Marijuana has been an ingredient in many musical concoctions. But it's also spawned a genre that isn't always as inspired as the musicians that inspired it. That's why we enter with caution.
Black Mountain + Dead MeadowCity: Leuven, Belgium
Venue: Het Depot
Marijuana has been an ingredient in many musical concoctions; I can't dispute that. From Hendrix to Dylan to Lennon, plenty of the greats have smoked reefer. But cannabis has also spawned a genre, "stoner rock," that isn't always as inspired as those groundbreaking musicians that inspired it. That's why, when I picked up my tickets for Dead Meadow and Black Mountain in Leuven, Belgium, I wasn't entirely optimistic. Everyone knows that group of friends who get together in a garage on the weekends with a bong and some instruments. But why pay to hear that music performed? The truth is I wouldn't have gone to this show if I hadn't seen Black Mountain last spring. The band's innovative brand of stoner rock impressed me and I had a relatively quiet week shaping up, so why not? I almost didn't show up for Dead Meadow's opening set. I had low expectations, and -- though I'm happy I went -- my initial feelings weren't too far off the mark. The four-piece Washington, D.C. act seems like that exact group of guys in the garage. Luckily, they must have had pretty good dope: for a band with only three instrumental parts to speak of and one vocalist, they produce a full, complicated sound and put on an interesting stage performance complete with faux-psychedelic gel lights. They must know that they're fighting the stigma associated with being another pothead project, because their lead singer is strangely overzealous on stage. His high-pitched "rock-star" banter (e.g., "ARE YOU GUYS HAVING A GOOD TIME TONIGHT?") got a little annoying; it seemed somehow unnatural. The band's official bio is quick to declare them "Miles beyond 'stoner rock' gimmickry." Why the preoccupation with avoiding that label? Why not let the music do the talking? Well, the problem with that strategy was clear by the end of their set: the music they play is stoner rock. Perhaps they should take comfort in the fact that it's pretty good stoner rock and leave it at that. They've clearly had more practice than your friends in the garage. Next up was Black Mountain, the reason I went to the show in the first place. They're part of a Vancouver "arts collective" (called the Black Mountain Army) that has produced some interesting music. The band recently signed to Jagjaguwar (with labelmates like Minus Story and Okkervil River), which is why I got into them. Of course, before I saw them live, I didn't know the half of it. When I first caught them, it was at a venue-botched show where they were playing in between the Album Leaf and two opening acts that sounded like the Album Leaf. The crowd wasn't looking for a classic rock show; they were there to see calm instrumentals, and Black Mountain just didn't fit. Still, while many found the Black Mountain set abrasive, by the end of it everyone was up and dancing. There's something about their music that's infectious that way. This time it was no different. Sure, they also play stoner rock or psychedelic rock or whatever you label it, but they do one thing differently. They structure their songs like songs. While Dead Meadow tunes (and, dare I say it, most stoner rock tunes) sound more like linear jam sessions, Black Mountain clearly spend time writing their music. If they didn't have the pedals and equipment and had to play their songs without any distortion, there would still be songs there. And that's saying something. Sure, nothing about their aesthetic is graceful: they're active on stage but certainly not coordinated, and they aren't pretty (at both of the Black Mountain shows I've seen, the male lead singer's jeans were too low in the back, revealing a little more than necessary). But their act is still graceful. Underneath the stoner rock veneer lie truly inspired songs with complicated instrumental parts and sweet vocal harmonies. Of course, true to their communal or collectivistic roots, Black Mountain invited members of Dead Meadow onto the stage to help close out the show. The result was a chaotic jam session that looked shaky at times (Dead Meadow's inebriated drummer knocked over a stage light at one point, and the frontman was swinging his guitar neck very precariously) but it sounded good. I couldn't go to a show like this one too often, but I guess that's sort of the point. If you like stoner rock, listen to it. Otherwise, at least try not to be a buzzkill.