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Arts and Entertainment

St. Vitus @ Ultra Velvet Lounge 1/28/10

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Vitus by John Scharpen (Small).jpg
Photo by John Scharpen via flickr, used by permission.

Photo by John Scharpen via flickr, used by permission.
Watching St. Vitus romp through their twenty-five year old catalog in front of a big crowd of foaming-at-the-mouth headbangers at a warehouse in Downtown LA last week was not just a reminder of days gone past, but a delivery of some kind of justice for a band that forged the genre of Doom Metal without many people even noticing at the time. But during their twenty years of absence, they’ve built up a following. They are truly one of those groups that only sold a few records in their day, but inspired every single person that bought one to start a band. “This is the best LA audience Vitus has EVER played to,” said guitarist Dave Chandler early in the set, and if you were around at the time they invented that stuff, it’s not hard to believe it.

Sometime early in 1985, the once fiercely-opposed musical forces of punk and metal struck an uneasy truce. The historic “Crossover” alliance accomplished a couple of important things for each side - hardcore bands won the right to sound beefier and incorporate more slow parts and guitar solos into their songs without being accused of selling out, and metal bands were now allowed to play at lightning speed, wear t-shirts on stage, and travel around the country in vans with copies of their homemade EP for sale. This agreement paid huge dividends for both sides, making the most of two different audiences, both of which were willing to dig underground to find stuff.

St. Vitus should have thrived in a world like that, but for some reason, had a hard time finding embrace from either side. The “punk” part of the equation came only from their association with SST Records, the label that brought you Black Flag, Minutemen, Husker Du, Meat Puppets and Bad Brains. It certainly didn’t come from the speed of the music. In a scene obsessed with playing faster, they were stripping heavy metal back down to the first Black Sabbath album and then stopping. Vitus was slower than Sabbath themselves, and single-minded in their pursuit of sludgy excellence. They didn’t look the part of the usual dorky SST guys either, and as a result, are said to be the only SST band that regularly got paid. Their whole trip wasn't about metal as an evolution - it was a reduction, even a throwback. When Vitus took to the road with a punk band, as when I saw them with the Mentors in 1987 in Newport, Kentucky, you could sit on the sidelines and watch a dividing line emerge between the people who turned off to it in a few seconds, and the people who sat there mesmerized. They sure weren’t anything like the last hundred bands you’d seen at that club. They were fucking GOOD, but their appeal was quite selective, as Ian Faith might tell you. They stood alone, and so might you if you showed up at one of their gigs.

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Fast forward twenty years from the last time they played in LA - at the Second Coming in early 1990, where I remember everyone being in a really bad mood - and it turns out that, on the stage, not much has changed. There’s a new drummer, Henry Vasquez, who seems to be just about as good as original thumper Armando Acosta, and even kinda looks like him from a distance. Dave Chandler is admirably committed to that metal ‘fro of his, and still lurks menacingly at stage right, pointing at random people as if putting the whammy on them, his tone still a wall of throbbing mud. Bassist Mark Adams is still the reliable rhythm machine he always was, holding up the low end.

And then there’s Wino, smiling more than he used to but otherwise looking unaffected by time. Since leaving Vitus behind, he’s led a string of very heavy, generally high-grade bands that includes the Obsessed, Spirit Caravan and the Hidden Hand, steadfastly keeping the faith of Doom. Within the scene he’s become a Lemmy-like elder figure, his presence lending authority to whatever project he’s doing at any moment.

Original singer Scott Reagers gets invited back on stage for the encore, and impresses mightily with his guest spot. But he hands the mic back to Wino for the inevitable closer, “Born Too Late”, the 1987 anthem for loner stoners ‘round the world, featuring the defiant couplet, “They say my songs are much too slow/ But they don’t know the things I know!”

They sound real good, and the crowd is clearly fever-pitched. Lots of them are too young to have seen the band in their day, but there are also a good number of veteranos trading memories of the time when a Vitus gig might draw twenty people to the Anti-Club, shaking their heads at the huge mass of bodies in front of them. “This is crazy!” But really it feels like the sanest moment yet in the long history of Vitus. I always knew there was a roomful of people who’d eat this stuff up if they only knew about it. Now the knowledge isn’t quite so secret. Although it’s taken them a while to find large-scale validation, you have no trouble believing in St. Vitus. They are men true to their word, an increasingly rare commodity. Long may they run.

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