Soul Survivors: Saint Vitus play Born Too Late in its entirety

Saint Vitus @ The Echoplex, Los Angeles, May 13, 2014

“This is a lot different for us than it was in L.A. 35 years ago.” So says Saint Vitus guitarist and mastermind Dave Chandler from the stage at the Echoplex, where several hundred headbangers, burnouts and biker types have gathered to suck on Bud tallboys and bask in the stoned glory of Vitus’ 35th anniversary and full performance of their stone-cold 1986 doom classic, Born Too Late.

Presumably, Chandler is referring to the fact that hardly anyone here in the band’s hometown gave a flying fuck about Saint Vitus back in the ’80s, when they were the misfit metal band on SST and dismissed as retrograde dinosaurs by pretty much everyone except certain members of Black Flag and the Mentors. But for all the alleged musical crimes Saint Vitus have been accused of since forming three and a half decades ago—being too slow (then), too old (now) or too wasted (then and now)—few seemed to grasp the band’s essence. Much more than mere Sabbath worshippers or even rightful heirs to the Sabbathian throne, Vitus are the thing they never get credit for being: the heaviest soul band alive. Their not-so-secret weapon, then as now, is Scott “Wino” Weinrich, the D.C.-bred crank enthusiast, guitar slayer (though he only briefly put this talent to use in Vitus) and seething tattooed soul singer who replaced original Vitus vocalist Scott Reagers in 1985.

That soul is both inherent and enhanced through years of struggle. And that’s because Vitus never left the street. Sabbath became full-blown rock stars within three years of forming, maybe less. By the time Paranoid was out, they were already bigger than Vitus ever got.  And money-wise? Forget it: The Drab Four recorded their fourth album in a Bel Air mansion surrounded by Scarface-sized piles of cocaine. Vitus recorded their fourth, Mournful Cries, in three days at some dump in Hollywood called, appropriately, the Music Grinder. The chances are excellent that they were wide awake on speed the entire time.

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Speaking of speed: The nice thing about watching bands that play slow is that you can stand right up front without having to worry about getting spin-kicked in the shoulder blades by some over-enthusiastic waterhead. So we roll straight up to the barrier as Chandler, Wino, bassist Mark Adams and drummer Henry Vasquez kick off with back-to-back face-rulers “Living Backwards” and “I Bleed Black” from 1990’s V before easing into the Reagers-era anthem “War Is Our Destiny” and “Blessed Night” from 2012’s Lillie: F-65.  At the end of “The Troll,” Chandler leans forward to give the audience ye olde invisible orange. And the bug eyes. And the wah-wah on full fucking blast. But no chords or notes or anything like that. Who needs that shit when you’ve got feedback and bug eyes and invisible fruit?  Not us.

The Born Too Late segment of the show begins with the droning death chant of “The War Starter” and proceeds in no particular order.  After wailing through the bass-driven slow=burner “The Lost Feeling,” Chandler advises the crowd:  “Don’t dial 976-WINO. It’s not a good time.”

Wino replies with zero beats missed: “News to me.”

It sounds almost scripted, like an old Honeymooners routine, except that Wino seems genuinely surprised when Chandler says it. But there’s little time to reflect: It’s officially time to saw off the monstrous acid paean “Clear Windowpane” and easily a third of the crowd starts singing along. Which, in Los Angeles, is about as common as stumbling across two unicorns fucking in an alley.

Toward the end of the set, Wino asks the audience what we want to hear. Someone yells for “Thirsty and Miserable,” the Flag song Vitus covered back in ’87. “Cool,” Wino says, flashing a wry smile. “We’re definitely not gonna play that one.”

They close with “Born Too Late,” obviously. It’s got more soul than just about anything you’d care to mention.

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