Live Review: John Carpenter at Paramount Theatre 6/14/16

Live Reviews
Gerrit Feenstra
all photos by Brittany Feenstra

At a particularly triumphant moment in his Paramount debut, John Carpenter looks out at the crowd and smiles. "All my career I've made horror movies", he laughs, while the crowd, obviously, shouts and cheers and screams in acknowledgement. "I love horror movies", he smiles, "and horror movies will last forever". The cheers go up as another timeless theme enters the fray. It's the theme from one of John's all-time greats, The Fog. The Seattle crowd loses their minds like they would for any great rock band breaking out a seminal classic. And truly, John deserves every bit of it. Here and now, in 2016 at age 68, John has decided to embark on his first ever live music tour, in support of two excellent albums out this year and last on Sacred Bones Records, Lost Themes and Lost Themes II. Joining him is the Lost Themes band, featuring son Cody Carpenter on lead synthesizer, godson Daniel Davies on lead guitar, and the backing ensemble of Scott Seiver, John Spiker, and John Konesky (all three also touring members of Tenacious D). This tour, slated as a live retrospective, makes its way through 40 years of cinematic score history, along with new material from each of the Lost Themes records. It's an event unlike any other, that could truly be heralded by no other person on the planet. Carpenter is right - horror movies will live forever. And we have none other than the man in this room to thank. Burning through every fan favorite from 1976 theme Assault on Precinct 13 to this year's Lost Themes II clincher "Distant Dream", John and the Lost Themes band made tonight an unforgettable and irreplaceable experience.

No one opened for John Carpenter. Maybe that's an act of mercy on his part, because I have no idea who would even be up to the task. Instead, the crowd piled in to a selection of tunes from his 40 years of cinematic scoring that didn't make tonight's setlist. How do you even make a setlist when you have 40 years of music to pick from on your first tour ever? The anticipation built palpably in the room, as one atmospheric gem after another played over the loudspeakers. Escape From New York's "Bank Robbery", deep selections from Lost Themes... it's a treasure trove of fandom just bubbling throughout the air. The crowd sat and watched and waited, talking amongst themselves about the tour-edition records in the lobby and the They Live edition sunglasses, all trading memories about the first time seeing this movie or that. Furthermore, the age spread in the room is immense. Every age and demographic of John Carpenter fan is present, from those that swear by the ageless originals to those that will admit they discovered him via remakes. Horror movies, and specifically horror scores, have been gaining traction lately, with the help of boutique labels like Death Waltz, Waxworks, and Mondo, who syndicate classic soundtracks like John's for new audiences. Death Waltz alone reissued at least six of John's soundtracks in the last five years, while Mondo has released tons of cool horror material, including my personal favorite Frizzi 2 Fulci, in which composer Fabio Frizzi plays a live collection of his best material from the horror classics of Lucio Fulci. I glance around the room and see a couple familiars from the SIFF's Escape from New York re-score last year (featuring local dark wave band Roladex), but this is the pinnacle. This is a once in a lifetime chance for collective celebration, better than any midnight movie screening or convention event. This is the horror master in person, pounding through each of his priceless themes in person. This is the holy grail of horror events.

John and the band enter without any semblance of warning or warm up. The theme from Escape from New York booms as an alternate universe 1997 map of Manhattan materializes on the screen behind them. Snake Plissken trudges down military hallways and takes a shot to the arm, given 24 hours to find the President and escape the island. In four minutes, we get the highlights - the island freaks, the meeting with Brain, the fight with Slag, and the final showdown with the Duke - and then it ends. The crowd erupts, maniacal with delight, and yet, John gives no time for them to settle. Next up, the theme from Assault on Precinct 13 plays over a reel of Ethan Bishop defending his new turf from the Street Thunder. From one film to the next, it's a total dream, one that you wish selfishly (for whatever your favorite film might be) would break the four minute marker and launch into an extended jam session letting the night pass you by. But here's the funny thing about John: the approach to each of his movies is the same. To him, every one is a triumph, and he's right in thinking so.

The Fog arrives in a spectacle and is received like a messiah. Following it, the blues rock heavy They Live theme (one of the best received of the evening) is supplemented with the film's heavy messages of propaganda blaring against the back wall. After the endless, shimmering guitar of "Distant Dream", Carpenter launches into the "Pork Chop Express" from Big Trouble in Little China, finishing out his blues rock stint with immense flair. Coming out of moody Lost Themes track "Night", Halloween takes the audience by surprise, causing jumps throughout the audience with its relentless hi-hats, Seiver striking each with an unsettling level of accuracy and anxiety. Finally, before breaking for an encore, Carpenter plays the truly excellent theme to 1995 Lovecraft tribute In The Mouth of Madness, rounding out the main set with a bang. It's incredibly evident in the setlist and the presentation of tonight's spectacle, John isn't saving any particular theme for last, keeping the crowd on pins and needles until the last note drops. Rather, his set feels like an incredibly well thought out mixture of new and old, playing to his absolute strengths where he sees them shining the hardest. Truly, the man is beyond criticism. Walking out of the theater later, I heard one passerby say to his friend, "Man, when he played Assault on Precinct 13, I hoped it would just go on for 20 minutes". I get the feeling. But after a lifetime of influence and insurmountable legacy, John knows it better than anyone here. Give it another ten or twenty years, and you'll be pretty happy to brag to your friends that you got to hear In The Mouth of Madness tear the roof off.

While there weren't any visuals to accompany, the material of the Lost Themes records played an integral part in tonight's celebration. Each track, from the pounding groove of "Vortex" to the blues rock get-down of "Virtual Survivor", allowed the crowd to disconnect from the visual association of John's music and just focus on the sincere beauty of his craft. It's insane to think about the fact that last year's Lost Themes was the first LP of non-soundtrack Carpenter material ever. But lo and behold, after some convincing from Cody and some time together in the studio with Daniel Davies, here we have it: two full albums of standalone Carpenter material that holds its own in an arena alongside gods of the horror genre. Each of the Lost Themes tracks allowed the band to riff in their own unique way. Seiver took the drums to "Mystery" and multiplied them by 10, making it one of the most complex and mind-boggling numbers of the evening, while Davies took "Distant Dream" to infinity on the guitars, and Cody Carpenter made "Purgatory" a penultimate wonder on the synthesizer. It's evident that this grouping of musicians is intentional for John - each brings an element above and beyond the studio recordings, and made the live renditions as rewarding as the Paramount could handle. Closing the evening out, Carpenter gave us a drive-home warning with Christine, torching the stage with a dark disco gem. Tonight's exhibition is one of those rare, surreal moments, where you can't really believe it's happening. John's choice of embarking on this tour is a gift unlike any other, and any fan who has ever been impacted by his incredible films would be wise to attend. This is cinematic and atmospheric history at its finest.

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