For about a decade now, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club has been riding the indie-rock scene, hiding behind a wall of smoke, black on black, with a sound that resurrects the 1990’s shoegazey style, mixes in a bit of folk and Cajun, and then kicks it in the ass and expects it to rock on its own. Never ones to pander to the mainstream, or even to the audience, BRMC have had few radio hits, and yet they’ve sold their five full-length albums (well), and they fill large venues (consistently), on the strength of their sound alone. Well, and maybe with some serious coolness thrown in.
Band of Skulls opened the show, and they sounded as classic rock as we remembered them from the last Lollapalooza. That’s not to say they don’t do it just fine, but… yawn.
On tour to support Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s new Beat the Devil’s Tattoo, the trio has a new drummer, Leah Shapiro, to replace Nick Jago. Shapiro, formerly of the Ravonettes, does a fine job of keeping the pulses racing and upholding that seriously predatory beat of BRMC on the new CD. But was that her playing live on the 23rd? We couldn’t tell through the fog, but it sure looked like a man. In any case, few drummers get front and center, and in this band, they’re all hiding out, at least a little bit.
When BRMC took the stage at about 9:15, they opened with two new numbers that felt familiar enough to ground us in their traditional sound, even if we didn’t know the words. The third song, though, struck home—it was the seriously sexy “Red Eyes and Tears.” Something about this particular live delivery, in the hard white lights, weirdly accelerated that creepy and compelling ending, “No more for you my love I kill, No more kill, no more kill, I’m in love…”
Guitarist, vocalist Peter Hayes
Bassist, vocalist, pianist Robert Levon Been did all the talking between songs, which was to say, only a few words were said: “It’s good to be back with you all. It’s been a long time.” With the rabidly anticipated Beat the Devil’s Tattoo, BRMC appears to be walking the line now, between the folksiness of Howl (which seems better-appreciated by fans as time goes on) and the plugged in, psychedelia of the early albums. New songs, such as “Bad Blood,” have that familiar fuzzy and throbbing bass, with Robert’s taunting voice, only a happier melody than expected. The lyrics seem to be as dark as ever though, and the politics continue with an anti-nationalistic feel we can fully get behind in these confusing political times.
Been played his bass with a non-standard tuning throughout the show; that’s evidently just one of his secrets to this unique sound. The band played a private acoustic show for Vintage Vinyl customers early that afternoon in the Halo Bar, but one had to have the difficult mix of an already-purchased ticket, a new CD from Vintage Vinyl, and the afternoon off of work to make it happen. Sadly, this writer couldn’t pull that off.
The title track is a chain-gang kind of durge rhythm that’s seriously rocked-up with some great guitar and those in-your-face, make-you-think lyrics: Everyone is king when there’s no one left to pawn. Old songs we haven’t heard much live, like “Shade of Blue,” off the first album, kept the audience pleased. Meanwhile, new tracks such as “Aya” were almost dizzying bright spots in the live show, as the lights visually emphasized the rising melodies. Lest you think BRMC’s gotten too pretty sounding—fear not. There is always that primitive, deep thump rooting the tune. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is very primal, without being savage; very masculine without being cock rock.
“Ain’t No Easy Way Out,” another one from Howl, got the floor dancing and even thrashing a bit, which is funny as it’s as about down-home Americana as you can get. Still, they amped it up some with more electric guitar, and the familiarity of it felt good to the crowd. “Berlin,” from the last album, got the crowd pumped, and they whipped it up into “Weapon of Choice,” which felt even more appropriate to the time than when it first came out.
The band took a break for Robert to do a solo performance—not the expected and beloved “Windows,” but something more surprising and literary: Edgar Allen Poe’s “Annabelle Lee,” set to piano music. Simply stunning. A woman was later brought on stage to do the backing vocals on a country-number, and really, that was the only disappointment. It was just too slow and too country. My companion turned to me and said, “More rock and roll, please.”
“Spread Your Love” immediately met that request, with the high point of the show being “Whatever Happened To My Rock and Roll?” This was hardcore, infinitely fun, and energy-driven. The whole building was shaking in climax, and this song alone would have been worth the price of the ticket. Was this two-hour set BRMC’s best show ever? Probably not. But it was still twenty times better than anyone else who will play this year.
Other great moments were “Sympathetic Noose,” “Shuffle Your Feet,” “Six Barrel Shotgun,”“Rifles,” and “666 Conducer.” “American X” was the same hypnotic and trancy jam it is on the album, and felt a little too long (as it does on the album), but really, no one was complaining. “Open Invitation” was done in what felt like a capella—a very stripped-down, perfectly harmonized vocal showcase with the perfect closing lyrics: ”All you left me’s gone away tomorrow / And we may never be here again / And we may never be here again.”
Please God, don’t let that be true. Robert Levon Been then sauntered up to the mic, and said in his low-key way, “Take care of each other, all right? See you soon,” walked off stage with the band, and left us standing alone in the light.
Top picture: Robert Levon Been, bass, vocals, piano. Pictures by Julia Gordon-Bramer