A cool December night, and a hush of anticipation had fallen over the Rose City.
No, Portland was not waiting for the annual Pioneer Courthouse Square tree lighting ceremony. It was not opening night at the Grotto’s Festival of Lights. Nobody was expecting a clash between Antifa and Patriot Prayer.
No. It was the imminent arrival of heavy metal homage masters Tenacious D at McMenamin’s historic Crystal Ballroom that had the city in thrall and a capacity crowd of 1500 greeting friends, hoisting beer, and raising a clamorous pre-concert holy hell. The going rate for the few tickets available for the band’s world tour-supporting fourth album Post-Apocalypto was in the mid-three figures.
“D!” “D! “D!” went up the chant. When film star (School of Rock, King Kong) Jack Black and sidekick Kyle Gass hit the stage, as Rolling Stone writers used to write back when rock music was their primary beat, “pandemonium ensued.” Black cut a striking figure in a tie-dyed t-shirt whose 1960s sunburst was epically strained around the middle.
Here’s a taste from the show, Black intoning Black Sabbath’s doom-laden verse from “War Pigs”:
— damien (@M0LLYWRLD) December 16, 2018
Gass, the everyman antithesis of what a rock star is supposed to look like (and yet he writes the duo’s headbanging material). posted up stage left.
Wielding big acoustic guitars and backed by a youngish three-piece band, the progenitors of the most successful rock parody group since Spinal Tap hammered out an uproarious 90-plus-minute set that combined interludes of humor with a sustained hollow-body roar.
“You people are sexy,” Black intoned mid-performance, as waves of appreciation and inebriation swept stage-ward. “Maybe too sexy.”
Not familiar with the founding and history of Tenacious D? Too bad. We haven’t got time or space enough to educate you here. Suffice it to say that long after Spinal Tap lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) became gay playwright and small-town producer Corky St. Clair in Waiting for Guffman, and Tap lead singer David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) became gay Shih Tzu owner Stefan Vanderhoof in Best of Show, a new incarnation of “mock rock” was born somewhere in the Los Angeles basin. It’s a more reverential take than director Rob Reiner’s Tap, but no less hilarious
The elevator pitch at inception might have been: two ordinary Joes, enamored with heavy metal, battle music industry indifference, interpersonal friction, and Satan himself to fulfill their version of the rock and roll dream. Four albums and countless live performances later, Tenacious D finds itself in secure possession of legendary status. The band was nominated for a Best Comedy Album Grammy Award (Rize of the Fenix) in 2013 and won the 2015 Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance for their tribute album cover of the late Ronnie James Dio’s “The Last in Line.”
At times both punishing and serio-comically histrionic, the performance at the Portland show left no aural headstone un-overturned in the quest to achieve heaviosity.
Included was the genre-vindicating anthem, “The Metal,” featured here in a definitive 2009 clip:
For lost souls not acquainted with the epitomizing song of Tenacious D’s oeuvre, here’s the official Beelzeboss-vanquishing photo booth video for “Tribute”:
After the house lights came up and the machine-generated fog dissipated, I got the chance to chat with some culturally-savvy fans. These are the people who had surprised even the tour-seasoned Black with their ability to sing along with every lyric, anticipate every breakdown, and chime in with banshee “Woo’s” every time Gass leaned in for a slice-and-dice acoustic lead break.
“This is my fourth Portland show,” said a twenty-something in a denim vest with a Slayer patch. A tattooed goth chick, obviously a few tokes over the line, said simply, “Tenacious D rules, man.”
I questioned an amiable fifty-something who might have been a rabid Spinal Tapper back in the day.
“Jack Black is a Hollywood star reported to be a millionaire thirty times over,” I asked. “What inspires him to bring the noise to a mid-size SRO venue on a rainy night in Portland, Oregon?”
“They could have sold out Moda Center,” he opined. “They make a lot of money from this, and I’m sure they love it.”
Another fan talked about the band’s overarching “journey of a man-child” theme, but understanding and analyzing that part of what I had just witnessed is above my pay grade for this self-assigned assignment.
One thing is clear: Black and Gass’s loyal fan base totally gets both the humor and respect shown the genre of music being parodied. Just as it was possible to love Spinal Tap, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and Iron Maiden, it is imminently possible to love Tenacious D and continue to acknowledge with great respect the icons of hard rock and heavy metal that came before.