The month of May always features some of the year’s best weather in San Francisco and it’s usually a time when the music schedule heats up as well. The warm sunny afternoon has given way to cooler temperatures in the evening, but this matches the vibe for a night with the Black Angels. The Austin-based psychedelic band has been pushing a cool retro vibe since their formation a decade ago, and playing a sold out show at rock’s most hallowed hall only enhances the band’s mojo further. With a sound and light show tailor made for the historic venue, this might be the best place in the country to see the Black Angels.
But as is often the case at the Fillmore, there’s a strong opening act to warm up the stage. California rocker Hanni El Khatib has just released his second album Head in the Dirt, produced by Dan Auerbach from the Black Keys, and he’s generating a fair amount of buzz himself. This is partly evidenced by the sexy motorcyle action video for “Family”, the first single that’s been all around the interwebs. But the true measure of buzz is how many people show up to see an opening act, and the Fillmore is pretty full for El Khatib’s set. His band has a raucous and vintage bluesy sound that makes it easy to see how he and Auerbach connected, and it’s a sound that clearly connects with the crowd here.
El Khatib notes that he’s a San Francisco native who lived all over town, citing the Richmond, Sunset and Mission districts, winning a little extra cred even though he lives in Los Angeles now. “Penny” is one of the catchiest numbers from the new LP, with an upbeat hook and infectious melody about a romantic flame that gets the crowd dancing a little. A heavier song follows and brings a Jack White vibe to mind, with El Khatib showing that he can shred some hot licks too. Another tune features a grooving “Who Do You Love” type of progression, but with a modern twist. “Family” comes toward the end of the set and delivers an electrifying jolt of energy into the evening, with ladies rocking out and even some of the hipsters too. El Khatib tears up the solo and the thought of he and Auerbach jamming out together becomes tantalizing.
When the Black Angels hit the stage, a sonic force of psychedelia envelopes the room. It’s not the jammy melodic type of psychedelia generally associated with the San Francisco sound that made the Fillmore famous back in the ‘60s though. It’s a darker-edged sound more akin to their retro Austin forebears from the 13th Floor Elevators. As their name hints, the Black Angels are a band that dabbles in some heavy sounds. Yet they also have a shimmery sonic flavor that makes them hard to pigeonhole. “I Hear Colors” from the band’s new Indigo Meadow LP is a perfect opener, easing the audience in with a mid-tempo tune that establishes a connection between the ‘60s and the present.
The band then cuts loose with the full sonic assault of “Don’t Play With Guns”, one of the new album’s hardest rocking and most dynamic tunes. The guitars are deliciously fuzzy, the drums are huge and the wall of sound created is a heavy psyche rock blast to the senses. Drummer Stephanie Bailey is a force to be reckoned with, while singer/multi-instrumentalist Alex Maas has a subtle yet compelling presence in his delivery. With Christian Bland on guitar and organ and Kyle Hunt dabbling in keyboards, bass, guitar and percussion, you never know who might play what on each song. It all helps lend a dynamic and spontaneous vibe, with various players switching between multiple instruments.
“Evil Things” is another new tune with fuzzy riffs that keep the crowd rocking to a heavy beat, as sexy silhouetted female dancers gyrate amidst psychedelic imagery on the screens. The band’s sound is deep, although fans are warned to give serious consideration to earplugs. After about 30 minutes, the lyrics start to become difficult to discern as one realizes that the vocal frequency in the sonic spectrum is being obscured by the overwhelming volume. It’s one of the loudest shows at the Fillmore in recent memory, although this is certainly music that needs to be heard at high volume for full impact.
“Telephone” from 2010’s Phosphene Dream shows another side of the band, with a ‘60s kind of go-go groove that makes a person want to twist and shout, as the Fillmore suddenly feels a bit like an Austin Powers dance party. The new “You’re Mine” has a similarly groovy vibe with the band in a playful mood, to which the crowd responds in kind. The title track from Indigo Meadow returns to the heavier vibe, with an epic drone tone that finds the audience mesmerized. The unique thing about the Black Angels is their ability to blend the hard and heavy songs with the groovier dance-oriented tunes. Few bands aspire to such sonic diversity, but the Black Angels pull it off so well. Then there are tunes that blend these vibes, like “Bloodhounds on My Trail”. It’s got a heavy sound, but with a catchy melody twisted in that has the crowd rocking out yet feeling groovy too.
The final encore of “Black Isn’t Black” starts with Maas doing a subdued solo kind of thing, as if the band intends to fade quietly into the night. But that wouldn’t really fit as the capper for such an intense show, so of course the rest of the band filters back onstage to crank the song up for one last sonic blast. Outside afterward, some fans find themselves in a bit of a daze. It’s the kind of show that makes an impact on the senses, yet also leaves the ears a bit shellshocked. But there’s no doubt that this powerful sonic journey is one to remember.