Three Imaginary Girls

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Long review. Longer show.

Sunday night is a rough night for a rock and roll show, as the weekend has generally taken its toll by then, but the Showbox filled up early for Austin’s The Black Angels, who stepped in to replace the Horrors and the Fratellis on this part of the BRMC tour. As interested as I was in seeing the two bands-o-dropouts, I think the Black Angels were a much better match in vibe for the headliners.

I’ve been sporadically listening to the Black Angels debut LP, Passover, for a little while and like it quite a bit, but this was my first live experience with them. From their first notes, the mood was set: deliciously dark and lasciviously lysergic. They make the kind of music the term psychedelic (and you know I love that term) was born to describe. On record singer Alex Maas recalled for me the Gun Club’s tragic and gifted frontman Jeffrey Lee Pierce, but live he managed to convey a presence more akin to Jim Morrison, simultaneously introverted and yet out in front selling the songs with great verve… and speaking of “verve,” he had a vocal timbre in similar to I-still-refuse-to-use-the-legally-mandated-“The” Verve’s Richard Ashcroft.

The Black Angels photo by Jason GrimesBy the second song into the set, “The Prodigal Son,” their second guitarist switched to a floor tom (a move repeated oft through the evening) enhancing the Doors/tribal comparison. The pounding drums became hypnotic, mantra-like, but led to no release. In fact, it often felt like all songs were played at one tempo, which was simultaneously enrapturing, but also a bit frustrating. The throb of the rhythm section along with the dense guitar/keyboard mix gave the band a very charged sexuality playing live that I never picked up on while listening to the album, but which, when combined with the monotonous tempos, left me just shy of an, ahem, expected climax (which usually never happens to me, I swear…). Still, the long build was ultimately quite satisfying, as throughout the opening set the room was filled with a wash of sound, fluid leadlines erupting into wah-wah’d sheets of noise, reminiscent of Spacemen 3 and Loop as much as, and often more than, the original 60’s psychedelics to which they are often compared (and even more to my liking as it were). The Black Angels added punch live drove me back to the record with greater appreciation for the songs and served as a great table-setter for Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.

In the name of full disclosure, I’m a huge BRMC fan. Sunday was the sixth time I’ve seen them live, and it was one of the best performances I’ve ever seen them give.

First, a little background… I’ve always been a “first album” kind of guy, not just for BRMC, but for most bands. I generally find that a band’s first album, over the long haul, turns out to be my favorite. And really, why shouldn’t it be a band’s best work? They’ve had their whole lives to write a dozen songs, then for each subsequent album they get a year or two to come up with 12 more. The odds favor stronger material appearing on the first one. There are, of course, plenty of exceptions to this, but generally that’s the way it follows.

BRMC came out strong on their self-titled first, which is certainly one of my top five favorite albums so far this century. They managed to combine shoegaze, post-punk, and garage rock (arguably my three favorite genres) into a potent stew of Rock And Freakin’ Roll. They then lapsed into the Sophomore Slump by most accounts with Take Them On, On Your Own. I find this to be an underrated work, but it does in many ways feel like a slightly lesser version of the first album. This was followed by the Difficult Third Album, Howl, which came on the heels of falling out of favor with their label and internal problems which resulted in the removal (though he was eventually reinstated) of drummer Nick Jago and left many fans to restate the question BRMC so prominently and fervently asked aloud on their first album… “Whatever Happened to My Rock and Roll?” On Howl they abandoned their louder stylings for a more blues and Americana based acoustic sound. The songs were still good, and generally well received critically, but left some fans feeling a bit confused and disappointed, myself included.

History lesson over, we arrive at the present release, Baby 81, which feels like a real culmination of all that has come before. It’s a great step forward; the rock of the first two albums returning, but with the added depth and dimension of quieter, more moody works in line with Howl. It has a couple of jump-out-at-you tracks, but becomes more and more rewarding in its entirety on repeat listenings. Baby 81 introduces some brand new tricks to the mix as well, and I was looking forward to seeing how it would all come together in a live setting. The answer, in a word, wonderfully.

Baby 81 opener “Took Out a Loan” opens the set with much more energy and life than the song manages to find in its recorded form. The second song of the show, and the second on the new album, “Berlin” follows, leading me to worry (however briefly) that we might get a straight reading of the album. In the case of “Berlin” that would be more than welcome. It’s one of the aformentioned jump-out-at-you tracks on the album (it just has to be the next single) with it’s catchy “suicide’s easy/what happened to the revolution” chorus, and it has even more punch onstage. Then shifting gears into the past, first album classic “Spread Your Love” bounces forth, having lost none of the power it wielded the first time I heard it, with it’s pronounced glam stomp. It’s quite probably my favorite BRMC track.

Watching closely, one starts to get a feel for the dynamic between the co-fronts Peter Hayes and Robert Levon Been fairly quickly at a BRMC show, with Peter all menacing cool; his dead-eyed stare gives the appearance that he’d be just as happy eating your first-born male child as playing a rock and roll show (strange, since he seems so pleasant and personable in offstage conversation… gee, I hope I didn’t just ruin some of his dark mystique). Robert, on the other hand, is all edgy energy, unable to stay very long in one spot, an absolute joy to watch, while behind the kit Nick remarkably holds it all together. Whatever differences off stage they have/do suffer through, onstage they are stop-on-a-dime tight.

