Tool is a band of mystery, of brooding, unsettling rhythm and words of anxiety and decay. But singer and part-time vintner Maynard James Keenan seemed oddly vulnerable Saturday as he waved a crutch from the shadows during the band's headlining set at the Epicenter Festival, apologizing repeatedly for injuring his leg recently while harvesting grapes.
"I want to make sure you get drunk and run into each other," Keenan joked to fans at the Fairplex in Pomona, explaining why Tool didn't cancel.
"All I ask for is acknowledgment of my sacrifice."
No apologies were needed for hard rock fans gathered for Epicenter's full day of loudness from varied genres. The festival was co-sponsored by KROQ-FM (106.7), and the lineup represented the harder side of the station's playlist, from the marquee names of Tool, Linkin Park and Alice in Chains to the rising locals Atreyu and Hollywood Undead.
Opening with "Jambi," Tool played a 90-minute set heavy on atmosphere, as shuddering waves of sound unfurled over the crowd. There was thundering prog guitar from guitarist Adam Jones on "Stinkfist" as a ghostly skull-like image undulated behind him.
Tool remains an intensely visual live band, with video, lasers and ominous clouds of fog, though the visuals are never used to glorify the players as personalities, only to embellish the music and the band's obsessions with the elements of fire, water, earth and flesh.
Earlier, Linkin Park arrived at dusk and played to an excited crowd pumping the air as band members swept across the stage, making big moves to match big sounds of hard rock and hip-hop. The sextet showed vulnerability between the rages on "Leave Out All the Rest" as singer Chester Bennington pleaded on the wounded closing lyric: "I can't be who you are!"
The group's ease of melody within the grind and rage is its greatest asset. The metal never dissolved into sludge, the raps of Mike Shinoda remained clear and direct, and there were several instrumental interludes to dig deeper into the songs beyond their existence as radio hits.
Late in Linkin Park's performance, the band left the stage while Bennington's promising new project, Dead by Sunrise, appeared for a three-song set, beginning with the straight-ahead rock of "Crawl Back In." The act's brief appearance has been tried to some success overseas, but it might have been more of an event and less of a mainstage interruption if performed instead on one of the festival's smaller stages.
There are good reasons (experience, fan excitement, etc.) for new bands, even when they're fronted by platinum-selling singers, to work their way up from smaller venues.
Like Tool -- and guitarist Tom Morello of opener Street Sweeper Social Club -- Alice in Chains was another example of '90s rock veterans at Epicenter. Still in a period of dedicated rebuilding after the 2002 death of singer Layne Staley, the band has been steadily reasserting its presence. The fall release "Black Gives Way to Blue" will mark the first new studio album from the group in 13 years.
In Pomona, the band performed its first new single, "Check My Brain," a message of renewal rooted on singer and lead guitarist (and Seattle icon) Jerry Cantrell's finding home and surprising contentment in Southern California. Singer-guitarist William DuVall shares lead vocals on the new material with Cantrell but fully stepped into the role of frontman Saturday during Alice's early signature songs, wailing forcefully to "Man in the Box" and "Rooster."
Wolfmother erupted in full-blown Black Sabbath mode on "Dimension," with hazy, psychedelic lyrics, roaring slabs of blues and some wild, stretched-out soloing from singer-guitarist Andrew Stockdale.
Last year, the original lineup broke apart acrimoniously, and Stockdale was now fronting an entirely new band, introducing songs from the upcoming "Cosmic Egg" during a tight 35-minute set. Unlike Keenan, he had no time for apologies.