Fifteen years into their career but having never before performed in Asheville, the legendary Brian Jonestown Massacre played to a very enthusiastic, about three-quarter- full Orange Peel crowd Wednesday night.
A certain number of curiosity seekers probably came perhaps wanting to see if the band was going to fall to pieces, or if principal singer/songwriter Anton Newcombe was going to turn into a werewolf and attack the audience; the crowd thinned out a few songs into the set. But the bulk remained spellbound and joyous throughout two-plus hours of the eight-piece band’s ebbing and flowing modern psychedelia.
Coming a year after the release of My Bloody Underground, the band’s challenging 2008 LP, this tour seems both well-timed and well adjusted. Returning members of the band’s best-known lineup added interest. An across-the-board setlist hit many (but by no means all) of the better songs from their several LPs and EPs. This tour seems to be a classy goodwill and revenue-generating jaunt across the U.S., and a chance to encounter the band on purely musical terms.
The return of Matt Hollywood (secondary songwriter and singer from 1994 to 1998) for the first time in a decade, is a real plus – Hollywood’s more conventional, catchy power pop numbers give balance to Newcombe’s impressionistic mood pieces. Even if it’s difficult sometimes to distinguish between, say “Got My Eye on You” and “Last Dandy on Earth”, because they kind of are the same song, it’s a really good song, so I was glad to hear it again.
Similarly, tambourine player Joel Gion, who returned to the band about a year ago, adds visual interest (in the form of actual on-stage movement), a grounding that gives the viewer something to look at during the two hour plus set – which would otherwise be mostly looking at six or seven guys in t-shirts “grinding it out” on guitar. Plus, of course, the tambourine/maraca nexus of polyrhythmic percussing should never be chided or derided. This role, called Gionin’ or Natstanovitchin’ (depending on if you’re a BJTM fan or a Pavement fan) in the indie rock world, is falling on hard times in our current economic climate, so let’s please say a little prayer for the tambouriners of the world and hope they manage to survive the current recession.
Newcombe kept to the side of the stage but was always at the center of music, blasting out his cool, contemplative, abstract guitar solos or serenading the crowd with his California Cockney singing style on favorites like “Wisdom,” “Anemone,” “Maybe Tomorrow” and “Satellite”.
The whole band sounded great. With up to five (!) guitars churning away onstage, the result was neither a mind-numbing wall of sound nor an indistinct and muddy mess. And while it wasn’t always possible to distinguish who was adding which part to which song, the textures and atmospheres were always appropriate. I especially liked the double electric 12-string action.
To tell you the truth, I am a bigger fan of the band’s ragged, thrown together 60’s sound of their 1996-1997 albums than I am of their more lush, dreamy, Bloody Valentine-ier works of the 21st Century (although I will note that many fans consider 2001’s Bravery, Repetition and Noise their masterpiece), and so, although I am well aware this is a matter of personal preference (I am, if nothing else, so 20th Century), I would have preferred a little more musical chaos and spontaneity. But judging from the crowd response, I’m in the minority. And I am in no way faulting the playing of the band, the sonic result, or denying the chummy vibe that descended over the room while they were onstage. So if it somehow seemed a little too well-adjusted that probably says more about me than them. Good for the Brian Jonestown Massacre for getting themselves together. I look forward to their continued adventures.
After the concert was over, I went up the street to the New French Bar to check out the Strange Boys. This band of Austin rockers have just put out their first album Strange Boys and Girls Club, on In the Red Records. This was their fourth Asheville appearance in the last couple years, and they have quite an enthusiastic group of local supporters.
What everyone talks about with the Strange Boys is how young they are, and with the image of Matt Hollywood wearing an “Old Fart” T-shirt on stage fresh in my head, the Strange Boys’ youngesse was indeed hard to get over. Especially since their sound, with its swingin’ drums, speedy tempos, and entwined rhythm and blues licking guitars, has at its core the first five Rolling Stones albums (you know, the really good ones), recorded maybe 25-plus years before these guys were even born.
They play their white R&B with a modern, early-Black-Lips-style disregard for uptight conventional song structure, never forgetting the music’s essential purpose of social wig-wagging for the sake of the pose. They played stageless, right up in the crowd, who were quickly dancing in the band’s face, ripped out the odd cover (I would personally like to thank them for Link Wray’s “Fuzz”), blasted barely audible vocals through an agreeably low-budget PA and played almost as many songs as the Brian Jonestown Massacre did, all in a 30 minute set. This was a healthy and useful contrast to the big rock show I’d just stood through and a reminder of how much the Devil blessed the world when he gave us the Rolling Stones.
As I walked down the Biltmore Avenue back to my car after the Strange Boys were done, I caught a few minutes of the Screamin’ Jays, who have a regular Wednesday night residency at Mo Daddy’s. They sounded wonderful at 1:30 a.m., echoing all over the southern edges of downtown, playing a boogified version of Roy Orbison’s old Sun number “Go! Go! Go!” (I think. It was late.)
Rounding the corner of Biltmore and Hilliard, I happened upon the Brian Jonestown Massacre putting their gear in their RV and trailer. One of the guitarists was leaning over the Orange Peel’s railing, puking his guts out. Another member of the band chided, “Nice load out, dude!” That pretty much wrapped up my night. In rock ‘n roll world, it’s nice to know that well-adjusted is a relative concept after all.