On December 18, 2022, about two weeks after playing their first-ever show together since 2001, Pantera are getting ready to tear up the Knotfest Carnival stage at the Anhembi Sambadrome in São Paulo, Brazil.
Minutes before showtime, the ravenous crowd cheers along to Jackass-style video snippets of Pantera smashing things, blowing up shit, playing practical jokes and performing mind-blowing shows in the Nineties.
A projection of a silhouette of the late Dimebag Darrell – wearing a Dean electric guitar, fist raised in triumph – and his late brother Vinnie Paul – holding up a drumstick – fill the screens as the band takes the stage to the weird and ethereal Peter Ivers song In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song) from David Lynch’s Eraserhead. The moment the nation has waited more than 27 years for has arrived.
“This is called A New Level,” shouts vocalist Phil Anselmo, and immediately Black Label Society guitarist Zakk Wylde, Cattle Decapitation bassist Derek Engemann (who’s temporarily filling in for Covid-stricken Pantera co-founder Rex Brown) and Anthrax drummer Charlie Benante blast into the chugging opening rhythm of the song as the crowd chants to the beat. Then, Wylde, armed with an orange-and-black bullseye-decorated Wylde Audio Warhammer, doubles the speed of the riff and sparks start to fly – literally and figuratively.
Turbulence and discord were obstacles for Pantera’s return to the stage long before Vinnie Paul died of a heart attack in 2018. Many fans and critics have insisted that booking a “Pantera” tour that doesn’t feature founding members Dimebag Darrell Abbott (who was killed onstage in 2004) and Vinnie Paul Abbott is offensive, even with the remaining Abbotts’ blessings.
Others claim the real offense would be to bury the band’s explosive concerts along with the brothers, and that Wylde and Benante are the perfect fill-ins (not replacements) for Dime and Vinnie. Zakk and Dime were close friends and Benante was tight with Dime and Vinnie, who were big Anthrax fans and who toured together in 1998.
“To me, it’s just a beautiful thing,” Wylde says of the worldwide tour that includes U.S. dates opening for Metallica and headlining with Lamb of God, as well as numerous festival appearances.
“Whenever we do the Experience Hendrix thing, we pay tribute to the amazing music and playing of Jimi Hendrix. And when I’m playing Mr. Crowley or Crazy Train with Ozzy [Osbourne], we’re celebrating the greatness of Randy [Rhoads]. It’s not controversial or tragic. It’s about this awesome thing Pantera created – and this community of people who still enjoy it.”
Seeing the revamped Pantera onstage in São Paulo (or anywhere else), it’s hard to dispute Wylde’s comments or talk smack about the band’s gangbuster performances. This is, indeed, a beautiful thing. Throughout the São Paulo show, Wylde plays most of the crunching rhythms in a partial crouch, biceps bulging, hair swaying left and right, obscuring his face.
The sound is vintage Pantera – scooped mids, crushing power chords embellished with artificial harmonics, Whammy pedal squeals and jaw-dropping solos. If you close your eyes, you can picture Dime and Vinnie up there with Phil.
Wylde worked obsessively to emulate Dime’s sound and style, and if that’s not enough to convince everyone that this is an act of love for the Abbotts, the guitarist’s cut-off jean jacket cements the deal. It’s covered with orange-and-black patches dedicated to the late Abbott brothers. There are circular patches of their faces, each partially surrounded by “St. Dime” and “St. Vinnie,” respectively. A patch on Wylde’s right shoulder reads “Pantera” and features a line of stars that look like a military insignia.
On his back, the edges of the CFH [Cowboys from Hell] logo peek out under his studded black strap. And just in case anyone missed the message, a rounded “Pantera” patch is positioned above the back patch and the words “Cowboys from Hell” are perched below.
On a more personal level, a razorblade dangles from a chain around Wylde’s neck – an homage to Dime’s trademark necklace, which Dime wore in homage to Judas Priest and the iconic cover of their British Steel album.
