It’s been a long six days and I’m a little fatigued so bear with me in this conversation.
Love affairs are unique and complicated things; rugged and delicate in form, blissful and hurting on the heart, restless and content in the soul. A musical love affair of substance is no less bedeviling to the senses, for proof see Black Rebel Motorcycle Club for further. Their 10-year choice to rattle sonic cages is obviously a labor of love, for men and women of lesser character would surely have called it a day by now. In a run of three sold-out shows at Los Angeles’ Echoplex, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club returned to their ‘hometown’ stage to carve out old ground and pave it new with their brand of tale-telling in webs of the sinister versus savior. Spreading their love, so to speak, with me and a few other like-minded souls, as well as the friend I brought to the show to lose his BRMC cherry who may have scarred me for life when he referred to Robert Been as “Twilight dude”.
Somewhere between the shadows and the light lie this band’s fertile craft born of psychedelic Americana landscapes, blues, gospel, fuzz-laden grooves, sex, sin, love, tempestuous beauty, and the bad ass cloaked in cigarette smoke and leather. It’s a tricky sell in this age of GaGa/Beyonce/Nickelback, etc., and crap that Rolling Stone magazine seems so fond of these days as so much bare soul and unhappy honesty ain’t always a comfortable (or marketable) thing. There have been a lot of ‘should’ve, could’ve, would’ve” peppering this band’s storied career, and stops that left them just shy of a firm black boot on rock’s golden mantle, of which they are so worthy. But the past has been tread and broken under the wheels of exhaustive tours, personnel changes, and the fucking unwavering will to NOT piss away or on the bedrock of their music or their fans. “Beat The Devil’s Tattoo” is the name of the game, album number six, and the pulse of BRMC v2.0.
The Echoplex hosted three nights of smoke, strobes and bright lights not safe for the epileptic, a target silhouette, laser beams, distortion, thunder, and erect walls of sound. Bassman Robert Levon Been was feeling less than his best and jacked up on drugs to battle whatever virus ailed him, which prompted the cancellation of the Amoeba Records in-store show earlier in the eve on March 12th. I don’t know if the drugs injected him with levity or a sense of clarity but upon announcing that he was about to bullshit his way through the acoustic “Sympathetic Noose”, he spoke an absolute fact when he stated that his “bullshit” was a lot better than other people’s truth. I concur, and he bullshitted his way through all three shows like a soldier with a cause. Heavy on“Beat The Devil’s Tattoo” material, the Echoplex shows were an amalgam of signatures on point to convince even the most vocal BRMC skeptic/hater as to why this band is vital: substance over style, brains and brawn, and intention over perfection. Nothing was perfect- just ask Been who flipped that things were “Fucked up, as usual.”, popped a string during “Berlin” (yes, I caught the ‘WTF is going on over there?’ look of Hayes), forgot half the lyrics to “The Line”– but in their execution and presentation,BRMC are refreshingly devoid of anything that smacks of the pretense that there’s anything more important than the music. Sure, making a few bucks in the process would be sweet but the living is in the riffs surgically peeled from Peter Hayes’ guitar and the lonely life he breathes into his harmonica.
SIDEBAR: As a fan of the band’s music and a witness to all three Echoplex shows, there’s only one band failure that I have to concede: no “American X”. Fine. Just call me Celine Dion because my heart will go, but next time, brothers and sister, I want my seedy tale of LA’s underbelly…especially now that I live here. Got it? Good. Thanks in advance.
Peter Hayes, Robert Levon Hayes, and Leah Shapiro. How can three people make so much damned noise?
Opening with a rumble of protestation, the first two shows lifted off with the bloody, almost painfully distorted “War Machine” and trekked from gritty blues and acoustic warmth to swampy rock and full on haze. Bless “Conscience Killer” for being the sonic middle-finger and straight ahead rocker that, yes, made me and my concert buddy literally do the twist. I doubt that’s what BRMC had in mind but, hey, deal with it. Through the tempered and laborious stomp of title track “Beat The Devil’s Tattoo”, the road to Hell is pretty much littered with our good intentions and paved by Leah Shapiro’s tom and kick drums. It’s a dirge that almost feels like the band is scratching and clawing its way out of some self-imposed prison because, in case you didn’t know, sometimes the gates of Hell are locked from the inside.
Other than the curious absence of “Weapon of Choice” which became “White Palms”, the set lists were true to form, for they covered beloved territory as well as unearthing the gem or two along the way such as THE most romantic love song ever written, “Steal A Ride”, the rare “Screaming Gun”, and the haunt of loving well beyond the grave “Annabel Lee”. The carnal heat of BRMC’s music is underscored by the cool melodies; the cooler the melodies, the hotter the song and if you have need to get laid, well musically BRMC are there for you. That’s just how they roll. As seductive and serpentine as “Aya” sounds in recorded form, it’s in the dark of a venue (or your black light-lit room) where it’s exceedingly helpful in getting your groove on with Leah Shapiro’s leaden beat and the swamp-thick Bayou drag forcing you through the emotional sludge. You can almost smell the sex in the room with every turn of Been’s tuning key and Hayes’ lustful screams of “Aya!”; she’s fucking her man in every way (and I don’t just mean sexually) leaving some awesome wreckage in the wake of her love.
We can’t have this conversation without paying respect to BRMC’s newest member, Leah Shapiro behind the drum kit. The who, what, where, when, and why are old business; her presence on stage signifies the new. Not radically different from her predecessor, Nick Jago, is one reason why her presence works. Sure she plays the songs that came before her with great skill, but now she has a complete BRMC body of work by her own hand and she’s a lean beat keeper, impassive and anchoring. One has to think that, if nothing else, Shapiro gives Hayes and Been a much needed sense of security. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club v2.0.
After all of the fuzz and being aurally assaulted by alt-tuned gear, BRMC took the time to cast away any and all angst created from Been violently wrestling the notes out of his bass, while Hayes’ seemingly handled his instrument more like a lover. What can only be described as a gift for the Los Angeles crowd (for as far as I know, they haven’t pulled this out of their leather jackets anywhere else), BRMC guided us from the blitzkrieg of “Shadow’s Keeper” into a sheer and delicate version of “Open Invitation” complete with a green laser light show; points of light shooting to and through, weaving a connective web among the audience who, for the most part, were damned near stunned into silence by the sight and flawless harmony of Hayes and Been. Flawless. Whether or not we deserved this gift is debatable because in typical LA fashion, a good deal of the crowd seemed too cool to break a sweat during the show for a band that bleeds for them and makes it their business to actually commune with them before and after a gig. But for 4 ½ minutes it was as if Black Rebel Motorcycle Club had stopped time, just long enough to heal a wound, thank the Lord, and spread their love.