At the M3 festival with Twisted Sister and ’80s metal fans

May 5, 2013

On paper, at least to rock reviewers, the 2013 M3 Festival at Merriweather Post Pavilion looked less like a musical event than it did a quarantine: so many 1980s metal bands, each more critically abused than the last! So many black-T-shirt-clad armies of fans of said panned bands! All in one place!

So much fun!

For its fifth year of hosting M3 (which stands for Metal, Merriweather and May), the amphitheater and its surrounding grounds were packed with members and fans of what were once called hair bands. From fans and bands alike, the hair is mostly gone — Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider is the rare frontman who can somehow still flaunt a superhero’s supply of poofed-out blonde locks — so bandannas reigned.

But the songs remain the same. Ed Lashua, 42, was among the formerly mulleted masses at Merriweather who remain wistful for rock’s Aqua Net Era. Lashua said he traveled from West Springfield, Mass., to M3 for the chance to see Twisted Sister and the re-formed Vixen (an all-female soft-metal act from L.A. now doing business as JSRG). Just after waiting in the VIP line for a meet-and-greet with the loud Japanese band Loudness, Lashua lashed out at all the professional reviewers who crushed the rock of his adolescence, which now serves him well as the rock of his adulthood.

Critics “never got the fun of it,” Lashua said. “They said it was cheesy, happy music. And it was! And now we’re in depressed times, man. We need cheesy, happy music.”

The huge crowd, and the thriving commerce along the vendors’ row, showed that middle-aged rock fans, no matter their musical tastes, are a good target market.

Staffers inside the booth dubbed House of Hair offered metallic coif makeovers for a fee. Nearby, up on the auxiliary stage, the crowd was waving its arms overhead and otherwise swooning to “Love of a Lifetime,” a power ballad crooned by Firehouse’s C.J. Snare, whose short, red ’do didn’t look like God’s work.

In its tent, the Maryland-based metal-centric online haberdasher Sexy Stitch spent the day taking standard, mostly black concert T-shirts, cutting them apart and sewing in corsets and frills and other feminizing accessories before reselling the garments for $40 to $50. The booth also doubled as a changing room. “We found that everything at the shows was for the men,” says third-year M3 veteran and Sexy Stitch co-proprietor Carrie Bradley of Elkton, Md., who handled the selling while sister-in-law and business partner Sandii Powers did the seamstressing. “So we really made ’em extra sexy, because girls at M3 want to show a little more.”

Bradley, 37, put business aside for pleasure and left the booth unwomanned — leaving her husband, Lou Bradley, in charge — while charging the stage for the Jackyl set. “I had to,” she said after the show. “I saw them twice at Hammerjack’s back in the day. This is my music.”

Backstage before Twisted Sister’s appearance on the main stage inside the pavilion, founder and player/manager Jay Jay French laughed about another of his band’s long-ago appearances in the D.C. market — in 1985, when Snider was brought before Congress to defend his band’s dirty lyrics and the artistic viability of hard rock. Those hearings, part of Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center’s campaign, resulted in the record industry using warning labels on albums. (Then-Sen. Al Gore, her husband, was on the committee before which Snider testified.) “Can you believe that happened? Can you believe Al Gore did that?” said French. “What a waste. Nobody buys albums anymore. And Disney would do our stuff now.”

Ultimately, French said, Congress and the critics were proven irrelevant. The way French sees things, the years, and all the fans who came to Merriweather to see Twisted Sister, validate the band’s music in all the ways that matter. Once onstage, he mocked critics who said the music wouldn’t last, and went after “American Idol” contestants who “thank fans for staying with them for four weeks.”

“If they can come back in 30 years. . .,” he said, as the crowd roared. (Hair band fans can be judgmental, too: When an emcee announced that former Poison frontman and current bandanna addict Bret Michaels would follow Twisted Sister to the stage, boos reigned.)

Twisted Sister’s 50-minute set flaunted all the rock-and-roll fabulousness that has kept the band going on the road and fans like Ed Lashua coming to shows for three decades. Anthem rock does not get any better than the version of 1985’s “I Wanna Rock” rendered on this night, with fans all the way to the back of the lawn standing and throwing devil’s horns toward the stage and screaming along. And during a late chorus of “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” a sign language interpreter working in the left front of the pavilion stopped signing and just smiled as wide as his mouth would allow.

No words, signed or typed, could sum up that moment any better.

McKenna is a freelance writer.

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