“We’re up there celebrating Dime and Vinnie. That’s what this is about, and it brings joy to so many people,” Wylde says, adding that playing Pantera songs is just as enjoyable for him and Benante, whose T-shirt displays a Simpsons-style drawing of the Abbott brothers. “For us, it’s really special because we’re commemorating our buddies – the guys in Pantera who we loved – and everything they did for music.”
Usually, when Wylde talks to journalists, he regales them with hysterical stories about working and playing with Ozzy and Black Label Society. Frequently, he chronicles many of the madcap misadventures he enjoyed and the venues he destroyed when he was living out his rock ’n’ roll fantasies.
These days, he’s recapping his history and relationship with the guys in Pantera and discussing the tour that many – including Vinnie Paul – thought would never happen. While he’s occasionally self-deprecating and cracks a few good jokes, Wylde is absolutely reverential to everyone in Pantera and talks far less about himself than about the purpose of the reunion and Dime’s groundbreaking playing.
In addition to addressing how inspiring Dime’s technique was to a legion of fans, he emphasizes how the insight he gained from their friendship keeps him upbeat and motivated today.
“Dime’s attitude was that you should be loving and living life to its fullest every waking moment,” Wylde says. “His and Vinnie’s love for life was totally infectious, and whenever you were around them everything was always positive. Always.”
Following decades of false rumors and dismissed press reports, the first legitimate hint that something was brewing in the Pantera camp came in July 2022, when Billboard reported that Anselmo and Brown were putting together a new Pantera lineup and had signed with Artist Group International to book a North American tour. When it was time to pick fill-ins for Dime and Vinnie, Wylde and Benante were the obvious choices.
Five months later, Pantera played their first show with the new lineup at Mexico’s Monterrey Metal Fest with Judas Priest. Just as fans in the U.S. were getting antsy wondering when Pantera would rock North America, Metallica announced Pantera as their opening act for a batch of shows that are likely to be some of the biggest concerts of the year. Pantera have also announced headline gigs with Lamb of God and festival appearances in Europe.
Sitting in his studio in Los Angeles a few weeks after a Black Label Society tour with Anthrax, Wylde must feel like a medal-decorated Olympic athlete about to head into his best event. Having won over any skeptics with his fiery, heartfelt performances at the late-2022 dates in Latin America – which were less a trial run and more a trial by fire – Wylde is feeling confident and relaxed.
Perched before a wall of at least 35 variously colored hanging Wylde Audio Odin Barbarian and Odin Grail guitars, wearing a black ski hat and matching “1998 Black Label Society” sweatshirt (the year he formed the band) and thoughtfully stroking his viking beard, Wylde is effectively out of BLS mode and in the zone for the next round of Pantera shows, which begin in a week, with two dates at the Loud Park Festival in Osaka and Tokyo, Japan.
Black Label Society recently completed two legs of a tour with Anthrax. Did that give you an opportunity to do some jamming with drummer Charlie Benante in preparation for the Pantera tour?
“No, because once you get on the road there’s no time to hang out and go sightseeing. Charlie was actually thinking about it. When we did the first tour with Anthrax and Black Label, we were in Vegas having coffee in the morning and Charlie comes up to me and goes, ‘Zakk, you think we can get together and work on some stuff?’
“And I’m like, ‘It’s not gonna happen, bro. Just stop. We’ll worry about that when we go to New Orleans.’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, but while we’re on tour we could get a practice room and…’ And I go, ‘No, dude. We’re not gonna get together and jam before I get up on stage with Black Label. I don’t even do sound checks with Black Label. It was funny. I said, ‘Charlie, you’re better off practicing to the records than waiting around for me to go over stuff with you.’”
Couldn’t you have made the time to do it once or twice just to get your feet wet?
“Bro, once the day gets rolling, we’ve got all these things to do, and before we know it we’re onstage again. The running joke is – whether we’re doing three or four shows in a row – as soon as we get up there and Zeppelin and Sabbath are playing over the sound system right before we go on, we’ll do a cheer with the fellas and I’ll go, ‘Didn’t we just do this 20 minutes ago? It feels like we’re back up onstage for the third set of the night!’ So, no, man. There’s no time.”
