Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
The Drunk and the Junkie: A Concert Review in Two Parts
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club had their work cut out for them. April 24th landed the San Francisco cum Los Angeles lads at the Beacon Theatre, one of New York’s most stodgy venues. More symphony than rock & roll, the Theatre sits in the city’s thoroughly vanilla Upper West Side, miles away from the bawdy trickery of Manhattan’s primary rock concert locales. It’s the kind of space where drinking feels out of place, where one dances with caution, where it’s likelier to walk out and happen upon a nice brunch spot than a joint appropriate for post-show reveling. In short, it was exactly the wrong place for the trio to perform their brand of thick, groove-heavy music.
But, true to the triumphant spirit that infuses even their most contemplative songs, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (otherwise known as B.R.M.C) sallied forth with a winner-take-all, burnin’-down-the-house gusto. They did this in light of the venue and a host of other difficulties: whatever it was that caused their set to start late and be cut short; the usual trials that come with being an opening band; and the specter of Spiritualized, a bona fide spectacle that thrives in topping everyone and everything, including their own previous performances. (More on that to come).
Guitarist Peter Hayes, bassist Robert Turner, and drummer Nick Jago grounded that night’s go-getter attitude in Patti Smith, whose “Babelogue” played as the band took position, under minimalist though intense light coming directly from center stage. As Patti asserted her pride at being a musician in the U.S of A (“I’m an American, I’m an American artist,” she repeats at the end), sirens and buzzing drowned out her voice, red light bled down onto the stage, and “Spread Your Love” opened, swagger-licious, onto the crowd. The tune, from B.R.M.C’s eponymous debut (2001, Virgin Records), begins with a fuzzed out bass that’s straight outta late ‘60s psychedelica. Stationed at the stage’s right, Hayes sang the song’s opening lines, “spread your love like a fever,” while taking the words as a directive, bursting forth is a cocky sensuality that was both devil-may-care and devilish.
Starting the night with Patti proved particularly significant for two reasons. First, though B.R.M.C have a number of American influences, it was a love of British rock of the early ‘90s that brought Americans Robert Turner and Peter Hayes together; those roots overpower their music, often causing them to sound like a slightly updated cross between the Stone Roses and the Jesus and Mary Chain. Being so zealously up front about their citizenship (with the exception of Jago, who is from England) was almost ironic, then, since B.R.M.C are possibly the closest thing America’s got to UK-style rockers. Secondly, such a gesture of reckoning with the past seems second nature to their sound—a style that wears its influences on its sleeve, recalling their forerunners at every turn. “Love Burns”, the second song of the evening, was full of Brit-rock bravado and seemed to pay aural homage to stadium greats like the Charlatans. The drums kicked even handedly and fire boiled through Hayes’ guitar lines, bass holding steady and firm.
But music like B.R.M.C’s is as much about atmosphere as it is about delivery, and for that reason the Theatre itself seemed their biggest obstacle. Where the music begged for head bobbing and throbbing masses, the crowd was confined to plush seats with limited room to vibe. It wasn’t really until their last song, “Whatever Happened to My Rock and Roll”, that the tables turned, and then only in part. The number is spectacular and gargantuan, complete with high-flying classic rock guitar solos and lyrics like “I gave my soul to a new religion/ Whatever happened to my rock and roll?” The song, like the genre it pays tribute to, is big, ballsy, bodacious, and brilliant, doing everything you want a “rock song” to do with such unabashed glory that it borders on ridiculous. Live, this was breeding ground for the fantastic. The guys thrashed, hair flying, Turner and Hayes taking turns at the microphones, blazing the lyrics. And while the crowd responded in kind—whooping, cheering, some folks standing up even—something seemed to be missing. It was moshing, drunken hooligans, the fireworks and lighters, the groupies throwing panties on stage, the American flag stitched to the Union Jack, both waving audaciously overhead.
