Blood, Sweat, Tears: Scenes From GWAR B-Q 2014
On Friday evening, Oderus Urungus burned. Dave Brockie, the Gwar founder who played the Oderus character for 32 years, was laid to rest soon after he died this past spring, the victim of his own heroin addiction. But one funeral wasn’t enough. And Oderus, the once-frozen alien overlord who led his band of scumdogs on a decades-long quest for world domination, needed a memorial of his own. So the day before Gwar-B-Q, the band’s annual festival, thousands gathered at Hadad’s Lake, the beautiful deep-woods site of the Richmond, Virginia festival, to pay tribute to the man. Lamb Of God’s Randy Blythe gave a heartfelt eulogy. Jello Biafra compared Brockie to Robin Williams. And on the lake, Oderus took his last voyage. Brockie wasn’t on the boat, of course. Instead, his Oderus stage gear, covering a dummy, laid out on the vessel, Brockie’s obscenely gigantic foam-rubber dick sticking straight upward. On the shore, an archer sent a blazing arrow into the boat, setting it aflame and giving Oderus the Viking funeral he deserved.
On Instagram, Blythe wrote that he was in tears as he watched that boat burn. But Gwar-B-Q — even this Gwar-B-Q, is not a solemn occasion. In that video, you can’t hear too many sniffles. What you hear is cheers, drunken hoots, someone telling the archer “nice shot.” That’s more in keeping with the spirit of the event, and with that of Gwar itself, a long-running circus that seems ready to keep going even after the sudden death of its founder. After all, when Gwar guitarist Cory Smoot died suddenly and unexpectedly of coronary artery disease while on tour in 2011, Gwar didn’t break up. They didn’t even cancel the rest of the tour. As Sleazy P. Martini, the band’s slimy manager character, said at the beginning of their first-ever post-Brockie show, on Saturday, nothing can kill this fucking band. I wasn’t at the Brockie memorial on Friday, but I was there to see Gwar reborn the next day. And the day after Oderus’ Viking funeral, the burnt remains of that boat sat on the side of Hadad’s Lake, mostly ignored, as drunk metalheads staggered around it.
It wasn’t that Brockie went forgotten. Throughout Saturday, the Gwar-B-Q merch table did brisk business in R.I.P. Brockie shirts, and every band I saw mentioned him from the stage — most of them calling him “brother,” like they were professional wrestlers, which they practically were. (The actual pro wrestling-themed metal band Eat The Turnbuckle did play the show, but they were on at 10 in the morning, and I missed them.) But Gwar-B-Q is a party, and even given the circumstances, nobody was going to stop having fun. Near the end of Gwar’s set, Sleazy P. Martini returned to the stage and announced that he was about to break character for a moment, that we’d suffered a great loss, that we should all lower our heads. And then: “The loss I’m talking about is a huge crack rock that Balsac dropped. If you find it on the ground, let us know.” We shouldn’t have been surprised. This was, after all, a band that had been feeding blood-spurting baby-dolls to an onstage dinosaur only minutes before.
At every other Gwar show, Brockie had been both the most outsized personality and the one that held the entire ridiculous circus together — the fastest guy with a one-liner, the one who delivered pitch-perfect put-downs to angry moms on Jerry Springer. And yet, for the first time without him, the band got along just fine. They had a new singer, who was really an old member: The former bassist Michael Bishop, who’d left the band in 1993 and again in 1999, and who was the first to play the Beefcake The Mighty character. (Onstage, to present Beefcake Jamison Land: “I was you before you were you, fatso.”) Bishop had played been onstage in the day, as his mid-’90s metal bashers Kepone had played a rare reunion show, and he now teaches music at the University Of Virginia. (He has a 3.8 on RateMyProfessors.com.) With horns mounted on his back and midriff-revealing armor and a giant grey beard, Bishop cut a convincing-enough figure as new frontman Blothar. But the show had a whole narrative about past Gwar characters coming back, some of them auditioning for the frontman spot. The Sexecutioner and Techno-Destructo and Sleazy P. Martini all got big entrances. Slymenstra Hyman spat fire and then built a raging inferno onstage by dumping what appeared to be Brockie’s ashes on her torches. And they also disemboweled a Justin Bieber dummy and ripped a stereotypical Irish cop to pieces and beheaded a Nazi skinhead and indulged in all the gory hilarity that has long made Gwar shows vital underground-rock rite of passage. As the show ended, loinclothed stagehands were just pointing fake-blood hoses at the audience while the show’s hostess was crowing, “Get your blood! Get your blood!” The circus, it seems, is ready to roll on without Brockie.
