Let People (Me) Enjoy Things (The Pantera “Reunion”)
“How many of you saw Pantera in the ’90s?” asked Phil Anselmo. A lot of hands in the thousands-strong crowd went up, soundtracked by the customary hooting and hollering. “And how many of you, this is your first time?” he continued, greeted now by even more hands and even louder cheers. Barefoot, head buzzed to the skin, rocking shorts and his own band’s T-shirt, Anselmo looked positively chuffed. “That’s good parenting,” he mused.
An hour earlier I had indeed spotted a young girl whose T-shirt read “I listen to Pantera with my parents.” But I imagine there were plenty of us present who discovered the Texas metal giants in their heyday and just missed the window when we would have been either allowed to attend a gig or able to sneak out to one. (There is no way the 14-year-old me, who heard The Great Southern Trendkill in my best friend’s bedroom across the street and spent the rest of eighth grade in my basement trying to learn how to play pinch harmonics like Dimebag Darrell, would have ever attended a Pantera concert with a hearty parental endorsement.)
Maybe if I’d experienced Pantera in person during their imperial reign as one of the heaviest, angriest, most gruesomely inventive bands in rock, I’d have become a different person. As it stands, I don’t frequent events like Inkcarceration, a festival so named because it involves tattoos and is held at the Ohio State Reformatory, the former prison where The Shawshank Redemption was filmed. The basic trappings of a festival were the same as I’m used to — plentiful bars, food vendors, brand installations, portable toilets. But there were a lot more military-adjacent T-shirts and ballcaps than I’m used to seeing at hipster-friendly events, as well as wardrobe choices like the lady in the tank top that said “Husband Beater” across the chest. I’d dipped my toe in this scene as a young teenager, attending shows at my local shed amphitheater by Staind (regrettable) and Kid Rock (would see again). But sometime during high school I aligned myself with a different subculture, and my taste developed so that very few of the artists on the Inkcarceration bill piqued my interest, childhood CD collection staples like Bush and Limp Bizkit notwithstanding.
Pantera, though, remain special to me — an outlier within my personal pantheon, but one that runs deep into the archives of my adolescent soul. Back in eighth grade, I didn’t have the context to understand how these guys had been a bridge between classic thrash and nu-metal, what they’d taken from Black Flag and from Black Sabbath, how revolutionary their blend of hard-grooving downtuned churn and screaming ballistic freakouts had sounded upon arrival. I didn’t know Trendkill (still my favorite Pantera record because you never forget your first love) was considered the beginning of their fall-off, and I didn’t know the tortured backstory about Anselmo recording his vocals separately while descending into heroin addiction. All I knew, as I made my way backward through the catalog, was that the riffs from “Cowboys From Hell” and “Mouth For War” and “I’m Broken” were incredibly fun to play and even more fun to blare at extreme volumes when my parents weren’t home. These records redefined my understanding of how viscerally raw and heavy music can be.
Still, I was trepidatious about seeing Pantera in 2023 for many reasons, not least of all the open question of whether it actually counts as seeing Pantera. The Abbott brothers, guitarist Dimebag Darrell and drummer Vinnie Paul, are both dead. Anselmo, the burly and impressively versatile vocalist, has reunited with bassist Rex Brown to revive the Pantera brand name with ultra-pro substitutes Zakk Wylde (Ozzy Osbourne, Black Label Society) on guitar and Charlie Benante (Anthrax, S.O.D.) on drums. Those guys are both monsters on their instruments, but the Abbotts were crucial to both Pantera’s bludgeoning sound and their hard-partying spirit — also, they’re the ones who founded the band — so I’ve been skeptical enough about this operation to refer to the current lineup as “Pantera” in headlines. It’s standard operating procedure among aging rockers, but I’m still young enough that I haven’t had to come to terms with the remnants of my favorite bands touring without essential members.
It’s not just the membership giving me pause. There are also some disturbing vibes lingering from the moment in 2016 when Anselmo, onstage at a Dimebag Darrell tribute concert, threw up a Nazi salute and screamed “White power!” He later waved it off as an ill-considered inside joke about the white wine he’d been sipping with friends backstage, but it felt extra discomfiting coming from a guy who has faced allegations of racism in the past, whose band once branded their album with the Confederate flag. Anselmo has repeatedly disavowed the stars and bars over the past decade, insisting that the imagery was about paying tribute to proudly Southern forebears like Lynyrd Skynyrd, not embracing the flag’s racist political legacy. In order to enjoy Pantera’s music in the wake of all that, you have to take him at his word and maybe accept some cognitive dissonance. For what it’s worth, the subject didn’t come up Saturday, but the crowd was almost as caucasian as the clientele at Kristen Bell’s dinner party.