How long did you rehearse in New Orleans before the first Pantera show?
“We were there for almost two weeks, just so we could go over all the parts and make sure everybody knew the playbook. It worked out really great. We just made sure everything fit in the right pocket and everyone was on the same wavelength.”
Was there a learning curve before you found the right groove?
“Not really, because we’ve all been doing this for so long. I think it’s the same way with anything when you’re dealing with professionals. Whether it’s football teams, baseball teams, bands. You got other players in there that know what they’re doing and how to play the game.
“If you take [wide receiver] Jerry Rice [who was best known for playing on the San Francisco 49ers] and put him on the New England Patriots – so that now he’s with [former quarterback] Tom Brady – once him and Brady go over the routes it’s just like, ‘Okay, Tom, just throw me the ball. I’ll be there.’ He knows the game well enough to play with anybody. It’s the same with music. You learn the plays and then do what you gotta do.”
Did you already know how to play all the songs?
“It’s so funny that people think I’d already played all these songs. On the first Anthrax/Black Label run we did, [bassist] Frankie Bello was like, ‘Zakk, you know all the parts, right?’ I go, ‘No, I don’t know any of the parts. Why would I?’ It’s like if Dime agreed to fill in for me doing a run with Ozzy and I asked him, ‘Hey, can you come up right now and play the solo to No More Tears, Miracle Man or Stillborn?” He’d be like, ‘Well, I’ve heard the songs, but that doesn’t mean I know how to play ’em. First I gotta learn ’em!’ You have to practice, and you have to work on it to get everything right.”
Was it easy to learn Dime’s parts?
“Some of them. But I had to go to YouTube for a batch of stuff if I couldn’t figure it out. That was definitely a massive help. And then there were still about two or three things where Rex went, ‘Nah, you’re slightly off. Do this’ – whatever it was. And I’m like, ‘Oh, okay. I got it now.’”
What was the greatest challenge?
“The hardest thing wasn’t learning them; it was learning the proper way to play them so they sound like Dime – because everybody’s gonna play certain things their own way. I remember when I used to play [Rush’s] The Spirit of Radio, I learned it on the B string and the G string, and I had to do this big stretch. My guitar teacher was like, ‘No, no, Zakk. It’s all open strings. It’s on the second fret on the E and the B.’ That was way easier.
“I remember reading an article with Al Di Meola years ago, and he was saying that when he was learning all this hybrid chicken pickin’ stuff, he was going, ‘Man, how do they do that?’ There are all these string jumps and he’s just using a pick [instead of his fingers].
“He said, ‘Looking back on it, learning it incorrectly helped me with my picking immensely.’ So no matter how you do it, it’s really just a matter of sitting and learning it. You just work on it until you can do it and it sounds right.”
What was your favorite Pantera part to learn?
“The actual riff that Dime jammed on for Cowboys from Hell was very cool. I don’t know if Dime was doing a finger exercise when he came up with that, or he was just jamming and noodling on and on the way Slash put together Sweet Child O’ Mine – but it’s a really great pattern. Speaking of Al Di Meola, it’s almost like something he would do, but the way Dime presented it, it was totally metal.”
A lot of people, including artists that have covered it, have played it wrong.
“I mean, there’s several ways you could play it and it’s still the same if it sounds the same. But it’s definitely a signature Dimebag lick.”
Were you surprised when Metallica offered you the main opening slot on their tour – or was that in the works for a long time?
“I have no idea about any of that stuff. I just show up whenever we get these dates in. It’s like being a Navy Seal. You get your orders, and you go, ‘We gotta go kill some bad guys. Let’s do it!’ But no, it’s great, without a doubt. We’re friends with all those guys, so it’ll be a good time.”
Pantera formed in 1981 as teenagers. Were you a fan back when they were releasing their own albums, or did you discover them later in their career?
