Story and photos by Greg M. Schwartz
One of San Antonio’s hidden gems received a rare chance to shine this past weekend when the Sunken Garden Theater in Brackenridge Park hosted the two-day South Texas Rock Fest. With the stage’s Greco-Roman architecture and pastoral park setting, the venue brings to mind classic West coast venues like the Berkeley Greek Theater and Los Angeles Greek Theater. The mind boggles at why the Randy Travis show on July 3 is apparently the only remaining show scheduled at the venue this summer (according to the listings at Pollstar.com.)
Most of the bands in the festival’s two-day lineup were considered second-tier metal bands even in their original mid-to-late ‘80s heyday, but Saturday night headliner Queensryche were a notable exception. The Seattle-based group was making waves out of the Pacific Northwest well before Soundgarden and Nirvana came along, and have long been known as the thinking man’s metal/hard rock band.
After spending the middle part of this decade touring behind a triumphant theatrical presentation of 1988’s masterpiece concept album Operation: Mindcrime and its 2006 sequel, the band is now putting on a show that features three suites from 1986’s Rage for Order, 2009’s American Soldier and 1990’s Empire. This made for an interesting show as the set started with tunes from the band’s early days, then jumped ahead to the new material and then back to the best-selling album of their career.
The band hit the stage just as it was getting dark and proceeded to deliver a two-hour set filled with highlights. “I Dream in Infrared” built the energy early with its dark and brooding sound, but it was the electrifying “Walk in the Shadows” that really brought the mostly Gen-X crowd alive. Any band that’s been around for over two decades is going to have certain signature songs that will spark a show at anytime and this is such a tune.
The song set the template for the tight prog-metal grooves that the band would explore further on Mindcrime and Empire, while also solidifying vocalist Geoff Tate's soaring and borderline operatic style that have made him one of the greatest singers in rock. Guitarist Michael Wilton, bassist Eddie Jackson and drummer Scott Rockenfield seemed like they hadn’t aged a day with the energy and precision that was brought forth here.
The segueway into the American Soldier suite began with someone dressed like a soldier marching out on stage and saluting the crowd before the band reappeared for “Sliver,” the album opener and one of its best tracks in the way Michael Wilton’s riffs harken back to the classic Queensryche sound. “This shit’s for real, there’s nowhere to hide,” sang Tate about the buyer’s regret of joining the military. The soldier chimed in singing “What you doing here? Welcome to the show!”
Tate said he interviewed hundreds of soldiers for the project, which presents a variety of soldiers' stories, ranging from World War II to the current conflict in Iraq. He pulled out an electric horn of some kind to add some Eastern melodies on “Middle of Hell,” a bluesy song whose beat and vibe recalled U2’s “Bullet the Blue Sky.”
A relatively unique moment occurred when Tate’s 10-year-old daughter Emily came out in a purple dress to reprise her role from the album, where she duets with her dad on “Home Again.” The song is about the emotional pain of long distance separation between soldiers and their families, and Emily Tate’s verses dramatized the poignancy of the topic, earning her a strong round of applause.
The best was still to come though as the show headed into the homestretch with the last suite from 1990’s triple-platinum Empire. The suite kicked off with album opener “Best I Can,” which brought the show back up toward the earlier level of “Walk in the Shadows,” as heads banged and fists once again pumped into the air. Wilton ripped a molten lava wah-wah solo that electrified the crowd, which clearly reveled in the trip through time back to the early ‘90s.
“The Thin Line” took on a new flavor with a sax solo from Tate, which sounded great under the night sky. Wilton started off on a nylon string guitar for the intro to the chart-topping “Silent Lucidity,” a tune that stole brilliantly from Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” for one of the era’s most memorable hits. The band’s psychedelic sound was huge, providing another peak moment. The energy kept climbing on “Jet City Woman,” a harder rocking yet still melodic song that was a minor radio hit of its own.
The band may have saved the best for last though when they encored with the title track, one of the album’s heaviest numbers, both musically and lyrically. The song’s power was a force to behold, with Tate throwing in some ad-libbed spoken word about the failure of the war on drugs and how it’s time to try something new. This gave way to the scintillating solo section where Wilton brought the house down one more time. Holding the song back for the encore ended the show with a dynamic conclusion that made a powerful statement.
Queensryche was preceded onstage by Keel, a pop-metal band that had two moderately successful albums in the mid-‘80s and has recently reformed. The band’s tunes don’t have the staying power of Queensryche’s repertoire, but there was a redeeming nostalgic value at seeing Ron Keel and company knock out their semi-hits of yore like their cover of Patti Smith’s “Because the Night,” and their own signature song, “The Right to Rock.” Wayne’s World fans also had a chance to recognize guitarist Marc Ferrari, who played in Tia Carrere’s band in the classic 1992 film, and seems to have retained more of his youthful vitality then the other band members.
Nikita Productions staged a good time with a a variety of food, vending, a Miller Lite RV that had a big flat screen TV for basketball fans to check out the Lakers-Nuggets Western Conference Finals game and a second stage for local acts. But someone needs to get the word out to local promoters about this criminally under-used venue. It would be quite a shame if this show was both the first and last rock show at the Sunken Garden Theater in 2009.
[Someone also needs to get the word out to venue management that a band photo pass is supposed to get a person into the photo pit, whereas ushers were also requiring some sort of wristband, hence the intrepid reporter’s inability to take quality pictures.]