25 years ago, on January 16, 1997 : Pantera plays Montreal on their Great Southern Trendkill tour
The first time I met Pantera, was probably my first real experience with the beast rock n’ roll. By that, I mean the first time I got to fully experience touring life from the other side of the stage. Behind the scenes, where the gritty part of the music world dwells.
I was a big fan of the band at the time, especially of Vulgar Display Of Power and the mighty Far Beyond Driven. A lot of my friends at the time were big into the band, and we would share each other’s VHS tapes of the wacky films they released, the Vulgar Videos. Raw, home video style footage of the boys going wild, drinking copious amounts of whatever was available – notably Jack Daniel’s or their own concoction, the Black Tooth Grin, and doing stupid shit. Jackass before Jackass was a thing.
From those films, I learned about the bands roadies and crew members, such as Big Val Bichekas. They too seemed a wild bunch, and I imagine you would have to be cut from the same cloth to associate with Rex Brown, Phillip H. Anselmo, and the Abbott brothers. Like attracts like, as they say. Pantera were, or at least portrayed the imagine of being, one crazy bunch of cowboys from hell. Texans (and Phillip, from New Orleans) with a passion for outrageous partying and mayhem. Good ol’ boys drinking whiskey and rye.
We were all amped up, as Pantera had announced a show in Montreal on their Great Southern Trenkill tour. January of 1997, and we were all still in high school then. Tickets purchased, and soon the venue was completely sold out. Our Walkman’s and discman’s were playing nothing but Pantera leading up to the show. We all wanted to be ready, and the excitement was mammoth.
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The day of the show, we had a plan to act out. We went to school as usual, with the preconceived plot to slip out and into the city as soon as the lunch bell hit, and that’s exactly what we did. On the city bus towards the downtown core, sat half of my class and others from other classes and grades. We were going as a gang, it seemed. Among this crowd, was my sister and her friends – cut from the same cloth, her and I.
Now, January is at the heart of the Canadian winter and normally mighty cold. On this day especially, the temperature was hovering at around negative forty degrees Celsius, and we were all hanging around outside, freezing our teenaged asses off trying to meet the band. Rest assured, our image was more important to us that properly dressing for the climate, so there were, in jeans, bomber jackets or leather, and knee-high doc Martin boots. Footwear never meant for North American winters. We froze, but we looked the part.
Eagerly we awaited some sort of movement. Hanging about like the long-haired heathens we were – and for the most part, still are, conversing about the type of nonsense teenagers yap on about. There were three tour busses parked behind the Metropolis, where the show was to be held, two for Pantera and one for Neurosis, who touring for their Through Silver In Blood album. I’m ashamed to admit that I hadn’t yet heard of Neurosis – but that was about to change.
Eventually Big Val emerged off one of the coaches, and we swarmed him. Thanks to those video tapes, we all recognized him. We must have been twenty kids, maybe more, and I wonder now if Val was used to this sort of thing or if Montreal was a special kind of crazy. Most artists love playing here, because it is such an art town, with very passionate concert-goers. I can only imagine his thought process at seeing us out braving the cold the way we were though. I wonder if it was ever a topic of conversation among the band and crew.
One of the kids that we were with, was a total pothead. Your atypical stoner, and he of course had a joint hanging from his lips. This caught the attention of Val and some of the crew who had since joined him, and we were told that the band had no sweet leaf to smoke as it was their first stop since crossing the notorious American/Canadian border. The stoner kid, whose name I can’t remember for the life of me and whom I didn’t know at all apart from stories of him ripping off another friend in a drug deal, offered to score marijuana for the touring musicians and crew – and was taken up on the offer.
It took just over an over before this stoner kid returned with a backpack full of bud, and Big Val and company were overjoyed by it all. So much so, that he put us all down on the guestlist. This meant that we could hock our tickets and make beer money. We were all minors, but that wasn’t about to stop us. I more than doubled my money, as did my friends. The only time in my life that I have ever acted as a scalper, and probably not something I’ll ever repeat either.
Neurosis were up first, and they were amazing. They had these crazy videos playing behind them on a giant screen and their music was unlike anything I had heard up until that stage of my life. They would be something I’d get into later on down the line, and as great as their live show had been, I kicked myself for not having known about them beforehand. Having seen them on that tour though, still brings a smile to my face.
Then Pantera took the stage and the whole place went ape. The floor, all of it, was a mosh pit – and perhaps the most violent thing I had experienced up until that point. People slammed into each other and unless you ran for the seats, you were apart of it, whether you wanted to be or not. Kids dove off the stage, others were lifted up by those around them, to surf the crowd. Girls rose on the shoulders of their partners to expose their tits to the band, and it was surreal. It was unlike any of the concerts I had seen before, and a day I’ll never forget.
Still, unbeknownst to any of us, the best was still to come. Although Pantera has finished their last song of the night, our soiree was far from over. We had designated a meeting spot to gather after the gig, and as we’re we all amassing, there was Big Val, with a fistful of After show party passes – and he handed them out to us, while telling us that the weed we had scored them was better than expected.
Among the excitement, I had forgotten to grab a pass for my little sister, who had gone off to the bathroom and when she learned what she was about to miss out on, she was pissed! All these years later, she still gives me grief about it. It was an honest mistake, an oversight through a dope haze. I still feel bad about it, and maybe I should have offered her my pass – but there was no way in hell I was going to miss out in this.
So there we were, as the clean-up crew plowed through all the trodden down beer cups and debris downstairs, we were upstairs with Neurosis and most of Pantera. Phillip hadn’t come out, and looking back now, it’s clear why. He was on a path to fixing his life up after dying from a drug overdose and being brought back to life. We were told Phil had a bad back and was on his own private bus with a chiropractor, of course at the time we were devastated by this turn of events, and maybe even held it against him. We were kids, and didn’t fully understand the severity of what he was going though.
Still, I got to speak to Neurosis and Rex, sat with Dimebag Darrell briefly and spent most of the time chatting with Vinnie Paul. While Rex was quite and kept to himself, the Abbott brothers were as cool in person as they were on those video tapes. Hell, although this was nothing at all like what was on those tapes, in my mind, I was in one. Casually, I asked Dime what was in a Black tooth grin, a drink the boys often mentioned in their videos – and was told Crown Royale, Seagram’s 7 and coke; yet Vinnie went off to get me one, and soon I was sipping a Black tooth Grin with the Abbotts.
Years later, when I had heard about Dimebag getting shot and killed, I thought on the night when I first met them, and I cried. They were so good to us, better than any other star I have met in my life – and there have been many, and Dime didn’t deserve the fate he was dealt. Life is cruel.
I saw the Abbotts together with Damageplan, and Vinnie twice as a member of Hellyeah, but didn’t get to meet them again. I finally met Phillip at a Heavy Montreal festival, where he was playing with Phillip H. Anselmo & The Illegals. He was sat on a picnic bench and I gingerly approached him, and he was as cool as the Abbott boys had been all those years ago. He stood up and gave me a bear hug, lifting me a few inches off my feet. Now, I’m far from a small man, but he lifted my ample frame with ease. Phillip is a powerful man, on and off the stage – and it was fantastic to chat with him for those few minutes.
Pantera disbanded many years ago now, and both Dimebag and Vinnie Paul have left this mortal coil, as has Big Val, but my memories of that evening twenty five years ago are still as fresh today as they have ever been. I am forever thankful to Big Val for hooking that all up, and to Pantera for being such down to earth, amazing human beings.