic set.
Next up were Serj and the FCC. Based on the October show, I knew I was in for a great performance, but I never expected they could be better than last time. Wrong again! Last time, I was impressed that the FCC could play so expertly songs that Tankian had recorded without them. They knew the songs perfectly then, but this time, they owned them. Their performance as a whole was much tighter, but they were also more comfortable and seem to enjoy themselves even more. I had a much better view of Erwin Khachikian on keyboards this time, and I admit I was blushing like a schoolgirl when he recognized us and smiled at us during the show. (He's not only an incredible keyboardist; he's also a genuinely wonderful human being.) I also had a better view of Mario Pagliarulo, who played the hell out of a five-string bass, and Dan Monti, who gave a very impressive guitar solo at the end of Lie Lie Lie.
Another other notable difference twas the crowd. In October, we stood up front with little discomfort. This time, the crowd was much larger, much louder, and much more energetic. In fact, some of our friends from the October show had already had enough by the end of FTM and left us to sit in the balcony. There was a circle pit going all during the FTM set that would occasionally have a ripple effect in our general direction, but by the beginning of Serj's set, the crowd was really pressing us hard against the barricade. As soon as the band started into the first song, The Unthinking Majority, the crowd erupted into moshing. Not only did the circle pit continue during Tankian's set, but there was also crowd surfing. The other difference in the crowd was that everyone now knew all the lyrics to all the songs, and unfortunately, they sang along. What a shame to come to hear a beautiful voice like Tankian's and have to strain to hear it over the crowd. At one point as I was pressed to the barricade struggling to hear the voice of a man not ten feet away, I thought to myself, "I'm too old for this." Of course, the up side of all of this is that I, too, now knew the album and the lyrics well, so my own appreciation of the performance was also enhanced.
Serj Tankian, in top hat. As if he wasn't tall enough already....
The set list was the same as last time, with the notable addition of two songs: Sounds of War and Money. The former was a sort of jazz improvisation that Tankian and the FCC came up with together, including a spoken word bit that was quintessentially Serj commenting on the effects of war on the innocent. Money is on Elect the Dead, but it was not on the promotional tour set list, and it was certainly a very welcome addition. Like many of Tankian's songs, it goes from beautiful melodic verses to a hard, fast chorus. Just as in October, Serj took to the piano for Honking Antelope. As in October, he also performed songs not on the CD: Charades, which was cowritten by Daron Malakian of System of a Down and appears on the album Axis of Justice: Concert Series I; Holiday in Cambodia by the Dead Kennedys; and the Beatles' Girl, also done in the slow verse-hard/fast chorus style. The only song I wish they had played that they did not was Blue, a previously unreleased System of a Down song that he recorded for the Elect the Dead limited edition second disc. Then again, I said the same thing back in October.
All in all, in spite of my already high expectations, the show was even better than I expected. Fair to Midland was well worth the wait, and Serj Tankian and the FCC rose above the high bar they had already set for themselves in my mind. My only complaint is that the crowd seems to think this is heavy metal, and I beg to differ. After the show, my friends and I hit the merchandise table, where Cliff Campbell himself (FTM's guitarist) was selling FTM items. I bought the last LP on the table and got his autograph and picture. (As one of my friends noted, she almost didn't recognize him with his shirt on!) Behind The Roxy, I was also able to get the LP autographed by Darroh Sudderth and Brett Stowers. Unfortunately, I didn't catch the other two members of FTM, but the three we met were incredibly friendly. Of course, we were most happy to see our beloved Erwin Khachikian, who stood out in the cold with us to visit for a good while before taking to the bus. We also had the privilege of talking with FTM's official photographer/videographer, Isaac Flores, who had filmed their set and is posting tour diary videos on their MySpace. Unfortunately, this time, Serj Tankian did not make an appearance as he did during the promotional tour, but we had a wonderful time nonetheless.
(special thanks to Sugar and Linster for helping fill in the blanks)