“When we were doing the Pride and Glory stuff [in 1994], our drummer Brian Tichy was really into checking out new stuff. He turned me on to Pantera, Soundgarden and other cool bands. So I heard [Pantera’s] Walk and Mouth for War and I loved them. And then I heard I’m Broken ’cause it was on Headbanger’s Ball.”
When did you first meet Dime?
“We played the 1994 Monsters of Rock show at Castle Donington in England. Aerosmith was headlining and Extreme was on the bill. But then you had Sepultura and Pantera. We opened the show, so then we got to watch all the other bands and hang out. That’s when we met all the guys in Pantera. They were awesome guys and, to me, they were the new breed.
“People always ask me, ‘What was Dime’s legacy?’ I always think of Dime in the same way I think of Tony Iommi. He’s just beyond – and loved, obviously. We all love King Edward [Van Halen] And Saint [Randy] Rhoads and everything they did with their chops. But I think Pantera is the benchmark for what they did with insanely heavy metal, kind of how Black Sabbath is the benchmark for hard, riff-driven stuff and just heaviness in general. As far as his riffs and his playing go, I think Dime sits at the table with Tony Iommi.”
Dime didn’t just play with speed and flair; he and the rest of the band were incredibly tight.
“If you’re talking about the sound of Pantera, a lot of that comes because of Dime’s love for Eddie and Randy. The playing is rooted in precision. It’s not sloppy. When you listen to punk, it’s all about aggression. You’re not worried about it being super-tight or musically complicated. You just want the aggression, and the slop that’s there is part of the flavor. But with Pantera, between Vinnie’s drumming and Rex’s tight basslines, along with Dime’s incredible playing, which is also so tight, the band is just a fine-tuned precision instrument.”
Aside from being so tight, what was Dime’s greatest gift as a guitarist?
“The way he played and his core choice of sounds. A lot of them are just for dissonance purposes, and it sounds dirty and nasty, and it screams, but that’s the flavor you want in the soup. There’s a lot of thought and planning that went into the way he chose to go from one chord to another in unexpected ways, and it totally works in every song. Everything he did worked, which is pretty incredible.”
How long was it after you met Pantera at Castle Donington that you and Dime became tight?
“He was super-cool to me from the start. He knew who I was because I had played with Ozzy. But really, our friendship started with us being huge fans of a lot of the same bands and talking about music. We’d always talk about the guitar players we loved and why we loved them.”
There are legendary stories about you partying with Dime and tearing up shit. Is that what solidified your friendship? Or was it more a matter of being in the same industry, talking about guitarists and music?
“It was a combination of everything. Between the playing, the drinking, how we matched our stilettos and our fishnets with our eyeliner and our rouge – all the typical stuff that brings fellas together. [Laughs]”
Did you jam with Dime over the years?
“No. Why would we do that? It cuts into drinking time. [Laughs] Let’s see. We could be at an Irish pub somewhere laughing our asses off or we could be working on writing some new music. Hmmmm. I think we’ll be at the Irish pub! [Laughs] “Seriously, man. There was no time to jam. They live in Texas. I was out in California. Whenever we got together it was just to have a good time.”
What’s the first great drinking story you remember with Dime?
“Dude, if I remembered it then it wouldn’t be great. When we started hanging out, of course, we drank, but most of the time drinking with Dime would be over the phone. We talked on the phone all the time for several hours just drinking away. We’d make each other cry, we’d be laughing so hard. But every time we got together it was always hilarious – nothing but pure comedy. And sometimes we caused some mayhem.”
“One time, I was down at Dime’s house and it was like a lost Weekend at Bernie’s down there. I had to make sure I got a flight home to Newark [airport in New Jersey] to help Barbaranne, my wife, with our two newborn kids. They were 15 months apart and they were in strollers. I end up in this drunken debacle, and of course, I miss the flight home.
“So Barb is with the babies and they’re crying and I’m not there. So yeah, Barb wasn’t a happy camper for that one. Dime smoothed that one over for me so she wouldn’t yell at me too much. She’s not gonna yell at Dime. He was my guardian angel on that one – my ‘get out of jail free’ card.”
