Ken Jones

CONCERT REVIEW: Megadeth continues to define thrash legacy in Bethlehem spectacle

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I’ve just gotten into position. I don’t even have my cameras out and set up around my neck comfortably when the piped-in music and spoken lyrics of Megadeth’s “Prince of Darkness” cause the crowd to erupt into a deafening roar. The arena lights of the Sands Bethlehem Event Center begin to dim on Saturday, March 19 as the throng of fans starts chanting, “Megadeth… Megadeth… Megadeth!” Through the darkness, I’m close enough to see the members of the band begin their entrance to the stage. Dave Ellefson, on bass, enters to my left and stands back by the light screen arrays by the drum riser. The silhouette of Chris Adler, backlit by the monstrous video screen behind his drum kit, can be seen getting ready. The newest member of the band, guitarist Kiko Loureiro, excitedly enters to my right, and behind him, original Metallica lead guitarist, founding member of Megadeth, and probably one of the most influential men in the history of metal, Dave Mustaine, hits the stage.

Thinking the band is going to rip into the rest of “Prince of Darkness,” I’m surprised that instead they go with the gripping “Hangar 18” instead. I laugh to myself, thinking how amazing is it that I’m here to shoot a band of such magnitude that they can open a show with such a popular track from their catalog of metal classics.

As I get the first few shots off and my camera dialed in, hoping to score some great shots of one of my favorite bands of all time, I feel a crushing blow to the head from behind me. The fans have already begun crowd surfing, and the security guards, in the pit with me, are doing their best to safely set them down so they can exit and get back to the filled-to-capacity arena and do it all over again. This particular crowd surfer got a bit away from them, so his foot decided to introduce itself to my head. After I got over the shock of it, I smiled to myself and briefly thought of my younger days in mosh pits, moshing it up to a much younger version of Dave Mustaine and Dave Ellefson, in one of the earliest incarnations of Megadeth, after the 1986 release of their sophomore album, “Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying?” with co-members Gar Samuelson on drums and Chris Poland on lead guitar.

Now, nearly 30 years later, I’m watching Mustaine perform with a new lineup in a band history that has had him working with 21 different musicians in assorted lineups. Even co-founder Dave Ellefson was replaced by two other bass players during a nearly eight-year hiatus that was filled with legal issues and bad blood on both sides between the feuding Daves.

Having been lucky enough to have caught many of these varying lineups over the years, I’m always skeptical of new guys in the band – especially the guitarists. You’d think I’d learn by now, after so many times being shocked that Dave has yet again found musicians of such a mind-blowing caliber, that all potential doubts are gone within moments of the opening riffs of “Hangar 18.” While trying to retain my composure to keep shooting photos, the pounding drums and blistering guitar work from the “new guys,” Adler (also known for his work with Lamb of God) and Loureiro, are impressing me to no end. That’s not easy, as I’ve seen this band with the likes of Gar Samuelson, Nick Menza, Al Pitrelli, and Chris Broderick. Getting me to notice what some might call “side men” is challenging, but within the first song of the show, I was already blown away by these guys. Again, Mustaine has found the right guys to add to the legacy of Megadeth.

Taking a brief moment to accept the applause and give a shout out to the crowd, Megadeth rip right back into it with “The Threat is Real,” which is the first track of their latest album, “Dystopia,” an instant classic. It has all the trademarks that they’ve established in their long, justifiably glorified career – insanely heavy riffing, multiple trade-off guitar solos, and incredibly deep lyrics about politics, religion, and the state of the world we live in. If you didn’t know better, you’d think this song came off their seminal 1991 release, “Rust in Peace.”

As I keep jockeying for position between burly security guards, other photographers, and carefully avoiding slats of wood on the floor that are used to brace the barricade protecting us from the rabid fans, I can’t help but want to just join in with the crowd in their appreciation of what they are experiencing before them. I throw a quick horns salute in Mustaine’s direction and get back to shooting.

The video backdrop and assorted lighting arrangements on this stage are probably the best I’ve ever seen for a Megadeth show; they really add to getting better photos. The timing on some of the huge flashing lights that are at stage level give me the feeling I might fall into a seizure. Between the kick to the head and now the lights, I actually wonder if I’ll make it through the allotted three songs. Oh, who am I kidding? This is Megadeth. I’m not going anywhere. Even after the three songs, it will take a stiff warning from a security guard for me to finally leave the pit.

