How Did Altitude Affect Aging Musicians at Riot Fest?

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On Friday night at Riot Fest, the news of Motörhead's cancellation spread like a viral video. But it didn't come as too much of a surprise to anyone who knew that the band had ended its set early in Salt Lake City the night before because Lemmy was having issues with the altitude and wasn't able to sing properly. 

The altitude thing probably seems puzzling to anyone who lives in higher altitudes, but if you've ever spent time at even 8,000 feet and done hard labor, without some training, you will get winded quickly and recover less rapidly because you can't catch your breath. And if you've not taken good care of yourself and you're over a certain age, some kinds of activities become more difficult to do than they were in your twenties or even thirties.

And who wants to see a winded Lemmy have to quit singing less than five songs into a set? With nearly fifty years of experience as a traveling musician, the guy is a road dog who has nothing to prove. The man served as a roadie for Hendrix and was a member of Hawkwind. And, of course, he has long been showing people how you can be a giant of a man, fronting one of the greatest bands in rock and roll, that never mellowed out and doesn't phone it in. So this concession to his own mortality and desire to maintain a high level of quality at that band's shows is completely understandable.

But Lemmy wasn't the only “aging” or elder statesman of rock music who was scheduled to perform at Riot Fest, and it is worth noting how other musicians handled not only age, but altitude during the concert. Perhaps Lemmy or anyone else tangling with the very real effects of altitude can learn something from their peers, older or younger: It wasn't just people over forty who made comments about the altitude.

Iggy Pop was superhuman. In his performance, he acknowledged his mortal existence by telling the crowd that he could basically drop dead any day and that “I really need this.” And Iggy, more than most artists a third his age, brought the fire, the electricity and the mutant energy that have always made him an incredibly compelling figure. He played Stooges songs, and he played from a broad spectrum of his solo career. He played fast songs and slow songs, all with an unbelievable intensity, striking poses and writhing about in his inimitable fashion. He was relentless and seemingly unstoppable. And he didn't grow up at high altitude. Does he train with Olympic athletes off touring season? It's hard to say.

On Saturday, Dead Milkmen keyboardist and singer Rodney Linderman seemed to be in good spirits during the whole show, and certainly none of us in the crowd had anything to complain about in the band's performance. But later in the set, Linderman apologized for not being as energetic as he usually is. He explained that he was old and it was hot. And yet Linderman found the time to represent Denver EBM legends Velvet Acid Christ by wearing a VAC T-shirt and telling the crowd it should go to the VAC show on Halloween at Casselman's. If age and altitude had an impact on the Dead Milkmen, not surprisingly, it became a source of self-deprecating humor and an excuse to talk about their friends' shows. As a segue into "Bitchin' Camaro,"  guitarist Joe Jenaro asked how Linderman was going to get all the way across the festival ground in time to catch the Damned.

It's no surprise that the members of the Damned handled the age issue with humor as well. The youngest member of the band is 49, and Captain Sensible is 61. Sensible wore an all-white suit, like he had just graduated from the Naval Academy, and Dave Vanian wore his signature biker-vampire outfit. At 5 p.m., the weather sure hadn't cooled down much, but apparently for the Damned, theater mattered more than comfort. The closest anyone in the band came to making a comment about being older happened when Sensible said, “I dropped my guitar pick. I can't bend down to pick that up at my age.” Outside of that, it was just good-natured, self-effacing absurdist humor.

Earlier in the day, GWAR went on stage in the full 3 p.m. heat in what looked like full costume. GWAR gives no concessions to mere mortal concerns like age or altitude or heat, and its mortality is irrelevant because GWAR is an immortal ensemble. So maybe GWAR can't really be truly affected by environment long-term, because members come in and out and incarnate in different ways. GWAR also told us that one of its members foolishly bought a bar on Earth.

Interviewing scumdogs of the universe in the press tent gets a little surreal. But not once did GWAR break character, and its members never really acknowledged mundane, mortal concerns such as age and death, much less altitude.

Sunday, Philadelphia's Beach Slang's James Snyder remarked that the altitude thing was no joke. He assured the crowd that he wouldn't be removing his jacket, despite the heat, because it was the source of his power, a la Sampson's hair. If altitude or heat was a factor, you couldn't tell, because other than some partly awkward joking — all the better because it was self-aware — Beach Slang put in a solid set of Replacements-esque guitar rock brimming with tender and sincere sentiments.

L7 acknowledged potential altitude effects on the guitar as well as Donita Sparks's voice not staying in tune before dismissing that factor. Instead, Sparks joked that Yelawolf was to blame for her voice going out of tune. Though the band addressed any potential looseness in the music as doing this for fun rather than in any attempt to be tight, L7 seemed more on point than ever.

Likely the oldest musician performing on Sunday, Bootsy Collins (who played with James Brown in 1970) showed no signs of fatigue or dampening of spirits, and he sure didn't seem to mention struggling with any environmental factors in his performance.

The common factor among this year's Riot Fest performers is that those who were able to make it made the best of it, and despite the altitude and the heat, there really didn't seem to be any sub-par shows at the festival.

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