There’s a great story about Pantera trashing producer Terry Date’s rental cars. You had a similar experience with Dime once and you wound up crashing a 4x4 through fences by the road and doing donuts on people’s property, yes?
“That was complete and total insanity. I thought it was a rental car the whole time and it turned out to be his buddy’s truck that we trashed. [Dime’s wife] Rita had to do some damage control and put out some fires on that one. Pretty much whatever we did – and you can see a lot of the kinds of practical jokes on the Vulgar Videos they released – it was all just tons of silliness and stupidity. And thank God, nobody got hurt.”
Dime and Vinnie had a reputation for being extremely generous. People close to them say the Christmas parties they threw at their dad’s house were legendary and guests would get showered with gifts before they left. Did Dime ever give you an amazing present for Christmas or your birthday?
“Oh, man, it didn’t have to be Christmas or Easter or Thanksgiving. Dime would just pop up all the time and give people gifts. If he knew you were a Judas Priest fan and he got a copy of their new box set before it came out, he would just give it to you. He was Santa Claus with a pink beard. That was one of his nicknames.”
What was your favorite gift from Dime?
“It would have to be the Dean guitars. I’m probably going to break out two of them on this upcoming run, which will be pretty cool.”
Some say Dime and Vinnie were larger than their music. Were they larger than life?
“Oh, man. If you think about them or you want to celebrate them, then treat every day like it’s a Friday or Saturday night because that’s what they did. Don’t feel sorry for yourself for 10 minutes, five minutes, five seconds. You should not be bumming about anything for even one second because that’s not gonna fix anything anyway. They were always having fun and they were hysterical. They videotaped everything, and looking back it’s all just Benny Hill comedy reels.”
Did you ever see Dime when he was down?
“No, not in person. The only time was when we used to talk on the phone back when he was starting Damageplan. He was upset about Pantera. They had worked so hard to get to where they did and then it all ended, and he basically had to start over again with Damageplan. He was like, ‘Zakk, what am I gonna do?’ That was the only time I ever knew when he was upset or down.”
What did you say to him?
“I was just like, ‘Dude, you’re like Eddie or Randy to so many kids out there. You gotta take that gift and just carry on.’ I had a famous shot of Randy, where he was sitting there looking into the mirror, practicing guitar. So, I sent it to Dime when he was making that Damageplan record and I said, ‘Whenever you’re feeling down, just look at this picture for inspiration.’ Aside from that, he was always a powerful light and a force of positivity.”
There was an incredible connection between Dime and Vinnie, and that was a big part of Pantera’s chemistry. They were closer than brothers.
“Yeah, well, almost. I remember telling Eddie Van Halen, ‘Ed, you should check out this band Pantera. Dime and Vin are kind of like you and Alex. They’re brothers, and they love you guys.’ And he was like, ‘Oh, yeah? Sounds cool.’ But definitely, man, they were family. They were close, they had chemistry, and that’s always gonna be there in the music.”
Dime was your best friend. How did his death affect you?
“It was definitely crazy. They had played Seattle [on November 14, 2004] and then they were in Ohio [where Dime was murdered on December 8]. They were scheduled to go to L.A. from there. Not long before the Ohio thing, I spoke to Dime and he said, ‘I’ll see you in about two weeks!’ And I went, ‘Alright, cool, man. We’ll all have a good time.’ And then, suddenly, we’re in fuckin’ bizarre land.
“I was going to see him soon and suddenly… It was just weird. I remember talking to Vinnie when we were down in Australia in 2014, and he said, ‘Zakk, I can’t believe it. My brother’s almost been gone for 10 years.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know. It’s crazy, man. It’s just crazy.’ And now Vinnie’s [been] gone [for almost five years].
“It just goes to show you how every day is a gift. It really is. Not that you need to see your friends pass away to realize how precious life is. But it’s the truth. Every day is a gift.”
There were reports back in 2014 that you, Phil and Rex wanted to play a reunion tour with Vinnie.
