While both my previous visits to California have included live music events – Warped Tour in San Francisco in 2006 and Alice Cooper and Marylin Manson in Los Angeles in 2013 – seeing Swedish doom metallers Ghost at The Warfield on Market Street (with support from Purson) is the most comparable to gigs and shows I’ve attended more regularly in the UK.
This comparability is mostly down to the fact that the show took place in an old theatre venue, reminiscent of the Shepherd’s Bush Empire or Brixton Academy. The Warfield’s vintage neo-classical style was particularly appropriate for this night’s headliners, but before them came support band, psychedelic rockers Purson.
As soon as the band fired into their set the most striking thing was the voice of Rosalie Cunningham. Her vocal style, along with her flares, screamed 1970s rock and that’s what we got for half an hour or so.
At their heaviest the British band had hints of Black Sabbath while it was clear a large part of their influence came from a slightly lighter, more melodic place, with thick layers of organ and fuzz drenched guitars all coming from vintage amplifiers accompanying Cunningham’s impressive pipes.
While the five-piece didn’t do much that was new or innovative they did what they did well and got a good reaction from those who had arrived early, despite some issues with front of house sound – but they weren’t to be the only ones to suffer from that problem.
Ghost are a band with a reputation that precedes them – from the anti-Pope image of frontman Papa Emeritus III to the myths that surround the band’s members and history – but until tonight I was largely unfamiliar with their music.
From my arrival, queuing outside the venue it was clear Ghost are a band who inspire a dedicated following as, amongst the standard metal uniforms, many were bedecked in a kind of Ghost cosplay with face paint, mitres, wimples and more.
As the five masked Nameless Ghouls made their appearance, following an extended but appropriate intro tape of pseudo-religious chanting, the audience was electric and on their feet all around the venue – even up to the back of the balcony from which we were viewing the show.
Bedecked in full anti-Pope regalia with robes, mitre and corpse paint, Papa Emeritus was a charismatic and engaging presence for the near two hours the band spent on stage. The first chunk of the set was entirely based on the religious imagery aping as, while the Ghouls did a sterling if understated musical performance, Emeritus preached from behind his microphone, complete with swinging censer (at times), and the crowd ate it up.
After a brief instrumental interlude Emeritus reappeared without the religious affectations, in a suit but still with the face paint, and for the rest of the show was a more directly engaging presence chatting to the crowd and playing the more conventional metal frontman.
During this Emeritus came across as genuinely funny, though at times there were moments where he was guilty of over explaining things and almost pleading the crowd to mosh, though seeing the design of the venue’s lower level I don’t think a huge amount of moshing was ever likely.
Along with this Nameless Ghouls began throwing more conventional shapes and poses, though they remained masked and silent at all times.
Mixing material from new album Meliora with older the material the set seemed to represent their whole career, even including a well delivered acoustic number, before rounding off with a cover of Roky Erickson’s If You Have Ghosts. This had the feel of being the band’s theme song and was certainly one of my highlights of the night before encore Monstrance Clock which left the crowd calling for more but seemed to send them off into the night satisfied.
While both Ghost and Purson both put in great performances, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the sound was, at points, near unlistenable as the high frequency tones coming from the stage cut through everything else so much there were times the bass sounds got entirely lost in the mix.
On top of this Ghost’s lighting designer seemed intent on blinding at least the balcony with front facing floodlights making some parts of the show very hard to watch.
Despite this I came away wanting to explore both bands further and generally impressed by Ghost for being far more than the one dimensional act most media coverage would suggest.