"How's that for a juicy evening?" an elated Papa Emeritus IV declared last night onstage.
Even for a demonic debonair pope, crazy dreams can come true, and his unfolded flawlessly as Ghost's 2023 tour of the U.S. came to a typically theatrical finish at the Kia Forum in Los Angeles. It marked the last of 28 tour stops across the country, and the second of two back-to-back shows at the Forum, both being filmed for a future release, meaning phones, smart watches and accessories were strictly prohibited. The climactic performance devoted two hours to the band's deep catalog of speed riffs and pop melodies, including Ghost's latest, 2022's ambitious Impera album.
The ringmaster, of course, was the warm but mysterious Papa Emeritus IV, previously known as Cardinal Copia, and forever embodied by band leader Tobias Forge. The night once again showed Forge making real his outlandish fantasy to bring his band of popes and ghouls to the wide-open spaces of arenas around the world, taking its place among the great rock shows that came before, including KISS, Rob Zombie and Alice Cooper.
Forge is likewise a uniquely gifted master of stagecraft, mingling spectacle with humor and heartfelt messages to his audience. The night began with a classic scene of rock-star drama, as the big screen above the stage showed Ghost arriving in a van, as the band of Faceless Ghouls each stepped out, followed by the dashing young Pope in a flashy smoking jacket.
The curtain dropped to the stage, and the Ghouls marched forward, unfurling the overlapping guitars of "Kaisarion" to a frantic rhythm as the Cardinal slid up to the mic in a gold lame jacket to sing of a crime in ancient Alexandria. Like certain other songs from Impera, the sound was like an echo from "AOR" mainstream rock radio rock of the Eighties, with frequent spasms of prog rock. It set a tone for the night in energy and swaggering attitude.
Forge frequently posed with sweeping gestures in the spotlight between verses, and during the jagged, heavy riffs of "Rats," he moved gracefully across the stage as the show's most dynamic force. He stood on various platforms placed around the stage, guiding the fans below like a conductor, or adding a snappy "Motherfucker!" to the end of a lyric on "Faith."
After the evil churning guitars that open "Absolution," Forge began singing while perched high up on the drum riser, and soon asked fans to "Scream real loud!" And they did.
For "Call Me Little Sunshine," he returned in full sparkly pope attire, with long cape and papal headgear. He stood at the mic and delivered his lyrics like a sermon: "Call me Mephistopheles/Call me when you feel all alone," as fans clapped to the beat and he swung a brass thurible from a chain above them.
The demonic Pope soon emerged on a smaller stage in the back of the arena, and was accompanied there by a small group of female cellists, a pianist and a heavily veiled backup singer that he introduced as the Ghoulettes. He blew kisses to each one, and together they performed a vibrant but understated "If You Have Ghosts," a song originally recorded by Roky Erickson and the Aliens.
Just as moving, Forge spoke the first of several inspirational messages to fans, including "There is always a way to ease the pain" and "As long as you have the spirit, you will never be alone." He then put on boxing gloves and a shiny blue robe and headed back to the main stage like Rocky Balboa to the organ sounds of "Dominion." He was joined there by an octet of dancers in skeleton costumes to accompany the speed metal riffs from the never-before-played "Twenties," from Impera.
After "He Is," Forge left the stage as the Ghouls erupted on guitar and some roadies wheeled out Copia's late papal predecessor, Papa Nihil, in plexiglass coffin. After giving him a couple of jolts of electricity, Nihil came to life just long enough to play a wild sax solo.
Standing amid blasts of glittery confetti, Copia, in heavy Italian accent declared, "Did you feel that, Los Angeles? Where did you feel it?"
In the night's final moments, and after the band had finished playing, Ghost bid farewell as a recording played of "Sorrow in the Wind," a traditional country track by Emmylou Harris. Ghost has used the track before, and it remains a strangely fitting and human-scale finish to the band's epic pageantry. Papa and his Ghouls took their bows, and then the frontman was alone, climbing up to the drum kit one last time to stand in the spotlight, and the curtain fell.
Ghost 9/12/23 setlist (courtesy of Setlist.fm):
Call Me Little Sunshine
Con Clavi Con Dio
Watcher in the Sky
If You Have Ghosts (Roky Erickson and the Aliens cover)
Twenties (with eight skeleton dancers)
Mary on a Cross
Respite on the Spitalfields
Kiss the Go-Goat
Dance Macabre (with eight skeleton dancers)