Of all the bands to play First Avenue over the years, Gwar already had a couple distinctions under its rubbery, blood-splattered belt before tragedy struck this time last year.
The costumed, satirical, sci-fi/horror band from the planet Scumgodia (via Richmond, Va.) is in the upper echelon of touring acts that have performed most often at Minneapolis' landmark venue. One of those occasions happened to be the celebratory night in 2004 when the club reopened after an ownership battle caused a three-week hiatus.
"I remember before the show being terrified that we were never going to get to play there again," recalled Gwar's thick-skinned leader, Dave Brockie (aka Oderus Urungus), who is familiar enough with First Ave to make this statement about the club's famously big-headed stage manager Conrad Sverkerson:
"I love Conrad's hair. I love to touch it and rub it all over me. I've been trying for years to get him to give me a big chunk of it to use in my costume, probably as a codpiece. Let me publicly call out Conrad right here and now to finally give it to me."
Of course, Brockie turned serious when the subject of last November's Gwar concert at First Ave came up. The band's guitarist, Cory Smoot (Flattus Maximus), died of a heart attack hours after the gig as Gwar's tour bus made its way to the Canadian border.
Despite the debauchery onstage, Gwar's members are actually pretty tame offstage, Brockie said, so the death had nothing to do with hard living. Smoot, 34, had a heart condition and complained of feeling poorly a few days before the gig, according to the frontman.
"He wasn't taking care of himself, and I wish we had known more," Brockie said. "I urge everyone with a heart problem to get well looked after, and to let your friends and family and the people around you know about it."
Asked if the physical challenge of playing in Gwar -- what with the sweaty rubber costumes, stage stunts and thrashing music -- might have worsened Smoot's heart trouble, Brockie paused to think.
"It's a workout, no question," he replied. "But we all know that and stay in good shape because of it.
"The truth is, Cory was like a kid in a candy store when he joined Gwar. We were his favorite band. I think putting on a Gwar show was more important to him than his own health, unfortunately."
Gwar continued with its tour as a four-piece band following Smoot's passing, "mainly to throw ourselves into our work," Brockie said. They also raised money for Smoot's then-pregnant wife.
Before their current tour, the Gwar machine hired guitarist Brent Purgason, a friend of Smoot's from Richmond. Onstage, he's Pustulus Maximus, a cousin of Smoot's character. They also rolled several current events into the stage production, including the election and the upcoming Mayan-predicted apocalypse.
"We worked really hard getting ready for this one, knowing that our fans are going to wonder if we're still as good without Cory," Brockie said.
As for playing First Ave again, he said simply, "I guess it'll be another milestone."