‘Take care of each other in the pit tonight, ok guys?’
This was Steve Souza’s first interaction with the crowd, which I thought was rather sweet coming from a band whose songs include ‘A Lesson In Violence’, ‘Brain Dead’ and ‘Shovel Headed Kill Machine’. Exodus, one of the original thrash metal bands, still going after 35 years despite multiple line-up changes, are reknowned for the aggressive responses of their crowds, who often perform the infamous ‘Wall of Death’ formation. One of their most well-loved tracks, Toxic Waltz, is about exactly that: ‘You aim for someone’s head, to stain the floor red; give someone a kick, to prove your truly sick’.
But this was July 2016, when to be in a crowd in France was to be nervous. A spate of terror attacks had left the country in a state of semi-emergency, and we were in the south of France where only two weeks earlier scores of people had been killed by a terrorist driving a truck through the Bastille Day crowds on the Nice promenade. Bataclan was also still fresh in people’s minds, and all three bands that performed at Le Rat tonight made tributes to those who had lost their lives to terror in France this year.
Security was tight and the atmosphere was wary, but it was also proud and celebratory. Le Rat is a biker bar in Puget-sur-Argens, a very unassuming town on the Cote d’Azur. It was hard to believe that thrash legends Exodus were playing such a small venue, but they were on their way from Xtreme Fest in the west of France.
As we approached the venue it felt like being on the set of Sons of Anarchy. Harley Davidsons came and went; there was a hog roast and a burger van; whole families lounged around. Many had backpacks and tents as they were on their way to and from festivals.
After two highly commendable local bands, Exodus took to the stage, beginning with The Ballad of Leonard and Charles, and moving through a nice range going right back to their classics from 1985’s Bonded By Blood.
The crowd moved in and out. I bought a ladies’ size t-shirt depicting two demonic babies horrifically sewn together, knowing that I would never be able to wear it in public.
Souza did not need to worry about violence in the crowd that night.
There was an atmosphere of compassion and community spirit, a keen awareness of the privilege involved in seeing such a band up close. Despite the extreme physicality involved, moshpits are more controlled environments than you might think. Participants are keenly aware of their fellow fans, and there seems to be a system. Any latent violence is purged in a catharsis of clashing bodies.
Now I’m a seasoned gig attendee (I’ve been to about seven), and I have never seen any violence or unpleasantness at a metal concert; in fact fans are uniformly respectful of each other. The most violence I’ve ever witnessed at a musical event was at The Corrs concert at Blenheim Palace, where the delicate Irish pop crooners performed for an audience made up of the Oxfordshire county set, average age fifty, who had paid upwards of two hundred pounds per ticket. A friend and I watched with glee as a rabble of tweed and anorak-wearers, worse for wear after one too many white wine spritzers, tried to mount the stage and were hauled off by security. We recognized a few of them from the school PTA.
All generations were at the Exodus gig tonight. Grandfathers with long white beards astride their Harley Davidsons. Small children eating pizza and chips at the catering van outside, and running in and out of the fishnetted and tattooed legs of their mothers. Spotty teenagers navigating their first moshpit. I stood next to a nine-year-old boy whose father kept lifting him up for a better view.
So who knew- Exodus could put on a wholesome family show.