With Jon Oliva deciding to play Hall Of The Mountain King in its entirety this summer, the nostalgia wheels got rolling, back to the fall of ’87 when I was road manager for SHOK PARIS, the opening band on the SAVATAGE tour. As a fan of the Floridians, it was a double win for me, getting to hear their set every night. Much more a bonus than the $75 a week I was earning on the road! After that experience, was never really been satisfied with their live repertoire. I’d seen SAVATAGE, with Keith Collins on bass/keyboards, two years earlier, even going backstage at the Chestnut Cabaret, in Philadelphia, PA to get autographs from each band member. While they’d already been on the road for almost a month, we met up with the ‘Tage at the Agora in Cleveland, on Oct 15th, site of a (much bootlegged) Z-Rock live radio recording. What was supposed to be three plus weeks, stretching to the west coast, ended up being just short of two, with a couple of holes in the itinerary along the way. We Ohioans were neophytes to touring, the band having only done one-offs out of state and me, a 23 year old recent college grad and lifelong metalhead seeking adventure. Two months later, they’d jettisoned the clubs, opening arena for DIO and MEGADETH. It really was the end of an era.
Even with the teased hair and aristocrat wardrobe (Jon’s brass button, tailed overcoat, Johnny’s ruffled shirt, etc), this was before Paul O’Neill got his hooks in them, turning them from a heavy metal band into something else (namely, wealthy rock star, thanks to TSO). Although they changed the set almost nightly, Savatage were plugging Hall Of The Mountain King heavily, airing all but ‘The Price You Pay’ from said album. Along with alternating ‘Twisted Little Sister’, ‘I Believe’ and the title cut from the debut, the majority of the set came off Power Of The Night (title track utilizing flash pot pyrotechnics, as did the opening ‘Sirens’) or the Dungeons Are Calling Ep, despite our nightly ribbing about playing something from Fight For Rock. The two Oliva brothers were approachable, very personable and hung with bands and fans alike, whereas drummer Steve “Dr. Killdrums” Wacholz was a nice enough guy, but more reserved. Having previously cared for the band’s business matters, a tour manager and a recent signing to Jon Goldwater’s Crash Management (who showed up in Detroit) seemed to leave Steve with nothing to do. The always smiling Johnny Lee Middleton was relatively new to the band.
Recollections? The skull & bones emblazoned on Killdrums’ triple kicks, Criss’s tiger print guitar and Jon’s maniacal laugh, all come to mind instantly. Like the Agora, the Detroit show was in a room with five foot elevated stage and could hold a thousand people, no mere “club” show, like some of those that would follow. Even back in the 80s Harpos was a dangerous “no man’s land.” Since Goldwater was in the house, as well as the Scorpions’ management, the boys were on their best behavior, although they learned of two canceled dates. With the luminaries in the crowd, Savatage brought their A-game, as the Internet abounds with quality footage from that night. The 17th, we played Boagart’s, just around the corner from the University Of Cincinnati. While we were touring in an RV, only sporadically taking a couple of hotel rooms for showers, the Floridians had been traipsing across the country cramped in a passenger van. At that time, it was routine for smaller acts to drive station wagons (IRON MAIDEN did on their initial US tour) or a single van, with a trailer for equipment. While our budget had called for Shok to undertake a similar mode of transportation, our Midwest locale and juggling the finances (putting hotel expenses towards a vehicular upgrade, to say nothing of my and the crew’s slave wages) enabled us to ride in style. With a couple of days off, the next time we saw the Savs, the headliners suddenly had a new mode of transportation!
After killing three idle days between Cincy and Dayton, it was time for McGuffy’s (October 21st), where it was announced the tour would end four days earlier than expected. No Halloween show, boo! As often happens at smaller clubs, the stage couldn’t accompany two touring outfits, Wacholz’ triple kick drum set-up usurped almost the entire stage, so we shared. Also needed a make-shift extension, utilizing road cases. This was the first time we saw Jon Oliva sit behind the drum kit during sound check, astonished at his ability. The Savatage crew included a card playing, drug dealing light man who kept various parts of their entourage in debt, taking much of the tour manager’s salary in one-deck games of blackjack.
Onto Milwaukee, where the large club (Billy’s) had a replica of a semi-truck cab crashing through the back wall. The venue was open all day, so people could come in during set-up and sound checks. In St. Paul, Ryan’s like so many old Midwest venues, had a support pole right in the middle of its minute stage. Since we’d yet to be able to use the drum riser we’d been carting around, we cut it up and taped the wood (gotta love duct tape!) to some of the venue’s tables and a few Savatage road cases to double the stage area. There’s was second, adjoining room/bar where one is unable to actually see the live performance.
In Chicago (Oct. 24th), Savatage had to play two shows at the infamous Thirsty Whale, on the same night: an afternoon matinee for the non-drinking kids and a 10pm show, although the club stayed open until 4am. We were bumped from the bill for WHITE LION, who were a no-show anyway. The club sported a low (seven foot?) ceiling and was arranged like underground caverns, where the sound got lost in the corners and only a small portion of the paying crowd can actually see the show.
Perhaps it was due to the double duty the night before, of some other excesses, but come the next night, in Springfield, IL, Jon Oliva’s voice was almost completely gone. With a 10pm curfew, Shok Paris set is curtailed to just 35 minutes, but in a show of support, the Savatage guys are in the front row, banging with the fans. For their set, Oliva let people help him out with the vocals, including the stage front contingent of Shok Paris, crew and myself. A 14 year old (and severely inebriated) youngster got a chance to sing as well, onstage for the finale. Later, he joined the bands back at the hotel party, where Oliva ripped a full length mirror from the wall and (allegedly, as I didn’t see it) snort a two-foot long line!
26th the final night was in Iowa City, with Chicago thrashers ZEOTROPE opening. As often happens at the close of a tour, bands play on-stage jokes on one another. With the Tage was onstage, Shok bassist Kel Berkshire walked onstage with an inflated condom, shaving cream plastered on its tip. He walked over to Criss Oliva and burst the “balloon” on the guitarist’s rear, the shaving cream smeared all over. Jon Oliva howled at his brother’s misfortune. Middleton was next, as the army helmet wearing Berkshire tacked a naked centerfold of the Savatage bassist’s then girlfriend onto his bass bin. Beer is spit, dumped and showered everywhere. By now, Jon was a bit paranoid, looking over his shoulder for any personal attack, all the while, continuing the show! Eventually, he grabs a squirter bottle and dowses the crowd, members of Shok Paris included. When they left the stage, we were there to greet them, smiles, laughs and handshakes all around. Ah, the memories!
So if you see me at one of the Hall Of The Mountain King shows, you’ll understand the smile and tear in my eye.