Photo: Brantley Gutierrez

Incubus Rock the German Capital

Incubus brings Berlin's Columbiahalle crowd to ecstasy during the European Leg of their 8 tour.

The air in Columbiahalle is heavy and hot. About 3,500 people, almost the full capacity of the famous Columbiahalle, flock around the many beer stands for such a medium-sized venue (about five or so). It’s been six years since Incubus have last performed in Germany, and the excitement is evident at every turn. Unsurprisingly, many of the attendees are Americans; surprisingly, at 30 years of age, I’m easily among the youngest people there (most people were around 35-ish), though this could be attributed to the great sense of musical nostalgia Incubus evoke. One can seldom hear such riffs at this day and age, even in popular rock.

At 8:00 pm sharp Ecca Vandal, the punk-rock-ska-metal South African-born wild child of Sri Lankan heritage living in Melbourne, emerges and invigorates a fairly large crowd, who seemed to enjoy her relentless blend of genres and vicious, hardcore vocal delivery. It would be difficult to categorize her as a “type” of performer or describe her music using adjectives typically reserved for a particular genre but, then again, same is true of the main acts. During the half-hour break between the two shows, dozens rush to the pebbled garden (another couple of beer stands there) for a cigarette and chat. The beer, at around €3, is pleasantly affordable. I get a cup of coffee for €1.5 and a biscuit for €1. It’s Monday, and it’s been a long day at work.

Columbiahalle is an interesting venue. Sitting comfortably on the border of Berlin’s uber-hipster expanse, Kreuzberg and Tempelhof, it’s well-positioned and central enough not to cause transportation trouble for people from any part of this huge city. Originally built in 1951 as a sports and leisure venue for US soldiers stationed in Berlin, the building closed in 1994, after the troops left, but then reopened as a concert hall in 1998. In 2014 it underwent a major renovation and is now known as one of Berlin’s most prominent indoor venues. Its main concert hall features plenty of concrete, with several pillars lamentably blocking many people’s view and impeding acoustics. Still, there’s a nice terrace hosting more than a 1,000 people who wish to get a better view, so one can pick.

At 9:00 pm the Calabasas quintet appears against a backdrop of three large screens playing mostly generic, bright psychedelic imagery, and the screams are deafening. It’s always a pleasure to come to a standalone show, where one knows that all in attendance have paid and come just to see this particular performer. The people are simply a lot more eager, not to mention quieter, more respectful and better behaved, than at festivals. This is hardly news, though.

On stage, Brandon Boyd, Mike Einziger, Jose Pasillas, Chris Kilmore and Ben Kenney, are in top form. The show kicks off with “Privilege”, an old fan-favorite; midway through the song, Kilmore samples Panjabi MC’s bhangra classic, “Mundian to Bach Ke”, and the crowd loses it immediately, hands in the air, dextral thrusts and all. A great way to dive straight in from the beginning. After “Glitterbomb”, a single off of the latest release, 8, “Anna Molly” is the first colossal singalong of the evening. Boyd, in simple jeans and a shirt, with his long hair let down, has always been a fascinating frontman; completely devoid of arrogance and showmanship, his voice is warm and comforting, his benevolent stage presence inviting and inclusive, less a show than a shared experience. It’s a rare quality in a rock star, and fans appreciate it enormously.

“Megalomaniac” and “A Kiss to Send Us Off” are two tunes which mesh well played back to back, big drums, aggressive riffs, and a more hard rock panache. The ease with which Incubus have always morphed from a tender, soft rock or funky band into a hardcore monster within seconds, is impressive to this day, this mercurial quality of an unpredictable pace always a benefit for their live shows.

While “State of the Art” is another well-received new song, it’s still the older hits that impress the crowd the most. Thankfully, Incubus has so many of them that a 100 minutes fly by, the tension, sweat, and singalongs never letting up for more than a minute or two. “Circles” and “Pardon Me” make a solid case for Boyd’s intriguing and adept vocal delivery: the 42-year-old sounds best when he sings on top of his lungs, the microphone a foot away from his mouth, his spine tautly bending backward. As usual, it’s “Sick Sad Little World” that allows the rest of the band to shine, too, with an extended solo from Mike Einziger and particularly deft turntables work by Kilmore. The earnest singalong to Boyd’s howling “leave me here in my stark raving sick, sad little world” is the closest one can come to a group therapy session without having to be in the spotlight to explain their actions.

Of the new songs, “No Fun” is the most vigorously received, and both floors sing: “Hey! You’re no fun! You’re no fun!” in unison, lifting the spirits yet again. From there on it’s all greatest hits. “Absolution Calling” sports another elegant and powerful refrain that enables Boyd to seduce yet again with his supple tenor, this time with an added twist – about two thirds into the song the band launches into Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game”, which they play almost in entirety. It would be unbecoming to precisely describe the effect this had on lady fans (and some guys, surely) since Boyd had taken off his t-shirt minutes before this performance. The bona fide provocateur display continues with a cover of INXS’s “Need You Tonight”. Boyd’s voice aligns perfectly with the voice of the late Mike Hutchence, and it becomes even more challenging to breathe, amid so many buzzed people (I mean, the beer was pretty cheap) dancing.

The grand finale is saved for “Nice to Know You” and “Wish You Were Here”, and these songs are perfect examples of why Incubus remains popular even after 20 years of making music. It’s the unflinching, unsentimental earnestness and simplicity of Boyd’s lyrics that are the most often overlooked selling point for this already compelling band. His capacity to paint vivid, recognizable images that hit home in no more than two or three simple lines, is astonishing. Judging by the strength of singalongs alone, it’s evident nearly everyone in the room identifies with these musings. “I lean against the wind, pretend that I am weightless, and in this moment I am happy, happy,” followed by a longing “I wish you were here” repeating over and over is enough for many to shed tears. I doubt there is anyone who hasn’t felt this way at some point in their lives. This time around the tune is made even better by fusion with another, even more famous “Wish You Were Here”. Of course, it’s the legendary Pink Floyd single and everyone hollers, swinging side to side and hugging one another while Boyd transitions from one chorus into another seamlessly. It’s a brilliant idea and a fitting sign-off for a great concert.

The encore is brief and reserved for “Are You In?”, this time with a snippet of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice” at the end, and of course, “Drive”. Again it’s the honesty and simplicity of Boyd’s ruminations that truly resonate with the listeners, the bare metaphors about getting the steering wheel under your control obvious but no less potent for it. Even after all these years and changes in the landscape of contemporary rock, it’s a unique pleasure to listen to a band such as Incubus, whose music has stood the test of time and will now be shared with the generations to come after us.