[10 October 2005]
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
By the time the audience began shuffling to “Shuffle Your Feet” Black Rebel Motorcycle Club was already three songs into a difficult performance of their three album repertoire. No matter how hard the audience listened and watched and waited, time wasn’t our side. The more country ballads that the band layered on folksy, bluesy riffs and harmonica, the more it felt like I was in the wrong place. My looks of bewilderment were met with equal looks of confusion from my peers, leading me to speculate that I had forgotten to dress appropriately, or even at all. Perhaps this wasn’t the same Black Rebel Motorcycle Club who’s fast-paced, menacingly distorted, effects-driven albums used to escort me, swaggering, to work.
Who knows, maybe being dropped by their label (Virgin) made these boys reexamine their ethos. Apparently they had many bitter experiences to draw from for “Howl”, released on in August by Red Ink and Echo. Departing from the tried and trusted “The Jesus & Mary Chain formula”—used to produce 2001’s self-titled “Black Rebel Motorcycle Club” and 2003’s “Take Them On, On Your Own,”—“Howl” caught many by surprise. In a straw poll of assorted Irving Plaza patrons, reactions to the new material ranged from raised eyebrows to suggestions that the group consider a name change to the “Bluegrass Rebel Motorcycle Club.”
This was a particularly hard show to interpret by audience observation. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell if a New York crowd is just being an archetypal unmotivated mass, with arms folded and movement limited to weight shifting between feet. On the other hand, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club may have been facing a silent, unmoving majority that, in fact, felt as subdued as this witness.
Peter Hayes opened the BRMC set alone; the soothing lullaby croons and acoustic country tones of “Devil’s Waitin” and the even more country “Complicated Situation” nearly put me to sleep. To give Hayes credit, he fits the bill comfortably and obviously enjoys this outlet and a chance to display distinctly Southern influences.
Just as the uncomfortably polite applause threatened to boil the atmosphere, the tension was violently released by the introduction of the new “Weight of the World”, simmering “Love Burns” and bass and feedback heavy “White Palms,” all from earlier albums. “US Government” brought with it a welcome return to the energy of the band’s previous work, and the sleazy “Spread Your Love” quickened the tempo of the evening with a barrage of driving bass sounds. The room seemed to waken. The band transcended their most recent work and returned to what they do best with all the ease of a friend ditching that awful boyfriend/girlfriend that had changed them into something you didn’t recognize.
“Howl” isn’t all downtempo and countrified acoustic tunes: “Ain’t No Easy Way” has a bluesy feel, that ebbs and flows like the swampy waters of the south. It’s played to a faster tempo than much of the album, particularly the three tracks that opened the evening’s proceedings. But its feel - which could almost inspire spontaneous line-dancing or a banjo solo - is still too far afield for a band that built its reputation by producing edgy feedback-laden rock music. The needless harmonies pushed this number further down my list of lowlights.
“Fault Line”, a somber drug soliloquy, draws BRMC back into new territory and mocks the band’s rockier moments with harmonica solos. The Neil Young influenced “Weight of the World” from Howl was acoustic tonight, with a pace change that bridged the gap between the old and new BRMC albums crisply.
Mark Gardner, from the shoe-gazing late-‘80s band Ride opened the evening with a sample of his recent solo material and a few old Ride numbers—an effective appetizer indeed. Gardner’s style sufficiently contrasted the BRMC’s early-set forays into acoustic country so well that, by the time BRMC’s encore came crashing in, it felt as if we had seen three different bands.
The obvious ‘hits’ hadn’t been presented as we neared closing time and sure enough, anyone able to stomach the stripped down blues and roots salad of acoustic roughage were treated to a meaty BRMC finale. “Whatever Happened to My Rock N’ Roll” and “Spread Your Love” saw audience members suddenly wake and roar with delight.