You’ll notice I didn’t mention Gwar’s music. That’s not an oversight. Gwar have some fine charged-up thrash bangers, but music has always been the seventh or eighth most notable thing about them. And the festival’s booking prized the goofily theatrical, with all the other mainstage acts coming from a similarly over-the-top underground-rock perspective. The first thing I saw on that main stage all day was Tesco Vee, the 58-year-old frontman for joke-punk institution the Meatmen, coming onstage with an Evel Knievel jumpsuit and a giant inflatable penis as confetti showered the crowd. The band was pretty workmanlike, and it didn’t really matter with this guy out front. Similarly, the current incarnation of the Misfits, with bassist Jerry Only serving as the sole original member, are basically a below-average Misfits cover band at this point. (Only should really fire himself as singer.) But there’s still joy to be had in singing “20 Eyes” along with a few thousand strangers. Veteran Connecticut hardcore bruisers Hatebreed don’t look like much onstage; they’re nondescript knuckleheads cranking out precision-tooled metalcore anthems about never giving up. But their gimmick, to the extent that they have one, is the violence that they bring. Crowds go fucking nuts for them, and it’s a beautiful thing to witness the circle-pit carnage in person. Meanwhile, Ice-T’s Body Count may have been something of a novelty act when they started — one of America’s most-feared rappers leading a metal band — but they’ve been around upwards of 20 years and seen the deaths of many members. It’s clear that they’re in it for the long haul. And Ice is as compelling barking out combat-metal chest-beaters as he is rapping. “Fuck The Police,” once a song whose mere existence shocked the world, had a new significance this past weekend thanks to the tone-deaf strong-arm tactics of the Ferguson, Missouri police department, a connection that Ice made clear when he introduced the song. Later on, his ad-libs cleared him of any conflict of interest: “Fuck the police! I play one on TV! Fuck the police! They can suck my dick!” On the side of the stage, Ice’s reality-star wife Coco chewed gum approvingly.
If goofy theatricality and nostalgia were the keys to main-stage Gwar-B-Q success, the crowd was the real spectacle at the second stage, a picnic-table pavilion that stayed crammed all day. The more cerebral acts — Richmond math-metal instrumentalists Loincloth playing a rare set, New Orleans death-sludgers Goatwhore roaring with authority — got appreciative fists-up salutes and mid-level moshpit knucklheadedness. (The crew-cutted, tatted-up, shirtless fiftysomething bruiser in the pit during Goatwhore may have been my favorite random drunk at the whole festival, and he had plenty of competition.) But things really popped off for a trio of young retro-thrash bands in the middle of the day: Richmond’s Occultist, Baltimore’s Noisem, Richmond’s Iron Reagan. All three bands recalled the mid-’80s moment where punk and metal crossed paths at the skate park, and even though they were all playing around with old sounds, they were fresh and vital and incited bigger reactions on their penned-in stage than even Hatebreed managed on the big stage. People — including Noisem frontman Tyler Carnes — would climb onto the rafters hanging over the crowd, dangling by their feet or sitting crosslegged atop them or swinging from beam to beam like gorillas, kicking people in the head on the way. Faces turned red. People in the crowd accidentally bumped mic stands. Microphones or guitars came unplugged for entire songs before anyone had time to fix them. It was full-scale mayhem in there, and it was a thing to behold.
The crowd was exactly what I wanted a Gwar-B-Q crowd to be: Face-tattoos galore, heavy groups of punks and metalheads but also a few fratty types, as well as assorted rednecks and drunks and layabouts, people who figured correctly that this might be a fun party. Hadad’s doesn’t really have a proper parking lot. Instead, it has about a mile of deep-woods gravel road. And on the walk to the venue, I heard tailgaters blasting Carcass and Creedence. Half the license plates seemed to be from out of state, including people from way across the country. (There were a few NRA stickers, too, something I’m not used to seeing at shows.) The beer-ticket line stretched back like the queue at a Disney World ride, even if the smarter drunks in the crowd had bought their drink tickets during the memorial the night before. Someone had built a bike ramp pointing directly at the lake, so daredevils took turns flying down it and doing their best to murder themselves. A school bus on the festival grounds offered Gwar-B-Q tattoos and dick piercings, and the line was huge. A cupcake truck sold a pulled-pork cupcake with mashed-potato frosting and cheese sprinkled on top. And enough people wore homemade Gwar costumes and squirted fake blood at anyone who asked that the crowd was covered in the stuff before Gwar even came onstage. If I have a funeral where people come pre-covered in fake blood, I’ll know I did something right with my life.
Gwar-B-Q was the only festival I went to this summer, and that’s partly because I was worried I wouldn’t get another chance, though I can now see that they’ll be happy to keep doing these things forever, Brockie or no Brockie. But I also went because it’s an increasingly rare thing: A festival with an identity, a reason for existing, a place in the world. It’s not that it was free of corporate sponsors or long beer lines or drunk assholes or bad music. There were plenty of all those things; word to Monster Energy Drink. But I didn’t get the sense that this thing had been focus-grouped to death or that some booking agency had thrown a pile of money at haphazardly assembling a bill of whatever’s supposed to be cool this year. Gwar-B-Q was a proudly, fundamentally DIY affair from a proudly, fundamentally DIY band, one who built an underground empire by doing their best to gross out anyone who might stumble across them. My friend Kevin, who went to the show with me and who was around for some of Gwar’s earlier shows, estimated that 50% of the kids who studied sculpture at Virginia Commonwealth University in the late ’80s and early ’90s probably helped Gwar out at some point, before they were a money-earning concern. And it still takes a warehouse full of artisans to pull off the disgusting spectacle that they will, blessedly, continue to put on. When Gwar played, a Ryder truck was backed-up next to the stage, full of every nasty prosthesis the band would need in its hour-long set. (They got done before sundown because the venue has no lights, which somehow makes the whole thing even more impressive.) The sheer work that a Gwar show requires — let alone an entire Gwar festival — is a staggering thing. And I’m glad it’ll continue after Brockie’s passing. That band built a whole universe unto itself, and that universe deserves to stay alive.