Backstage at yesterday's opening of the 2012 Mayhem Festival in San Bernardino, California, it wasn't all cold beer and air-conditioning for the headlining metal acts. Just before 3 p.m., the members of Anthrax were hurtling along the grass and dirt hills on motorized carts toward an autograph session, and singer Joey Belladonna nearly bounced right off the back.
"Slow down! Fuck, we were flying off!" the singer shouted, holding tight to the railing. "That was not a good ride."
This was only the first stop of the 26-date tour with Slipknot, Slayer and Motorhead, and as he stepped into the autograph tent, the singer was greeted by a line of fans shouting "Joey! I love you, Joey!" with howls and raised devil's horns. Belladonna turned with a smile and told Rolling Stone, "This is going to be like an adventure every day."
Saturday's opening was also the largest gathering ever for the five-year-old tour, with 26,150 in attendance, according to Mayhem organizers. That's 4,000 more than any other Mayhem tour date, and a good sign for the rest of the summer. The 12-band bill also includes next-generation metal acts As I Lay Dying, the Devil Wears Prada, Asking Alexandra and Whitechapel.
"It's cool to be a part of it," Slipknot singer Corey Taylor told Rolling Stone, relaxing late-afternoon with a soda on the bus he shares with his wife and son. "I know there are some people in this genre who don't take it seriously. They're almost uncomfortable with the fact that they make hard music. I think that's fucking horseshit. The most devoted fans on the planet are heavy metal fans. They'll stay with you your whole life."
Hours later, Slipknot's closing set began with a white curtain falling to reveal a hellish carnival of flames, flashing lights and seven intense dudes in masks and red jumpsuits pounding their instruments. Behind them was a giant ouija board with the words "All hope is gone."
Aside from hits and fan favorites ("Wait and Bleed," "Duality"), the Iowa metal act's set included some live rarities, including "Stuff" and "Gently," a song Slipknot haven't performed in 11 years. But missing onstage were two essential characters from Slipknot's lineup: bassist Paul Gray, who died in 2010 of a drug overdose; and, unexpectedly, guitarist Jim Root, suddenly awaiting surgery for a burst appendix.
Filling in sonically from backstage for the missing musicians were Donnie Steele on bass, and on guitars Nick Hipa and Phil Sgrosso from As I Lay Dying. "Even though it was very, very hard for us," Taylor told the crowd, "we decided we would come out here and give you every fucking ounce of energy we've got."
Most bands spent part of their day at autograph sessions in tents near the second stage. As he signed posters and posed for snapshots with fans and a pair of blonde Jagermeister models in high heels, Slayer guitarist Kerry King said he timed his session so that he'd be there during Anthrax's set.
"We came from the same place, just different coasts," King said of his fellow thrashers in Anthrax. "I know everything they play."
Headlining the second stage, Anthrax's tight 40-minute performance began with the pit anthem "Caught in a Mosh" for an intense crowd of young and older metal fans, some with headbanging kids on their shoulders, amid pumping fists and a cloud of dust. "We got a situation out here. I think it's a good day for a dusty kicking war dance!" Belladonna told the crowd, to the tribal metal beat of 1987's "Indians."
The day was only half-over. "After us, to still have energy for Motorhead, Slayer and Slipknot, that's an intense fucking day," Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian told Rolling Stone. "I couldn't do it."
At dusk, Slayer began with "God Hates Us All" as the band's insignia burst into flames behind them, along with two upside-down crosses made of Marshall amps. Standing centerstage, bearded singer-bassist Tom Araya no longer bangs his head (a result of back surgery in 2010), but shrieked of death and horror while staring Methuselah-like deep into the crowd, hair blowing in the breeze.
On the grassy hill way up above, a mosh pit erupted around a rippling bonfire made of trash, and fans twirled burning T-shirts over their heads as Araya greeted the crowd of "bright shiny faces." The doom riff of "Mandatory Suicide" included a frantic solo from guitarist Gary Holt of Exodus, filling in for Jeff Hanneman, still sidelined from a spider-bite and flesh-eating virus, as fireballs exploded from the stage.
Backstage an hour earlier, Slayer's King told Rolling Stone that Holt fit easily within Slayer's speed-metal. "It probably would have been a lot more weird had I not recruited Gary," he said of finding a Hanneman substitute. "Not only is he an old fucking friend, but he is my age, he is from our genre. There's nothing weird about it."
Motorhead delivered a relentless, and typically straight-ahead set of hard rock that straddled metal and punk, or what frontman Lemmy Kilmister prefers to simply call rock & roll. "You like rock & roll, don't ya?" he roared. "Let me fuckin' hear ya!"
On "Killed By Death," the band was joined on guitar by Kilmister's son, Paul Inder. Drummer Mikkey Dee was like Animal from the Muppets come to life, his blonde gray hair aswirl, arms swinging and head banging nonstop. Right before "Ace of Spades," the Motorhead trio raised a toast to the moment with their plastic cups. "I think I'll have a drink," Kilmister said. "Otherwise I might sober up."