In one way, I discovered System of a Down a bit late in
the game. In another way, I discovered them just in the nick
of time. If certain music ever got you through a particularly
difficult time, you know what I mean. I often say that System
saved me, and I mean it most sincerely. Unfortunately, as fate
would have it, I didn't see them in concert before they went
on their current indefinite hiatus. So, like many System fans,
I have eagerly awaited the members' other projects. First up
is the solo tour of System singer Serj Tankian to promote his
first solo release, Elect the Dead, which came
out on his own label, Serjical
Strike, on October 23. I bought
two tickets the moment they went on sale and even briefly flirted
with the idea of going to Chicago for the inaugural show on
October 12. Unfortunately, again, fate stood in my way.
However, fate isn't always out to get me. In fact, as fate
would have it, a good friend was able to travel a considerable
distance to go to the show with me. So, I was in very good
spirits and even better company the day of the show. We arrived
early and got primo parking right next to the tour bus. At
The Roxy, we stood in line in the alley behind only about ten
people. When the doors opened, we headed straight for the stage.
Being extremely short and a bit claustrophobic, I don't usually
opt for standing-only front row. Usually, I head straight for
the balcony and am grateful for a seat and a view over huddled
masses below. But this particular friend brought out courage
in that I didn't know I had. Because of this, I knew I'd be
alright, even if we did get pinned against the barricade during
the show. Life is too short to stick with what's comfortable.
Starting relatively on time, the opening act was The Nightwatchman, Tom Morello, singing his own home-grown brand of political protest songs. How apropos, considering he and Tankian are cofounders of Axis
of Justice, the nonprofit organization aiming "to build a bridge between fans of music around the world and local political organizations to effectively organize around issues of peace, human rights, and economic justice." I wasn't familiar with The Nightwatchman, but I was transported to the Vietnam era, a time I am reminded of frequently these days. The set was exceptionally good – just Morello with a guitar and harmonica. I thoroughly enjoyed his uncensored rendition of Woody Guthrie's This Land Is Your Land, and he also did an acoustic version of Rage Against the Machine's Guerrilla Radio. Appearing out of nowhere, Serj even joined him onstage to sing Lazarus on Down together, a new song which may appear on The Nightwatchman's next album. Still, truth be told, I would have rather seen Fair
to Midland, who were the opening act in other American cities after Atlanta and in Europe. It's nothing against Morello; I just really want to see Fair to Midland, whose debut full-length album, Fables from a Mayfly: What I Tell You Three Times Is True, is also on Tankian's Serjical Strike label.
As in Chicago, Serj Tankian came onstage to the roar of a crowd chanting Serj, pronouncing it "surge" when it should assonate with "air." This isn't surprising considering we Georgians pronounce Bjork "B-york" (two-syllables) and Ikea "I-kee-yuh." We can't even pronounce Cairo.
Tankian calls his touring band the FCC (i.e., Flying Cunts of Chaos). The FCC are Erwin Khachikian on keyboards, Larry LaLonde and Dan Monti on guitars; Mario Pagliarulo on bass; and Troy Zeigler on drums. As in Chicago, the FCC came on stage sporting black tuxes and top hats, while Serj's tux and top hat were white. As in Chicago, they began playing The Unthinking Majority, the first song released from the new CD. Even though the CD had not yet been released, the fans knew all the lyrics to this and many of the songs he sang, thanks to the Internet and a steady stream of new songs at serjtankian.com preceding the release. The energy of the crowd pulsed with the staccato verses. If it weren't for the very kind souls behind us bracing themselves with their arms on either side of us, my sweet, petite friend and I might have been crushed. At one point, I thought I might faint.
Aside from my claustrophobia, the whole thing seemed surreal. I was standing maybe ten feet from Serj Tankian. He was dancing in his characteristically theatrical way – his hands gesticulating in the air like an evangelical preacher at a tent revival, his expressive face making those sometimes sardonic, sometimes ecstatic, sometimes demented looks I'd only seen in video. I felt like a silly schoolgirl, and it felt delightful. I am so glad I stepped out of my comfort zone!
