Last Night: Anthrax & Exodus at House of Blues

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Anthrax, Exodus House of Blues April 10, 2013

I am going to come right out and say it: I never thought Anthrax should have been a part of The Big Four.

When laying out the titans of thrash metal, the boys from New York -- a fact they never seem to want you to forget -- always seemed a bit out of place next to their three California brethren: Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth.

Anthrax's quirky pop-culture and comic-book references and that odd predilection for imitating the Beastie Boys just never sat quite right. They seemed too Sunset Strip in their Joey Belladonna era and too Biohazard in the John Bush years.

So I always had a silly, largely baseless, reason to marginalize Anthrax. In my 14-year-old mind, the coveted fourth spot rightfully belonged to Testament, Exodus or maybe even the babies of the Bay Area scene, Death Angel.

You are about to read something I don't admit very often. I was wrong. I may be more than a couple of decades too late in my realization, but hearing Anthrax play Among the Living in its entirety Wednesday night was worthy of an epiphany, and it was certainly a moment worth waiting for.

From the moment the curtain lifted to reveal a mike-stand-twirling Belladonna, prancing and hamming it up for the imaginary 1980s-style heavy metal music video camera crews, you couldn't help but notice that aside from a few gray hairs in Scott Ian's trademark goatee, the 2013 version of Anthrax has aged extremely well. They were playing 1987's classic Among the Living from cover to cover tonight but there were a few welcome pit stops along the way.

Anthrax opened with the title track, an ode to Stephen King antagonist Randall Flagg. As an aside, when think of The Stand, I still picture the creepy man from the cover of Among the Living, despite later learning it was meant to depict Henry Kane from the Poltergiest series.

If Scott Ian has been the de facto leader of the band these past 30 some-odd years, then Frank Bello is the unsung hero. His bass lines rival the late Cliff Burton's and they shook the monitors hanging above the crowd at House of Blues.

With only a brief greeting from Belladonna, the band launched into "Caught in a Mosh" and the crowd launched into a swelling, spinning elliptical pit that threatened to stretch the width of the venue. For people whose average age was probably pushing 30, this was one of the wildest crowds the typically reserved Houston scene has produced in some time.

Since the beginning, despite and probably in spite of their cavalier, drunken-idiot personas, thrash-metal bands have often prided themselves on precise, punishing live performances and the fact that four of the five members onstage Wednesday have spent more than 20 years playing together is evident.

We may be 25 years removed from the peak of their popularity, but this was Anthrax at their performing best. Ian's one-man circle-pit struts looked as quick and frenzied as when he had a full head of hair. Benante, looking impossibly young seated behind one of the biggest drum kits I've ever seen, proved why his trademark double-bass drum blasts have been so influential.

At the end of Side 1 of Among the Living -- hey kids, did you know we used to have to take the cassette out of the tape player and flip it? What's a cassette? Oh, never mind -- the stage went momentarily dark and when the house lights came back up banners featuring Ronnie James Dio and Dimebag Darrell flanked the band.

Anthrax launched into "In the End" off of Worship Music, the song itself a tribute to both men. Belladonna, throwing Dio's trademark horns, can't help but sound more than a little like the man as well, a compliment in any terms.

I suspected it was coming, given the recent release of Anthems, an EP of cover tunes and thankfully they chose to go with AC/DC's "T.N.T." as opposed to Rush's Anthems. The crowd was at a frenzy, and you could have easily cut Belladonna's mike and let the crowd sing the song. It ended with the first bar of "Back In Black," and the crowd let out a collective sigh of disappointment when the house lights went down and Anthrax fell silent. Well played, gentlemen.

With the show at nearly an hour now, the crowd seemed to think the night might be done. We still had the second half of Among the Living to go and Anthrax didn't appear to have even broken a sweat.

"Indians" was the second single off the album and, along with Judge Dredd anthem "I am the Law," is the one that almost everyone in the crowd knows. At this point, the pit spreads all the way to Anthrax's merch booth at the far wall of House of Blues.

Not happy to let the classics go unplayed, Anthrax thankfully peppered in an absolutely frenetic version of "Got the Time," and one of those aforementioned Beastie Boys nods in the form of Frank Bello's showcase rap on "I'm the Man." Both songs served as reminders that at a time when heavy metal was as much of a one-trick pony as it's ever been, this band was shrugging off convention at every turn.

It may have taken me far too long to admit my stubborn mistake, but if there was ever a way to come to a realization, spending a night with Anthrax was a hell of a way to do it. The point was further driven home by the fact that Exodus directly proceeded Anthrax on the bill.

Despite machine-gun-burst vocals from Rob Dukes and the always-impeccable guitar work from Gary Holt, not to mention the under appreciated Lee Altus and Tom Hunting -- who celebrated his birthday on stage -- the band sounded muddy at times, and you couldn't help but notice Duke's heavyset frame draggingon stage.

I love you to death, Exodus, but you are going to have to remain on the outside looking in at the Big Four, Anthrax has simply aged far too well to be ousted.

Personal Bias: As a longtime thrash-metal aficionado and apologist, I was right at home with the scumbags in battle vests.

The Crowd: Scumbags in battle vests -- looking straight out of San Francisco circa 1985 -- and the ladies who love them. Every single person in Houston who owns a Testament shirt.

Overheard In the Crowd: "Encore!" -- with four songs from Among the Living remaining to be played.

Random Notebook Dump: The least amount of phones held over heads I have seen in at least five years.

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