So the question remained—why the Beacon Theatre? Why not someplace raunchier, stickier, more down to earth and organic? Spiritualized came on the stage after a relatively short break to answer that question: because this was their show, and their energy is chemical and celestial. Though fans of one group would likely appreciate the other, in attitude the two couldn’t be more disparate. It’s the difference between the fates of the drunk and the junkie—the former ends up face first in the gutter, the latter face up, eyes toward the stars. Spiritualized’s hold, then, depends on their ability to magnify their spells and mystify their audiences, rather than rule ‘em and school ‘em. (A past trip to New York saw them perform at the historic Riverside Church, and Spiritualized have been known to travel with a full orchestra in tow. So in actuality, the Beacon was a modest pit stop.)
Jason Pierce (a.k.a J. Spaceman) is the nucleus and firebrand of Spiritualized, a band formed in 1989 from the remnants of Spacemen 3. Though his musical vision necessitates tremendous levels of collaboration (reports cite that over 100 musicians were needed to create the colossal sound of Let It Come Down, the band’s 2001 Arista release) he has also severed ties with many partners due to creative frictions and, in 1999, fired all but one of his previous Spiritualized band mates. Let It Come Down‘s Spiritualized had eight members, but only five people joined Spaceman for the live show.
The first song of the night was “Electricity,” a hard-working, brilliant track from Spiritualized’s 1997 release, Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space.. The music erupted, loud and self-assured, intensified by a manic and nearly insane light show of seizure-inducing whites. In contrast, Spaceman and the other players were nearly still, shoegazing like true purveyors of the style. The song’s most thrilling line—an awesome “Turn it on!”—sent the lights up to 10,000 watts, lighting the stage afire, silencing the crowd in mesmerized disbelief.
And because Spiritualized played a nearly seamless set, this awe never dampened. They moved from one song to the next often without a break; in fact, to an unseasoned listener, the entire set could have sounded like three or four incredibly drawn out, multi-part overtures, oscillations between drug-addled peaks, bleakly sober valleys, religious journeys in both directions, all of it punctuated only by shifts in lighting and tempo. And even to a seasoned listener, the show felt like one massive, head-swiveling trip. Spaceman barely spoke, but just shook his head “no” back and forth at the microphone, like the elderly at the front of a Baptist church, their preacher reading from the Good Book and their souls accepting it, waiting to be saved.
The religious allusions are no accident. Throughout Spaceman’s career, he’s been far from shy about spinning tales of hallucinogenic experiences, but since Let It Come Down, Spiritualized has taken up the entire range of that which boggles the mind and transcends the body, including deliverance and salvation. This godlier “high” has increasingly taken hold in the band’s lyrics and songs; gospel overtones and church choirs are all over Let It Come Down and make their presence obvious in song titles like ” Lord Can You Hear Me”. Yes, one might come to a Spiritualized show as interested in hearing The Word as in intensifying a really good buzz.
So there were moments of reckoning, rather than specific songs to marvel at. One: the cascading, pyramiding, voluminous sound of “Out of Sight” (from Let It Come Down) driving the audience to collective shivers, Spaceman’s viscous, beleaguered singing weighing down the lines, with just the right amount of heft and theater. Two: the burning light for “On Fire” (also from Let It Come Down), Spaceman standing like a Joan of Arc, both agonized and reveling by the burning his band mates fueled. Three: the slow, specific twinges on “I Think I’m in Love” (from Ladies and Gentleman) which, like ripples in a pool, expanded beyond their immediate impact. Four: the crowd itself, sick and frenzied, finally driven to rise to their feet, drop to their knees, and beg for more. “Don’t Just Do Something”, which came near the end of the set, was warm and grand, relentlessly pushing, Spaceman and his band mates teasing the notes apart almost brutally. It lunged right into “Come Together”, a convulsing, livid number that pulled even more people off their feet against their will, as Spaceman pressed on the fatalistic lyrics: “Little Johnny’s sad and fucked / First he jumped and then he looked.” Audience members accepted that fate, too, and whatever else Spiritualized had in store for them.
The show closed with a single song encore—“Lord Can You Hear Me”, also the final track off Let It Come Down. There’s really no other way the show could have ended, except for with the Second Coming. Because if there is a god, we all needed him then: as we descended from our highs, we searched for someone to explain the ineffable, to show us how it was that we had borne witness to a miracle. Spiritualized had broken through the Theatre and delivered us to something higher. And that was the ability to be blindly faithful.