Next up was Empty Walls, the current single. The surrealism began to wear off, and it was beginning to sink in that I really was seeing this artist I've long admired. I began to cling to every note, luxuriating in that ephemeral moment of genuine happiness. For a long time, I tried to focus on just his voice, blocking out the voices around me who couldn't help but singing along to every word. I generally love to sing along, but this moment was too precious, this one opportunity to hear Tankian's exquisitely intoxicating voice and his oft poetic lyrics in real time. The mix was perfect, his singing flawless. The FCC knew the compositions as if they'd been in the studio with Tankian, though he played most of the music on the CD himself. They performed as a well-oiled machine in spite of the fact they were only playing their sixth live show together. I was impressed.
My friend happily turned to me and said, Feed Us, announcing the name of the next song. I realized she knew the set list from the Chicago show by heart and would truly be my guided tour through this experience. At the beginning of every song, she would excitedly tell me the song's name, and occasionally, she would point out what the other musicians were doing. Apparently, keyboardist Erwin Khachikian (Slow Motion Reign), whom she met in Chicago, recognized her and waved. Meanwhile, Monti and Pagliarulo were taking pictures of the crowd and of their band mates. Next was Lie Lie Lie, which was one of my favorite songs of the night. Another of my favorites was Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition. It has an avant garde quality that reconfirmed my appreciation for Serj's experimental side. One of the things I liked best about the new music was the heavy use of piano and keyboards. Khachikian did a magnificent job playing Tankian's compositions, though Serj played piano on Honking Antelope himself.
If there's one thing I love in music, it's to be carried on a journey, and that I was. The show just seemed to get better and better. Toward the end of the set, Serj and the FCC did a cover of the Dead Kennedys' Holiday in Cambodia, and the set ended with Beethoven's Cunt, a very powerful final note. The show seemed over too soon, but of course, there would be an encore. When the FCC came back on stage, my friend turned to me and said, "Two songs!" The first was a surprise deviation from the Chicago set list. It was a cover of The Beatles' Girl. As Serj is wont to do, he sang the chorus soft and sweet and the verses sharp and edgy. I love when an artist makes a cover his own! After that, he performed Elect the Dead solo on piano – a perfect ending to a perfect performance. The only thing that could have possibly improved the experience would have been if Serj had performed Blue, a previously unreleased System of a Down song that he has released as an acoustic version on the bonus CD of the limited edition of Elect the Dead. Of course, he did say he wouldn't play any System.
Priestess obtained a setlist of this show.
We had already planned to wait outside the Roxy after the show. In Chicago, Serj had come to meet the fans outside the tour bus, and we were counting on a repeat performance. However, thanks to Erwin, we got VIP passes. So, we nervously waited inside in line against a wall while the concertgoers exited, and the roadies loaded up the equipment. Finally, Serj appeared. He walked right up to me, extended his hand, and said, "Hello, I'm Serj." That's just how humble he is. While I stood there in an adolescent flashback of butterflies and goosebumps, he went on down the line and talked to the others. But we weren't going to leave just yet. We waited until he finished talking to everyone else, and then, we had our chance. I told him how his music, and the people I had met because of it, had gotten me through possibly the worst time in my life. My friend blushed; she knew I was talking about her. He looked me right in the eyes and thanked me. The sincerity was tangible, and I was satisfied that he really heard me and really understood what I meant. I even got a hug out of the deal.
Mr. Tankian had to stoop down slightly to be photographed
with our Priestess.
(That's her on the right!)
In the parking lot, we got to thank Erwin personally for the passes. He was just a really nice guy, very down-to-earth, so unlike some lesser musicians I've met along the way. There was no pretension, no ego. We just hung out and talked until we saw Serj come out the back and do the same kind of meet-and-greet he had done in Chicago. I must say, like Erwin, Serj is one celebrity who hasn't let fame go to his head. When he sings, "Wouldn't it be great to heal the world with only a song?," you feel that he truly means it.