“I think I’m doing a shitty job tonight,“Anton Newcombe said more than halfway through a dismal show at Webster Hall. “I wish I weren’t so tired; this is the last show that we’re playing this year.” With that realization, Newcombe, the singer, songwriter, and mastermind behind the Brian Jonestown Massacre, pulled himself together and, for the first time in the night, took control. How ironic that the song that marked his save was “Free and Easy,” a tune that should describe his outlook since becoming an infamous semi-celebrity: “I’m feeling free and easy, feeling easy while I can/ Cause I got no expectations of loving anyone again.”
This time the Brian Jonestown Massacre—whose best songs capture the dreamy delusions of despair—sounded strongest playing acoustic versions of their less-celebrated songs. Usual highlights like “Hide and Seek” and “Nevertheless” sounded uninspired, and recently revived songs like “Nailing Honey to the Bee” were even less interesting. It wasn’t just Newcombe either: as a venue, Webster sucked; the lighting of the show was ugly; and the band sounded a lot less tight than last year. I started to think that maybe a demanding leader is a good thing for a band: last September at the Bowery Ballroom, Newcombe picked on his band members relentlessly and they rose to his challenges. This year, he said he was proud of them, and they sounded slow and sloppy, as if they were going through the motions.
Those who saw the Brian Jonestown Massacre play at the Bowery Ballroom last September caught Anton & co. in a strange moment. Newcombe was just becoming famous (or infamous) because of the music documentary DiG!, and there was a genuine excitement surrounding the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s live show. But, it was also apparent that Newcombe was a man under siege. The first words out of his mouth were, “I’ll fight all of you!”—it was clear that Newcombe felt there were hecklers in the crowd, there only to see him lose control. And, he was probably right.
But, while all that pressure brought out the worst in him, it also brought out the best. That night Newcombe seemed possessed by a vision of all the things his band had to accomplish in order to make the show great. He had a haphazard, forceful way of moving through space; before he was finished with one thing, he was on to the next. This freneticism charged the set, made it inspiring. The show, complete with trademark, reverb-heavy glamour, was exciting.
At Webster Hall, Newcombe—sometimes with accompaniment, but, after the halfway point, rarely with full band—went on to play at least eight more songs, becoming more alert, critical, and just plain better as time went on. “Yeah, that didn’t really work,” he said after one song. “It would have, though, if we practiced like a normal band.”
When Newcombe was improvising, playing mostly acoustic versions of lesser-known songs, he was good. On “Spanish Bee,” he assigned band members clapping parts and both crowd and band seemed to have a blast.
It was a good move for Newcombe to acknowledge when something fell flat, because, although his newfound mellowness may make him more likely to survive in the world, the loss of obsessiveness may have left him less aware of what worked and what didn’t. We didn’t love him then because he was manic, or even brilliant, but because he was quirky and he cared. As my friend said, it seemed at the beginning of the night that something had gotten “way too mellow” with the Brian Jonestown Massacre. But, after “Free and Easy” the show took a turn for the better, and the Massacre ended up playing for three full hours. Once Newcombe realized how unsatisfied he was with the show, he would not stop. He might be a slacker, but when he tries, he still tries hard.
“I’m sorry. I’m not well. I took as many Tylenol as I could throw up. What am I supposed to do? Die? One-quarter of you probably died the minute you decided on your major.”
“Ever since they stole our gear, we haven’t been able to play right. Ever since then, we’ve sounded shitty. That’s okay; I’m not going to let them stop me.”
“You know why? Cause my mom has millions and millions of dollars! I’m like, Mom, lay a golden egg. She’s like, [clucks like a chicken laying an egg].”