One other subplot hung over this concert in particular. Inkcarceration is held in Mansfield, Ohio, just an hour away from the site of Dimebag Darrell’s death. On Dec. 9, 2004, the Abbott brothers’ post-Pantera project Damageplan was headlining the Alrosa Villa in Columbus when a schizophrenic fan got onstage with a gun, killing Darrell and three others. I’ve always felt a tangle of strong emotions about my favorite heavy metal guitarist being gunned down in my hometown, at the same scuzzy club where I once saw Static-X and Stavesacre. But my feelings are nothing compared to the grief of those who lost loved ones that night and the trauma of those who were present. While watching Megadeth’s set, I spotted a couple wearing T-shirts with the ticket stub from that fateful Damageplan show on the front and photos of the Abbott brothers on the back. When I inquired about whether they made or purchased the shirts, they explained that they were at the Alrosa that night; a friend who was also there presented them with these shirts at a 2019 memorial concert for Vinnie Paul in Las Vegas. It’s a hell of a thing to commemorate with a T-shirt, but everyone works through their own shit in their own ways.
If the Pantera reunion tour in general invites internal conflict, a Pantera concert in Central Ohio feels especially fraught. But in the moment, all of that ambivalence gave way to exhilaration. Credit is due to Benante and especially Wylde, who recreated Dimebag’s crushing, whinnying guitar theatrics with breathtaking verisimilitude. The riffs he was reviving are some of the sickest in the history of the instrument — caveman-dumb in their heaviness, rocket-science complex in their technical pizzazz — and they still sound phenomenal when accompanied by Anselmo’s perturbed growls and screams. His voice was in remarkable shape. Maybe I was kidding myself, but from the moment they launched into “A New Level,” I felt like I was seeing Pantera, not “Pantera.”
The band is well aware that some might be offended by their decision to tour under that name without the Abbott brothers. With that in mind, they turned the performance into a longform tribute to Dimebag Darrell and Vinnie Paul. Each brother’s face was painted onto one of Benante’s kickdrums. Wylde wore a biker jacket emblazoned with the phrase “St. Dime.” A video before the set featured clips of the classic lineup engaging in your standard rock-star tomfoolery; a second montage during the show, soundtracked by “Cemetery Gates,” was more expressly a tribute to the memory of Darrell and Vince. Anselmo made sure to dedicate the concert to the Abbotts after the very first song, and as the night rolled on, they loomed over the performance like religious icons.
The setlist was pulled almost entirely from 1992’s Vulgar Display Of Power, the album where Pantera zeroed in on their signature sound, and 1994’s Far Beyond Driven, the victory lap that debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200. It makes sense; those two records represent the pinnacle of Pantera’s public profile, and they’re stacked with even more hulking, Southern-fried anthems than I’d remembered. But the band did make a little time to honor the rest of the discography: interrupting the hit parade with a frantic “Suicide Note Pt. II” mid-show, ending the main set with a suite of Cowboys From Hell jams, encoring with “Yesterday Don’t Mean Shit” from 2000’s largely forgotten Reinventing The Steel. Not every song held up as a masterpiece, but the heavy ones all straight-up clobbered me. The only whiff of the night was the requisite slow jam, their cover of Sabbath’s “Planet Caravan,” but I get why they decided to include it as a sort of reverent gesture after the Dimebag and Vinnie Paul tribute video.
Look: It makes perfect sense to assess the situation and conclude, nope. I almost avoided this tour, and I don’t blame anyone else who decides the context is too accursed to proceed. But if you can suspend your disbelief and you have any love in your heart for this band, the music holds up. The current version of Pantera put on a thrilling live show, and I’m glad I saw it. Don’t tell Mom and Dad.
“A New Level”
“Mouth For War”
“Strength Beyond Strength”
“Suicide Note Pt. II”
“5 Minutes Alone”
[Tribute video set to “Cemetery Gates”]
“Domination” / “Hollow”
“Cowboys From Hell”
“Yesterday Don’t Mean Shit”