Them Crooked Vultures are a supergroup in the “classic” sense of the word, which is to say they inspire a slippery question: at what point does a no-pressure jam session end and a real band begin?
I ask because these Vultures — Josh Homme, Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones — exist somewhere at that blurry dividing line: half accomplished band with serious potential for the future, half indulgence that’s seemingly more interested in the heaviest, nastiest, guitar-crunchiest jams out there. I felt that dichotomy when I first heard the band through video and bootlegs, felt it when their self-titled debut came out, and still felt it when I left a stinking, overcrowded Roseland Ballroom during their most recent New York show.
To be sure, Them Crooked Vultures’ music is heavy, potent stuff. At Roseland, it was a day after the Super Bowl, the room smelled like hangover, and all three members — plus the excellent rhythm and slide guitarist, Alain Johannes, who abets the band in concert — were in a mood to rage. “Scumbag Blues”, the best of their original songs and one of the highlights at Roseland, came as the second song of the night and was an instant reminder of just how accomplished these players are, especially Jones, who is dexterous and agile in some places, boisterous and bottomy in others, and often all four in the same song.
The three principals feed off each other. Homme is the frontman, sure, but he doesn’t seem so much the leader as the enabler: his singing and scorching guitar work a good excuse to tee up Jones’ legendary chops and let Grohl — still one of the hardest-hitting and most cathartic rock drummers in history — let loose on his kit. Heavy, heavy, heavy. Bash, bash, bash. This is for the most part pile-driving, thick-cut steak rock, marinated in occasionally psychedelic, occasionally funky and occasionally sludgy spices. Best of all, it’s not a clinic; how many supergroups have we seen over the years that do nothing but let every member flex his or her skills, dialing up the note-storm virtuosity in place of real songs, and call it a day?
At Roseland, I wished for more variety, because these guys have it in them. One fat and crunchy stomper after the next got tiresome, so much that when Jones switched instruments — he also played keys, keytar, mandolin and slide bass — it was like taking a breather. “Highway One”, an unreleased cut and the only song played that wasn’t on the group’s debut, is another oil-slick rocker. The song has a nimble, bluegrass sheen — Jones playing piquant mando –instead of the heaving, stentorian overtones of the rest of what they do. If we’re to take “Highway One” as proof that the Vultures will be spreading their wings a bit wider on the already-announced second album, well, more power — or maybe more genre-bending — to them.
The Zeppelin affect is also a little too pronounced, and how could it not be, given Jones’ history and the two other protagonists’ abiding love for the Zep? Some songs devolve into guitar playgrounds pretty quickly, sometimes awkwardly trudging to their conclusions. Homme’s lead on “Elephants” and other songs are scorching in the full Jimmy Page tradition, but after so many cutthroat riffs and booming beats, there are stretches where you just wish they’d, I don’t know, do more. Riff, rumble and bash holds a song for three to five minutes, but not an entire show for 90.
Still, what charisma! Johannes might be Them Crooked Vultures’ secret ace: he’s a bit reserved next to these over-sized personalities, but was given a solo showcase to conjure up some slippery slide improvisation, and his flourishes on other songs were tastefully understated slide fills, Clavinet coloring and less definite rhythm work. And watching each of the other three is just so much fun: Jones, sly and looking fit, grooving along with the rhythms; Grohl doing his whipping-hair, Tasmanian devil thing, reveling in the violent climax of “Warsaw”, and Homme predictably wise-assed, joking about how he slipped three expletives into a Saturday Night Live performance before tearing into whatever the next pulsing juggernaut of a song was.
Homme’s not a great or particularly remarkable singer by any means, and that shows on the band’s weaker songs (I’m still not loving “Caligulove”). But he’s a sturdy and unflinching leader, and a team player whereas someone more flamboyant or more of a frontman showboat might distract from the music. That’s the trick for Them Crooked Vultures: for all their excess and grandeur, the music sounds like no particular one of them, more a sound in service of Zeppelin and the hard-edged, stomping rock progeny Zeppelin sired. Credit them that they’ve cleared the first supergroup hurdle: they know they have room to grow, and will.