Friday, December 28, 2012

Last Night On Earth with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club at The Troubadour (12/21/12)

Robert Levon Been
Photo by Arminé Iknadossian

Waiting in line in the chill of late December, I got to talking to a couple of fans of the inimitable band who I have been championing for a few years now. One of the fans, Mel, happened to mention a review she read about the band’s San Francisco show at Slim’s on Wednesday, the one I attended before flying back to LA to make the gig tonight. Mr. Matthew Green of SF Gate, though impressed with B.R.M.C.’s sound and musicianship, was disappointed with their lack of audience engagement, as he called it. They seemed like a “shadow” of themselves and were too short on banter, for his taste, barely acknowledging their admiring fans. What is ironic about this review is that it is hard to find a band these days that is more accommodating, friendly and respectful of their fan base than B.R.M.C.

What Mr. Green is clearly ignorant of is the fact that the band members frequently perform impromptu acoustic sets for fans before and after shows. Tonight, I, along with a small group of post-show lingerers, have the pleasure of enjoying bassist Robert Levon Been serenade Jodi Lee Haddon, the most loyal fan they have. It is silly to call Jodi a fan. By now, she is more like family.

After the gig, Been emerges from backstage, grabs an acoustic guitar and sits on the stage, calls Jodi over and, with a shy smile, says, “I’m going to serenade you.” Fans crowd around him with cameras and phones at the ready as he giggles and stumbles through some holiday standards followed by “Sympathetic Noose” (what a metaphor) and ends with the heartfelt song, “Returning,” off their new album, due out in March 2013.

The enchantment in the room is palpable, as fans, new and old, marvel at the unassuming Been’s earnest attempt to do something special for Jodi. Thoroughly embarrassed by the attention, Jodi sits on the floor as do a few others, smiling up at Been, occasionally laughing with the crowd when he forgets the lyrics to “Jingle Bells”.

Behind him, the crew dismantles the stage and packs up gear as the venue gets ready to shut down. Business as usual. But for the fans who travelled from Japan, Argentina, New York and Texas, this is a golden moment, when the rock star sheds his stage persona, likened to a lion in a cage, to sit down and mess around on the guitar for us. That is what Mr. Green missed. No harm though. Such half-hearted reviews will not put a dent in the ticket sales. All three club shows this week were sold out. The Troubadour show sold out in 30 minutes.

At the Wednesday night show at Slim’s, I stood in front of Peter Hayes on the right side of the stage and could barely hear Been’s lyrics, so tonight at The Troubadour, I choose a spot in the middle instead, directly in front of the drum kit. The sound at The Troubadour is solid. The band opens with The Call’s “Let the Day Begin,” written by Been’s father, Michael, and they succeed in making this song, written in the 80s, something uniquely B.R.M.C. with the drone and distortion fitting their style.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
Photo by Debi Del Grande

Following the tribute, the band charges through song after song, as they do. No time wasted. One song immediately leads into the next, switching from hard-driving songs like “Conscience Killer” and “Six Barrel Shotgun” to stomp-happy favorites “Beat the Devil’s Tattoo” and “Ain’t No Easy Way” which gets the crowd clapping along. In the middle of the set, the celestial “Awake” sent minds and hearts into a nether-journey of lilting guitar and spiritual lyrics. The chorus is a self-reflective admission of what it is like to truly awaken from the harsh realities of mortal consciousness. “I’ve lost my ground, now I’m gaining soul,” Hayes sings. As the guitar winds through the last verse, reaching for the heavens, then falling back to earth, everyone in the legendary venue is lit up with a mystic charge. Well, I speak for myself, I suppose. But what is personal is universal, just like a good rock song. And B.R.M.C. can write great rock songs. They can write pop, soul, blues, shoegaze, psychedelic, bluegrass, folk, punk. It is hard to define them, although many critics have tried.

The new songs they’ve debuted this week, “Lullaby,” “Funny Games,” “Rival” and “Lose Yourself” do not disappoint. While some fans responded to the subtle beauty of “Lullaby,” “Rival” is the clear front-runner, based on what fans have been posting on social networks and blogs. “I need a rival!” scream Hayes and Been repeatedly as Leah Shapiro taps out a military drum beat and Hayes rips it up on the guitar, using practically every pedal and effect (I counted about two dozen) known to man to make his guitar speak as many languages as there were people in the room. These guys don’t play their instruments. They feed off of them. During the new song, Hayes uses the ground controls to loop a melody while he plays rhythm, solos and sings. This is how they do it. It is complicated. It is a science. Hayes is obsessed with the technical aspects of his musical tools. He doesn’t have time to posture and pose. A manic scientist at the helm of a sonic ship, he drives the audience into a psychic region of tender harmonies and searing solos.

While Hayes is busy with the pedals, Been contributes with some of the most intricate bass lines ever written, carrying his bass with ease, sometimes without using his leather strap. Been leans into the front row, offers up his bass like a sacrifice, then retreats back to his amp, charges forward, spins, crouches, shakes his head, smiles at Hayes, closes his eyes in reverence, pleads into the microphone. This is the lion-in-a-cage Been I mentioned earlier.

Leah Shapiro is behind the drum kit, golden-headed, steely-eyed, precise and steady, the compassionate, warrior heart of the three-piece, holding it all together while the men prowl around her. We hear many men screaming her name throughout the night. This on-stage energy, this holy trinity, is something the band has described as akin to making love on stage. This eroticism they exude, as Dave Grohl himself described as the “sexiest music” is also the child of practiced seamlessness, their flawless delivery a mix of mutual, wordless understanding and a shared work ethic of perfectionism that translates into their live shows. If you give this band your hard-earned money, they will give back, in return, a solid, passionate, very loud performance every time.

I am ecstatic, jumping around when I can, my aging knee, ankle and lower back momentarily numbed by the narcotic effects of dearly loved music. Even the boys trying to slam dance behind me do not deter me from staying put up front as the band charges into their most popular and classic tunes, “Spread Your Love” and “Red Eyes and Tears”. I occasionally look around at the crowd and up into the seats jutting out over the bar, and the expressions on people’s faces are all too familiar. These 300 or so people are the truest of fans, and nobody is here to simply socialize and get inebriated before the world ends (except for the slam contingent). Known for personally stopping a song to put an end to such antics, the band seems unfazed by the volatile young men who drive away many audience members to the loft above. The security guards hired by the venue also ignore the inebriated frat boys.

Despite the violent energy behind me, I can’t help but look behind me to see faces illuminated with the red, blue and golden stage lighting which pulses along with the songs, at times bursting open with brightness when the music opens to full throttle and lifts us out of the muck of the work week left behind.

The band ends with the new song “Lose Yourself,” another transcendental meditation on the power of music”s ability to heal through mutual surrender. Just as my physical pain is diminished without the need for pharmaceuticals, the healing acceptance of inevitable mortality, cruelty, and worldly pain is part of the work of making art that identifies with the human aspect of feeling lost in the world but remaining on your feet. B.R.M.C.’s songs deliver the dark with stark honesty and then comfort the listener with the promise of a flip side to our human angst. The news lately has been painful to watch, and many of us are desperately grasping for hope. As Been sings to us during his surprise acoustic set after the show, “You need the darkness to see the light.”