“The Threat is Real” ends and Mustaine takes some time to bask in the adulation of the fans. As the appreciative crowd gets a moment to give back to the man who has given so much awesomeness for so long now by chanting, “You’re the man,” Dave brushes it off and humbly thanks them for their love. Then, raising his voice that seems to be a little hoarse, he tells us that now we’re going to hear something older from the iconic album, “Peace Sells” and introduces the classic fan favorite “Wake Up Dead.” Again, the crowd goes nuts, and Megadeth performs a flawless rendition of a song released 30 years ago.

With the crowd screaming the “Kill… Die!” parts along with the band, my time in the pit is nearing its end. I’m not thrilled with that fact, but as I keep snapping away, I am thrilled beyond belief that I have gotten this opportunity to shoot what I feel is the biggest of the Big Four of thrash metal. If not for Mustaine, there wouldn’t be a Metallica or a Megadeth. Fans of both bands know that there’s a huge difference between the two and that the edge in both talent and songwriting fall to Dave and Megadeth over Metallica. Even though Metallica may have garnered more mainstream success, most fans of thrash metal know that the respect nod goes to Megadeth. The awe that I am struck with as my photo opportunity draws to a close kind of gives me a lump in my throat. “Wake Up Dead” ends, and I hope the security guards lapse on their job and forget to eject us but, sadly, that doesn’t happen. I get the tap on the shoulder to leave and try to snap a few more. My last shot is a pretty good one of Ellefson.

After exiting the pit, putting my gear away and trying to find a place to stand to see the rest of the show, Megadeth is halfway through “In My Darkest Hour” from “So Far, So Good… So What!” I began to walk along the back of the arena, thinking about getting some crowd shots, when it finally dawned on me how packed this show was. I was really happy with that, as I’ve seen Megadeth play anywhere from huge stadiums with 20-30,000 capacities to small clubs with 2-300 people in them. Whether that signifies a total resurgence in heavy metal music or that Megadeth’s new album, “Dystopia” is just that amazing, I don’t really know. I hope it’s a combination of both and we’ll be seeing a return to such great music by musicians beyond the limits of most mere mortals, as opposed to the largely mediocre bands and musicians that almost put an end to the entire heavy metal genre in the ‘90s.

Another great sign was that this crowd was a nice mix of ages. From folks in their 50s, like me and many other fans, who now spend good money on monthly visits to the chiropractor due to the excessive head banging and moshing, to teens and young adults who seemed to be just as familiar with Megadeth’s classic tunes as we are. As I watched the younger fans swimming atop the crowd to the pit area I was just in, I laughed at the thought of attempting crowd surfing. I’m glad that wasn’t a thing back in my day.

The rest of the night was filled with neck-breaking, fast-paced, virtuosic musicianship, mixed with gravelly, angry lyrics that any fan of Megadeth would be used to. The show featured five songs from “Dystopia,” including the title track, along with “The Threat is Real,” “Post American World,” “Fatal Illusion,” and “Poisonous Shadows.” Longtime fans were treated to classics like “She-Wolf,” “Sweating Bullets,” “Trust,” “Tornado of Souls,” “Symphony of Destruction” and, of course, “Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying?” which was introduced by Dave Ellefson with some banter and an elongated bass intro to arguably Megadeth’s biggest song of all time.

After an intense performance of “Peace Sells,” Megadeth took a quick bow, thanked the crowd, and left. They were only gone for a short time before returning with the epic “Holy Wars” from “Rust in Peace.” The screens filled with images of political and religious propaganda from throughout the world as Megadeth shredded their way through what some might call their magnum opus. If I was impressed by Loureiro during “Hangar 18,” then I was really having my socks knocked off now. Not only did he play legendary former shredder Marty Friedman’s intricate work on this epic tune dead on, but he somehow managed to add to it and make it his own, something I did not think was possible.

As the show ended and three-fourths of Megadeth left the stage, Mustaine took a few more minutes to bask in the adulation his rabid fans, both new and longtime, were throwing his way. Seemingly different from the angry young man he once was, he smiled and did some dance moves while throwing picks to the crowd. I couldn’t help but once again find myself reminiscing; it’s something you do when you get older. Thinking through the years, I wondered if there was ever a time that I had seen Megadeth that they weren’t absolutely brilliant. I couldn’t find a show in my memory that would make me answer yes. Even during a horrific outing with Mötley Crüe at Montage Mountain in Scranton, where there was a flight problem and Dave arrived with only time for them to do three songs, if memory serves me correctly, that show was awesome. As it pained me to no end to see a stellar band like Megadeth in an opening slot for a watered-down version of Mötley Crüe, just getting to see them at all made it worthwhile.

Make it worth your while. If you haven’t seen them, catch them on this tour. You really won’t regret it, as they sound better than ever.