The Lyft driver describes this neighborhood of lofts and studios just off skid row in downtown Los Angeles we’re driving through as “hipsterville,” just as we pull up to an Arts District bar called Resident. It’s been a while since your correspondent has felt the need to leave the relative ease and comfort of his West Side digs to hit the darkened streets out here, but the rock clubs on the tougher side of town have always yielded rare pleasures: the late, lamented Al’s Bar always showcased the best underground rock of the ’80s and ’90s, and was the closest downtown ever got to its very own CBGBs. The driver’s correct in his appraisal, because the bars and restaurants these days seem to cater to a fairly collegiate-looking clientele.
So what does that mean for a visiting bunch of grizzled, cynical hard-rocking lifers such as Maryland’s Earthride, or tonight’s headliners the Skull, a Chicago group led by former Trouble frontman Eric Wagner? Sadly, it means that both bands will be playing to a rather sparse bunch, even if those in attendance try to welcome the tour as best they can.
Earthride formed in 2000 after the breakup of Dave Sherman’s band with Scott “Wino” Weinrich, Spirit Caravan, and if you’re looking for jailhouse doom you’ve come to the right place. The sound is that of Clutch’s second album amped up into fourth gear, a bone-dry snare drum propelling dusty and deafening guitar licks, as outlaw-biker lyrics paint a stubborn, isolated picture. A nice first serving, indeed.
As for the Skull, it’s rather difficult and a shame to watch a man like Wagner, whose influence on the entire doom and stoner genres is profound, try to eke out an existence on the crumbs he gets. Not that he seems all that bitter about performing in front of such a meagre audience, but he deserves better. As for his new group, the Skull’s 2014 debut album, For Those Which Are Asleep, was a fine addition to Wagner’s catalog, and the upcoming The Endless Road Turns Dark should, if judging by the songs unveiled tonight, also be a vital and heavy collection of tunes.
Trouble began at the dawn of the ’80s, and were out of step with the times pretty much from the start. They held on to the 1970s music they loved so tightly, it was like they knew how fast it was going out of fashion and style, back then. Today, in the cold purple light of the stage, the members of the Skull –including longtime Trouble bassist Ron Holzner– look happy with their decision to keep their beards, long hair and bell-bottoms. Their passion for the creators of the first era of hard rock (Cream, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Mountain, etc.) still pulses through their veins, getting them through yet another endless tour. Though the audience is barely-there, they still perform as if this is all still new to them, yet another freewheeling time to turn it up as far as folks will let them.
As frontmen go, Wagner’s fairly remote, and the silences can be awkward. The last few songs in the set are all Trouble classics: “R.I.P.,” “Fear,” “All is Forgiven” and “At the End of My Daze.” One wonders if, now that Wagner is closer than ever to the end of his own days –at least on the road– if he’s ever felt differently about his ways. Here’s hoping that the Skull can still find their audience, because a shroud of obscurity is always far less fashionable than vintage ’70s threads.