“I told Vinnie and the fellas, ‘If you guys ever wanted to do it, of course I would be there for you to support you and to support Dime. Just tell me what I need to learn and I’ll learn it.’ There were all these conversations circling around.”
How close did it come to happening?
“I think it was pretty close, but you’d have to ask Phil and Rex exactly what happened – whether they got into an argument or something – I don’t know. I’m friends with all of those guys, and I said, ‘It’s none of my business. I’m just here for you if you want me involved.’”
Do you know if Vinnie ever made peace with Phil?
“I have no idea where Vinnie was with Phil back then. Like I said, I don’t get involved with that stuff. I’m not saying this [group of performers] is Pantera. I just want to honor Dime and the band. It’s like asking Eric Clapton, ‘If Mitch [Mitchell] and Noel [Redding] said, Would you honor Jimi and go out and play and sing with us?,’ of course Clapton’s gonna say yes. It’s not even a matter of saying yes. You have to do this. So if they ask you to do it, you do it.”
Considering how much bad blood there was for so long, how did this finally end up happening? How did you get involved in what has turned out to be the greatest possible tribute to Pantera?
“It was easy. Phil called me up and said, ‘Hey, Zakky, you want to go out and honor Dime and Vinnie?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, when do you want to do it?’ And that was it. We talked about it for a while and then we all got on a group chat and talked about what songs we were gonna do and the tunings and everything like that.”
What’s the highlight for you in terms of doing these songs?
“Just keeping them alive and paying tribute to Dime and Vinnie and Pantera. I just look at it this way. I [imagine] Dime and Vinnie are with us and we’re at the House of Blues, and we say, ‘Wait ’til you see this early birthday present we got you guys.’ And they’re figuring it’s gonna be the ultimate Kiss tribute band because they love Kiss.
“The curtain opens up, and it’s me and Charlie playing their stuff with Rex and Phil! They’d be going, ‘I can’t believe what I’m seeing right now!’ They’d be on the floor crying, laughing, high-fiving each other, going, ‘This is hilarious. The guys actually took the time to learn our stuff.’ I know they’d be having the best time. And I can just hear Dime saying, ‘Holy shit, Zakk bought a Whammy pedal for this!’”
Do you ever feel Dime and Vinnie’s presence?
“All the time. And it’s so crazy because when we started talking about doing this thing, there would be constant reminders about it wherever I went. I told Barb, ‘Dime is willing this thing to happen. He wants this to happen.’ I’d just get constant reminders of him all the time, whether it was a picture or something on my phone, or I’d be driving and I’d see a Pantera license plate or a ‘333’ somewhere – that was Dime’s lucky number. I was literally going, ‘He’s watching and he’s here with me.’”
Dimebag was a guitar hero. You’re a guitar hero. But no matter who you are, it’s hard to step into someone else’s shoes – especially when there are people out there who don’t want that. Was there ever a moment when you thought it would be too hard physically or emotionally to get up there and play Pantera songs?
“When Pantera released Far Beyond Driven, I asked Dime why he wrote such aggressive riffs, and if he’s a really angry person inside. He said, ‘Dude, I’m not angry about anything.’ I realized Dime and Vinnie were literally the Van Halen side of the band – exciting, energetic and always ready for a good time – and Phil’s lyrics and vocals made the music darker and more vicious. And the contrast was amazing.
“When you look at the bands we love – whether it’s the Beatles, the Stones, Zeppelin, Sabbath, Cream – when you look at them, every one of them had this special chemistry. With Van Halen, you got Eddie and then you got Dave [Lee Roth]. And it’s just a perfect combination. But if you took John Bonham and put him in Black Sabbath, and you took Bill Ward and put him in Led Zeppelin, you’d have two completely different bands.
“And then imagine putting Robert Plant in Black Sabbath and Ozzy in Led Zeppelin. Completely different. When you talk about all these amazing musicians we love, if you mixed and matched them, it’s crazy to think of what the outcomes might have been like. Pantera were four guys that were a perfect fit for each other – all of them – when they came to the table and made that soup. And for a while it was the best of all possible worlds.”