This year, Thor’s first album, Keep The Dogs Away, turned forty. And what better way to commemorate that momentous occasion than by putting on the Thor show to end all Thor shows? That was clearly what Jon Mikl Thor and Rich Fabio had in mind when they set out to create Thor: A Rock Odyssey, a titanic three set affair that went down in Manhattan this past weekend at the Highline Ballroom.
I was lucky enough to be invited early, to watch the load in and the sound check and to get to know some of the performers that would be on stage that night. I arrived at 2pm, guitar player Brian Kozenek (of The Epoxies) was there but outside of that, the kind of traffic snarls that are typical around New York City caused a bit of a delay. But soon enough, a crew made up of keyboard player Christopher Totaro, bass man Scott Jackson, lead guitar players Paul LaPlaca and Vick LeCar and then Mr. Fabio and Thor himself made their presence known.
As the stage started shaping up, it became obvious that this was going to be a pretty big deal. Not only was the band clearly pumped up, but there was the whole visual side of the show that was really only hinted at in the promotion that was done leading up to the actual performance. Props were wheeled in – hammers, swords, helmets, chest plates – and pillars were constructed on the stage around the risers. A chariot was brought out, along with a giant boulder! Two racks of keyboards were set up, three guitar players were plugging in, the bass rig was rumbling like a volcano and behind all of this was Fabio massive drum kit! Three bass drums, countless toms, a whole bunch of snares and towers of cymbals with custom LED lighting built into it and the brand new Thor logo emblazoned on the skins that faced the audience. Amazingly enough, this is the same kit that Fabio used when he played with Thor back more than three decades ago, but it’s clearly been tweaked and customized over the years to become the behemoth that it is today!
And then it was time for the sound check. Only three of the ten songs on the Keep The Dogs Away album had ever been performed live before – so there was understandably a bit of tension in the air. The original musicians who performed on the record are long gone, would these guys have everything figured out? After a bit of back and forth, working with the sound man and tweaking their gear, Jon Mikl Thor took the stage and the band broke into the title track. No rough starts, no bumps in the road at all – these guys sounded great and it was clear from the energy during this practice/sound check performance that they were ready to deliver.
It was around this time that things took an unexpected turn for me. Thor had a favor to ask – he needed me to be ‘The Wizard.’ I didn’t realize ahead of time that this performance would have a script, that there would be a bit of a story to the whole thing to really and truly make it the rock odyssey it was being billed as. But more on that later.
The doors opened. Fans who had travelled from far and near began to fill the space. People mingled over drinks, there was a meet and great with Jon before he was pulled backstage for an interview. A display of Thor memorabilia, including trophies and mementos from his competitive bodybuilding days, was gawked at and the merch table had copies of the new 3-disc reissue of Keep The Dogs Away on sale alongside some other albums and some t-shirts. There was no opening act – the band simply took the stage to give fans a chance for a photo op, and then they get things moving.
The first set started with an amusing opening sketch in which Fabio’s daughter, Lauren, came out on stage asking her father to tell her a bedtime story about a princess. He obliged, but the story quickly turned into a tale of an epic rock warrior. The lights went down, the band fired up and it was clear from the start that these guys were intent on giving 110%. This was, at times, clearly an emotional experience for Jon, performing some of these older tracks in front of an audience for the first time ever in his long and storied career and the crowd ate it up. Unlike some of his better known eighties metal albums Keep The Dogs Away is a bit of a genre mashup, it’s big on glam rock style but it’s got a definite punk rock edge to it that sets it apart from a lot of Thor’s other work and it’s a lot of fun live. The band ripped through the whole album in the same order it was presented in on the record, the front man getting pretty worked up and going through plenty of his trademark costume changes, flexing, posing and flailing around like a madman. Throughout all of this the rhythm section kept everything on target, the three guitar players each added their own distinct layer of sound and the keyboards filled things in beautifully. Just as importantly, it was also evident to everyone watching that as hard as these guys were working, they were also having a complete blast.
As the ‘Dogs’ set came to a close quite literally to the sound of Thunder, Titano took the stage. A big part of Thor’s show was that there were feats of strength performed alongside the music. While the days of Thor blowing up hot water bottle himself are behind him, that doesn’t mean that fans were going to go without. A freakshow performer and strong man (and one of the mellowest, most down to Earth people you could ever meet off stage), Titano cuts an imposing frame. He’s a big guy, covered head to toe in tattoos with the lobes of his ears stretched out and a massive beard hanging from his face. He cuts an imposing frame when he’s dressed in leather garb and he took the stage next. First up was a sword swallowing act, followed by an insane bit where guitar player Brian Kozenek laid down on the stage only to keep playing while being spun from Titano’s teeth!
As his bit came to a close, he paid tribute to the Thor shows of yesteryear by bending a steel bar in his teeth… and it was then that the ‘Evil Wizard’ took the stage. After casting a spell to put Titano under my control, we collectively antagonized the audience, threatening to destroy Thor and eliminate rock from New York City! Along with a giant monster (played by Anthony Johnson) also under the wizard’s control, we battled Thor and emerged victorious. Or so it seemed. Frank Soda, a long time Thor collaborator whose connection with Jon goes back to their time in Thor And The Imps (which pre-dates even the Keep The Dogs Away record), took over guitar duties for a bit as Christopher Totaro laid down the vocals on a new song, a power balled of sorts, entitled Heal. After that, Lauren came back out to tell the crowd that Thor had lost his energy, but of course, once she started singing New York Energy City and got the crowd pumped up, the big guy got his energy back, a little person came out on stage and grabbed his hammer for him, and a few minutes later this evil wizard was on his back, the monster lying beside him with Titano getting a microphone stand wrapped around his neck.
The third set of the show came next, a greatest hits set of sorts that saw Keith Zazzi take over on bass, James Whang handle guitar duties and the legendary Mike Favata get behind the drum kit for a song. These guys played with Thor in the eighties, the Only The Strong/Unchained era, and while there was a reunion that took place last year (read about that here) this was once again a very rare opportunity to see them play together. Again, these guys were clearly having a blast and they sounded great. It was a brief but very welcome look back at one of Thor's biggest hits played with style and passion!
The final set came to a close with Ride Of The Chariots allowing Thor to do just that – ride his chariot – and then Warriors Of The Universe, during which Jon called up each and every person who had played a part in the show to get on stage with him to sing along, Fabio at this point having taken one of the snares from his kit only to mount it to his chest for a ‘military style’ drum session!
This closed out a big show in a big way, everything about the night was larger than life! It was over the top in every way possible, and a great way to celebrate not only the 40th anniversary of one of the most criminally underrated albums of all time but the four decade plus legacy of Thor’s entire career.