Rolling on, “Lien on Your Dreams” follows, with the only representative from Take Them On, the “Whatever Happened to My Rock and Roll” of that album “Six Barrel Shotgun,” after it. The first single from Baby 81, “Weapon of Choice,” roars out and proves itself a worthy choice to re-announce the bands presence to the world as it crackles with even more energy than expected, and brings the understated politicality of the band a little closer to the front with it’s call that “I won’t waste my love on a nation.” Back to the first album with, back-to-back, “Whatever Happened…” and the intensely moody “Red Eyes and Tears.” Their maturity and expanded repertoire starts to show as Robert slides over to play piano on the very Supertramp-only-more-rocking sounding “Window” (if only it was Fender Rhodes). Continuing on those lines Robert stays put and Peter picks up a trombone(!?!) for “Promise” from Howl. “Not What You Wanted” has a very uplifting feeling and makes me think of John Hughes movie soundtracks for some strange reason. The way those three songs in particular seamlessly mix into their more “typical” songs stand as a clear example of how BRMC has managed to show artistic growth, diversifying their sound, without sacrificing any of their own strengths or changing their voice.

BRMC photo by Jason GrimesIt’s back to basics then, though, as “666 Conducer” comes off like a “Red Eyes…” redux live (though, strangely, not so much on the record), and is followed by the self-titled LP’s lead track “Love Burns,” which still, as with “Spread Your Love,” holds a lot of power even after the intervening years. The set closes with Peter trading his guitar for Robert’s bass and Robert taking over lead duties on “Need Some Air” and “American X.”

I’ve always been impressed with the way that even as Peter and Robert switch off guitar and bass duty, the songs stay very cohesive, their playing styles on each instrument distinct but very in tune with one another. Generally I notice when bands pull the old switcheroo, different personalities palpably manifest themselves in the instrumental performance, but I never find that the case with BRMC. That being said, “Need Some Air” almost sounds like BRMC playing mid-era Ministry with it’s live aggression, and pounds at the audience like few before it in the BRMC catalog, the guitars, which are somewhat restrained on Baby 81, tearing into the crowd with real ferocity. As set closers go, “American X” seems born for the task, epic in scale with a siren-like lead line calling the audience to arms for the big finale. Though the actual finale was yet to come.

Fifteen songs is a damn long set, but, as is the proper rock and roll tradition, it’s not really a show without an encore. After a brief exit (at least they didn’t keep us waiting… I hate it when bands do that), Peter rejoins the fray armed with his acoustic and a harmonica for a couple from Howl, “Faultline” and album standout “Devil’s Waitin’,” both songs holding the rapturous attention of the still-very-full room (which in and of itself was amazing to me… I’ve been watching fools walkout on encores in this town for years). Robert steps back into the spotlight for what he says is a non-LP track called “Mercy,” wondering aloud why it never made the record (it was on the Howl Sessions EP though if you want to hunt it down… I’m not sure if that was an official release or not). It’s not a bad tune, but I’ll tell you why, Robert, it didn’t make the cut: it runs on and on and doesn’t seem to have any particular destination, which I was beginning to fear was where this show was heading; in spite of how much I was enjoying the performance, it was becoming a marathon. Some well-earned rewards were right around the corner, though, after the Dylan-esque “Complicated Situation” from Howl (noticing a trend here?). “Ain’t No Easy Way,” the single and most accessible (not too mention my favorite) song from Howl follows, enhanced by Robert strolling behind the kick drum as he plays guitar for some added percussion (by now Nick has clearly gone missing, commented on by Peter, and apparently/allegedly due to some sort of reaction to something he ate). That treat is followed by another, a Bob Dylan cover, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” I love hearing other artists do Dylan songs, because I believe, virtually without question, he was the greatest American (or possibly greatest period) songwriter of the last 50 years, but I CANNOT deal with his vocals. And as covers go, this one hits the tone spot on, a real highlight of the set. Twenty-two songs in and the set finally closes with Howl’s lead track “Shuffle Your Feet,” which is all I can do as I leave exhausted, but ultimately more than satisfied. Everyone gets their money’s worth out of this one.

“Who Knows If I’ll See You Again?” Bet on it, guys… I’ll be back next time your in town. It’s great to see artists you admire step up their game. And now I can’t wait for the next album, either.

1 “Took Out a Loan”

2 “Berlin”

3 “Spread Your Love”

4 “Lien on Your Dreams”

5 “Six Barrel Shotgun”

6 “Weapon of Choice”

7 “Whatever Happened to my Rock and Roll”

8 “Red Eyes and Tears”

9 “Window”?

10 “Promise”

11 “Not What You Wanted”

12 “666 Conducer”

13 “Love Burns”

14 “Need Some Air”

15 “American X”?

16 “Faultline”

17 “Devils Waitin”

18 “Mercy.”

19 “Complicated Situation”

20 “Ain’t No Easy Way” Robert behind the kick

21 “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”

22 “Shuffle Your Feet”