The choice of Portland, Oregon as the kickoff for his spring solo tour was a sensible move for Korn frontman Jonathan Davis. While the Rose City is capable of pulling in arena-filling artists (like Judas Priest and Post Malone, who’ll headline their own Portland shows in the coming weeks), it’s still considered by some to be nothing more than a place to fuel up on the long drive from San Francisco to Seattle.
So by picking Portland to start off this two month journey through the U.S. in advance of the release of his debut solo album, Black Labyrinth, Davis might have considered this first show as a kind of dress rehearsal. This isn’t a knock on the singer nor his performance on Friday night (April 6) at the Crystal Ballroom. When he finally addressed the crowd directly after about an hour of impressive new material and intense renditions of songs he wrote for the soundtrack to 2002’s Aaliyah-starring Queen of the Damned, he mentioned that the show was the culmination of an 11-year odyssey of writing on his own during his rare free time between Korn tours and recording sessions.
“But now I’m here,” Davis said, his voice rising in volume and fervor. “I love you! I love you! I love you!!”
If this was a warm-up for Davis and his five-piece backing band, they didn’t reveal any rust or tentativeness in their performances. They were locked in from the jump, exploring various moods and reaching levels of intensity with authority. An especially savvy move was the use of a large double bass rather than the traditional shoulder-slung rock instrument. It gave the music a deep, chest-rattling low-end, which was the perfect accompaniment for these often dark, defiant songs. Not enough can be said about the versatility of Davis’s voice, as he explored all the different timbres at his disposal throughout the night. He growled, crooned and wailed with equal amounts of steady force.
The inclusion of the Damned material in the set was an appropriate choice, a welcome reminder that the night was about Davis and not his work with Korn. Those tracks dovetailed perfectly into the post-punk/industrial-influenced work that makes up Labyrinth. New cuts like the trap-inflected “Medicate” and anti-conformity anthem “What You Believe” were awash with the same slow-building waves of drone and grind found on “System” and “Slept So Long” (both of which were in Friday’s set). Davis also stayed in his lane, lyrically-speaking, navigating familiar themes of inner torment and outward fury while also keeping his words vague enough so that they can be applied to all manner of personal struggles and societal ills.
Davis may be playing it safe a bit with Labyrinth, gently working his love of Goth artists like The Cure and Bauhaus, as well as Asian and Eastern European sounds, into a punishing, metal-tinged sound rather than trying for a complete reinvention. He knows what works for him and his many fans. To hear the reaction that these unfamiliar tunes got from his Portland audience was to confirm he’s striking a strong chord within them. The album, and this first tour date, feel like Davis testing the waters a bit, gently pushing himself away from his Korn cohorts without straying too far.
The good news is that, as Friday’s show proved, he’s got the talent and the drive to dare to try new things. It’s just a matter of how far out he’s willing to go from here.