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Review: Helmet could’ve been more solid in Belly Up performance

Helmet+lead+singer+Page+Hamilton+performs+with+the+band+April+29+at+the+Belly+Up+in+Solana+Beach.+%28Photo+by+Layla+Marino%29
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Review: Helmet could’ve been more solid in Belly Up performance

Helmet lead singer Page Hamilton performs with the band April 29 at the Belly Up in Solana Beach. (Photo by Layla Marino)

Helmet lead singer Page Hamilton performs with the band April 29 at the Belly Up in Solana Beach. (Photo by Layla Marino)

Helmet lead singer Page Hamilton performs with the band April 29 at the Belly Up in Solana Beach. (Photo by Layla Marino)

Helmet lead singer Page Hamilton performs with the band April 29 at the Belly Up in Solana Beach. (Photo by Layla Marino)

Layla Marino

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The 1990s indie/grunge band Helmet burst onto the scene in 1990 with a sound that was completely different from most of the alternative rock bands of the time. With fast, driving guitars and heavy, intense vocals and lyrics, Helmet’s style, though clearly ticking the alt rock box, sometimes seemed counter to the relatively slow tempo and lethargic lyrics of Nirvana, Soundgarden and the like.

A precursor to modern industrial rock and clearly influenced by metal, Helmet achieved minimal fame in the early ’90s with their first two albums, “Strap It On” and “Meantime,” released in 1990 and 1992, respectively. “Meantime” gave the band its most recognizable hit with “Unsung,” considered an alt rock anthem when it was released. Intense, moody and bemoaning the futility of the future for youth, “Unsung” captured the angst of Generation X.

Helmet continued to produce records infrequently until 2010, with a total of seven studio albums and two compilations in their discography. The band went on hiatus until 2013, when they began touring again in select cities. This year’s tour was to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of the album, which is widely regarded as Helmet’s most famous, “Betty.” Though it didn’t contain the anthemic “Unsung,” “Betty” reached great heights in almost every music chart in 1994, including 45 on the Billboard Top 100 and 38 on the UK Albums Chart. “Betty” had many of Helmet’s other hits, including “Milquetoast,” “Biscuits for Smut” and “Beautiful Love.”

The commemorative “Betty” tour was to feature the album in its entirety as well as an encore set, spanning Helmet’s entire catalog. Beginning at the Bowery Room in Brooklyn and zigzagging not only the U.S. but the western hemisphere, this landmark tour stopped in San Diego at the Belly Up on April 29 before it ends at the Shiprocked Festival in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

The show in San Diego began on time, and per its promise, the band started at the beginning and played “Betty” all the way through to the end in the same order the songs were arranged on the album. The venue wasn’t filled to capacity, but the crowd was far from sparse and there were plenty of loyal Helmet fans to cheer them on.

The band’s performance of “Betty” was technically flawless but in the energy department they seemed to fall a bit short. The band are known for their deadpan expressions when they play, but lead singer and guitarist Page Hamilton’s vocals seemed to be lacking in their characteristic intensity, and similarly, the tempo set by current bassist Dave Case and drummer Kyle Stevenson was a little slow. The lackluster nature of the playing didn’t seem to phase the enthusiastic crowd, however, and once the band began its second set and launched into some lesser-known songs, the tempo and energy picked up a bit. By the time “Unsung,” the song fans had been waiting for, began, the vibe of the crowd had fully perked up Hamilton and the crew. “Unsung” was almost as it had been 23 years ago — fast, anger-ridden and passionate.

It’s possible that the aging Helmet lost a little of their mojo as their tour began to wind down, or maybe they were unimpressed by the crowd at the Belly Up at first, but eventually the enthusiasm of the crowd won the band over, and they finished strong.

Let’s hope for the sake of the rest of the fans on the tour that future shows will be more energetic and capture the passion and driving music which made Helmet famous. With dedicated fans like those at the Belly Up, Helmet should be happy that their music lives on in “Betty” and the rest of their catalog lo these 20 years.

For info on more tour dates and releases by Helmet, visit the band’s website at www.helmetmusic.com.

Layla Marino is a San Diego music and arts writer

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