Donovan Warren stands center stage at The Rail Club, looking every bit the part of metal-band frontman: H.R. Giger-inspired motifs tattoo his arms. A pair of dice and an alien eye decorate the back of his hands. The words "Last Call" bleed from his fingertips. His long, blondish-brown beard is braided, and a black bandanna imprinted with brass knuckles wraps around his bald head. A Black Label Society vest over a dark T-shirt, camouflage shorts with chains connecting to a wallet and a pair of black Converse complete the image.
He leans forward and prepares to sing his band's signature song, "Drunk On Blood." Most of his songs are inspired by 48 Hours and other murder shows. But it's 100 Proof Hatred's grueling tone and Pantera-inspired dress that keep people coming back. From bassist Jerry Galvan's black cowboy hat with a skull and crossbones patch in the center to guitarist Dave Lewis' Black Label Society ball cap, they were born into the heart of Southern metal in Fort Worth, and its influence is apparent not only in their look but in the power chords that anchor their arsenal.
It's a Saturday night, March 2012. Warren and the guys are plowing through their set before one of the largest crowds The Rail Club has ever seen, many of whom have been watching this band for years. It's the ultimate local metal band.
From the outside, The Rail Club looks like some out-of-business storefront, but it comes alive inside, with dim lighting and metal pounding from the speakers. There are pool tables and dart boards, a wraparound bar and a small stage. There's a dance floor used more often as a mosh pit. A picture of the state of Texas with a red, white and blue calf skull hanging on a guitar neck serves as the club's banner, and a nice reminder of what this place is: a mecca for metal.
Tonight that means playing host to the War of Rock's "Wild Wild West" contest. The winner will be crowned the "New War of Rock Band," a rare chance for a struggling local band to tour "Rockin' The Red Carpet" with Vince Neil, lead singer of Mötley Crüe. There are other perks, and a cash prize of $25,000. Metal bands from as far away as Alabama and Nashville are here, and this is just one of several battles across the region. The winner will square off against the nine winners of each local competition, and the winners of that will go to nationals.
Warren paces across the stage, glaring at the crowd. "What's happening 'War of Rock,' Fort Worth, Texas?" he roars into the microphone. "You're in the right place at the right time. This is a badass party. Everybody get fucked up, and don't go nowhere."
He makes a fist with his tatted hands, moves across the stage and stops at the edge of the swell of bodies surging forward and back like a tormented wave. Warren joined 100 Proof Hatred just as it was forming in 2005. "Play with some damn conviction" was the band's motto, and no one was more passionate about the lifestyle than Warren, who'd perfected his stage presence as a strip club DJ. He works the crowd as if they are customers at one of those clubs. Some of them are.
When the band finishes its set, Warren stands center stage to hear the judges' comments. His hands open and close into fists; his muscles twitch as he clenches his jaw, bleeding aggression, waiting to be judged. Mark Slaughter, founder of the metal band Slaughter, starts.
"All I can say is that Dimebag is smiling his ass off in heaven," Slaughter says. Warren smiles, flexes his muscles and bows, and the crowd screams its approval. To be compared to Pantera's late guitarist, "Dimebag" Darrell Abbot, is the highest honor a person can bestow on a Fort Worth metalhead. "Seriously, man, that was fucking cool," Slaughter continues. "The back half of that was like a dinosaur had just walked through the room. Rock on, man, you guys have got the heart, and you've got where it's coming from. It comes from the street, and it smells like a fucking concert, so that's even better."
Warren leans down and kisses a fan's cheek.
"Y'all rock, man," says judge Greg Ingram, co-creator of War of Rock. "Dime is smiling right now. Are y'all ready? I think you are."
Warren makes the universal metal hand sign and bows again. He appears lost in the moment, as if he's forgotten the disease ravaging him, the accusations, the investigation. To his fans and friends, he's a rock star. He's the life of the party, a "good-hearted" guy who'll give you the shirt off his back, open his door for you, fire up his grill for you.