Like many folks of a certain age in Birmingham, I logged a lot of miles on I-20 going over to Atlanta and back to see concerts that Birmingham didn’t have a prayer of landing in the 90s. Sure, we got some stuff as a mid-sized city, but it was typically the kind of things that would fill up amphitheaters or basketball arenas…and even getting to see that stuff in Alabama was still far from a guarantee at the time (or even today for that matter.) We’ve been blessed with a proliferation of venues of various sizes in the last decade or so, thereby eliminating the necessity for so many trips to visit our neighbors 150 miles to the east. For the longest time though, if you were looking for something off the beaten path, chances are you’d have to head to Atlanta to see it.
I’ve probably seen shows in more Atlanta venues than a lot of native Atlantans: Lakewood Amphitheater, The Earl, The Tabernacle, Terminal West, Center Stage, Ferst Center, Star Bar, Variety Playhouse, Five Spot, etc. just to name a few. The Masquerade though, was home to some of my earliest forays into traveling to see the bands that rarely, if ever, made it to Birmingham.
I saw Radiohead there in 1997 on the OK Computer tour. The tickets went on sale before the album’s release and needless to say the band absolutely exploded in popularity that year and by the time the show rolled around several months later you knew it’d be your last time to see them in such a small space. To this day, it is still one of my fondest concert memories and whenever I tell people I saw them in a room that size it is frequently met with disbelief and awe.
In 1994 I saw an incredible triple bill of Helmet, Rollins Band, and Sausage (Les Claypool with a late-80s incarnation of Primus before Tim Alexander and Larry LaLonde formed the version that went on to international fame.) That was in the Music Park and started really early. Both Sausage and Rollins Band played their entire sets in daylight and part of Helmet’s set was during daytime hours too. I remember we even had time to get back to Birmingham that night to see a young, up and coming Dave Matthews Band in bar that held maybe 200-300 people!
And of course, like many high schoolers, I went to the all ages metal and hardcore shows like Sick of It All and Biohazard that were a rite of passage for every angsty young person ever.
In the early to mid-00s, Birmingham started seeing new venues like WorkPlay and Bottletree pop up that brought in smaller, but important acts. All of a sudden you didn’t have to put in 300 miles round trip to see St. Vincent or Jose Gonzalez or Russian Circles or The Album Leaf or Bonnie “Prince” Billy.
The occasional trip was still necessary though to see stuff that was simply too niche for Birmingham’s population size: a few years ago, for instance, I headed to Hell in The Masquerade for the Paganfest Tour featuring folk metal bands from Northern and Eastern Europe like Arkona (from Russia) and Korpiklaani (from Finland.)
The Masquerade closing its doors at its North Avenue location has long been rumored as the area has developed and gentrified and become nearly unrecognizable from the way it looked 25 years ago. That time has officially come to pass as the current incarnation of The Masquerade will close its doors with the stellar lineup of The Wrecking Ball festival in mid-August. I’ll be out of the country at that time and couldn’t bear the thought of not seeing one more show there before they changed location.
It was with a mixture of excitement and a heavy heart that I drove over for what I knew would be my last show at the original Masquerade on Friday, July 1. I came to see Philadelphia band Nothing, that I’d seen a few years prior in Birmingham. Their excellent new album Tired of Tomorrow narrowly missed out on making my Top 10 of the first half of 2016 so I had no qualms about driving over and having them be my last memory from The Masquerade.
I’d seen shows at every venue in the building except Purgatory and that’s where Nothing was slated to play. I showed up in plenty of time to grab a beer before Wrong kicked the evening off around 8:00 p.m. Wrong, featuring former members of Kylesa and Torche, sounds like Strap It On era Helmet. While not exactly groundbreaking, they were entertaining as hell and set my mind right for the evening ahead. San Francisco’s Culture Abuse played next and were pretty good even if they didn’t particularly strike my fancy.
Finally, it was time for Nothing, the Philadelphia foursome who has garnered a decent bit of buzz with their new album. As the stage was being set though, I noticed there was only equipment up there for three people. Peculiar, but surely there was an explanation. Turns out that bandleader/singer/guitarist Domenic Palermo was “violently ill due to a bad burger or something” according to one of the other band members and that they were going to soldier on without him. A bit of a letdown to be sure, but hell, I’d driven all this way, I might as well enjoy it.
The Palermo-less trio plowed on playing the singles from the new album like “Vertigo Flowers,” “ACD,” and “Eaten By Worms.” The effort was a noble one, but it just wasn’t the same since it was lacking Palermo’s voice, guitar, and knowledge of the lyrics. I’m not even going to try to properly review it because what we saw that evening was an aberration and it wouldn’t be fair to hold a shorthanded and largely impromptu performance (without the bandleader no less) against them considering I’ve seen what they can do so well at full force. They are an excellent live act combining dark lyrics not normally associated with such summery sounding shoegaze and are definitely worth seeking out if they come to your town.
While I didn’t leave my last show at The Masquerade with a completely fulfilling experience, I’m certainly glad I went and happy that I got to walk its hallowed halls once more before they relocate. I left with a smile on my face and a faint trace of sadness in my heart thinking about all of the shows I attended there over the years and that I’d never be back here again. While it is primarily Atlantans losing a beloved landmark, many of us in Birmingham and across the South will mourn its absence too. Thanks for the memories Masquerade! /- Written by Culture Czar (Birmingham, AL)
Check out more photos from Friday, July 1st at the Masquerade, all photos by Ryan Fleisher: