John Carpenter: The Anthology Tour
The Royale, Boston 11/15/2017
John Carpenter is a goddam rock star. When I bought my tickets to him live, I wasn’t sure what I would think. I knew that his music was a big part of setting up the atmosphere for his movies. I wasn’t sure what I would think of the music divorced from the imagery and the experience of watching the films. I also knew that last time he played live dates, when Lost Themes II came out, he did Los Angeles and Reykjavik. Seeing him in Boston would be a once-in-a-lifetime chance. So I happily plunked down my money a few months early and Wednesday night, walked by the longest line I’d ever seen outside of Boston’s Royale club.
I’ll say it again – John Carpenter is a goddam rock star. He swaggered out onto that stage dressed in all black, and launched into “Escape from New York” backed by a five-piece and, including Carpenter’s son Cody on lead synth. After the theme from Village of the Damned, someone yelled, “We love you,” and Carpenter responded by pumping a fist in the air. He threw a metal horn when the band played “Vortex” from the first Lost Themes album, non-soundtrack songs Carpenter noted were for “the movies in your mind.” He exudes the untouchable cool of an artist who knows he’s done and is doing something that solely belongs to him.
Carpenter has a unique musical style. There’s a counterpoint between background and foreground. There’s always something bubbling or groaning in the background dictating the rhythm, creating a sense of urgency or looming dread. In the foreground, there are those skittering motifs like his famous piano line from “Halloween,” arpeggios pedaling off of the root of a root note setting things further off kilter. And of course, those wonderfully filthy synth sounds. Of course the fog machine started up in earnest when they played “The Fog,” and there was something oddly heartwarming about seeing father and son play the piano and synth call-and-response. Even if people were being murdered with hooks on the screen behind them.
As it turned out, the music wasn’t completely divorced from the film. Clips from each movie played behind Carpenter as he played their respective themes. The crowd cheered for Kurt Russel’s Snake Pilssken when he popped up on the screen as if he had just stepped onstage in real life. When the whole band donned sunglasses (which were available at the merch table) and the screen behind them flashed black and white signs reading “CONSUME” and “OBEY,” someone behind me yelled “Twenty-minute fight scene!” – a reference to the prolonged battle between Rowdy Roddy Piper and Keith David from They Live.
As Carpenter and his band made their way through his filmography, playing the riff-heavy “Porkchop Express (Big Trouble In Little China),” Jack Nitzsche’s romantic “Starman,” the more delicate “Santiago (Vampires),” or the high-voltage roller-coaster of “In the Mouth of Madness,” the title of the latest album became more apt. It felt like watching a good horror anthology movie (and yes, he did get to Body Bags, too). Except now, you’re immersed in it. As if at the end of the night, when you walked out to the street, a truck was surely going to screech to a halt in front of you, and the passenger door would fly open to reveal Tom Atkins yelling, “Get in! There’s no time!”
Maybe the music shouldn’t be completely divorced from the imagery of Carpenter’s films. I listened to Anthology on the way home, and it kept the vibe of the show going. And it transformed the outside world. There was menace in every familiar mile. A deranged Sam Neill running through the streets of Boston’s theatre district. Passing the car dealership near my house, I imagined Kurt Russell emerging from a ball of fire, trying to hold off whatever had chased him into the office. And what was that I saw in the orange glow emitting from the side window of that plain suburban two-story? Some of his best work might be the movies in your mind.