A true American is a rebel. Take it back to the wild west. Take it even further back to the 13 colonies sprouting from a revolution that demanded freedom from unfair taxation and tyranny. Remember Mumia? Remember X? Remember Crazy Horse?
Remember those two, black, leather-clad fists in the air? What do you feel when you look at that picture of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, heads bowed, claiming their place in Olympic history on their own terms? Whether your politics lean left, right or center, or do not play into your consciousness at all, the music of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (BRMC) taps into a common human denominator: the need for truth in chaos. Finding the eye of the storm and suspending the terror for a second. Not only dodging the bullet; catching it.
The trifecta of bassist Robert Levon Been, guitarist Peter Hayes and drummer Leah Shapiro have created a modest machine that forges ahead despite the illusions, ironies and corruption of the music industry, American politics and a collective weariness that has surpassed cynicism. Today, like yesterday, they will continue writing, recording and performing music that will defy vapid mediocrity by simply being itself.
It is the final night of the Specter at the Feast North American tour, and like every BRMC show, it feels like a reunion of a pack of hungry wolves craving for a fix of spirit juice. As I stand in line outside the venue, the adrenaline pulses through the walls in the form of opening band RESTAVRANT’s sound check. Hillbilly White Stripes with flea market jauntiness, the two-man project is a fitting choice to get the crowd oiled and liquored up for the main attraction. I run into writer Ian Ottaway who traveled from San Francisco to be here tonight, and he asks me if I am doing good, then immediately curses and apologizes profusely for asking me such a cliché question. Small talk is not allowed in Ian world. The man is an organic part of the band, both healer and hellion. His poetry and personal essays provide a life-line for fans who have questions, need advice or simply hunger for someone to say, “Yeah, I get it.” Ask iAN does that for many fans while also promoting writers, artists and musicians. He is our drunken soul scribe – petulant, well-read, elusive. Ambassador of anarchy. Skull brother.
My friends are here: journalists, musicians, artists, teachers, bloggers. Every single one a creative force of their own, seeking each other in the dark, making our way up front where the well-worn amps wait. Hayes’s guitars are lined up on stage left, and his complex ground control sits at the front of the stage. His guitar tech has a challenging job, and tonight he will be busy. Like the band members, the equipment is tired after an exhausting year of touring, which will resume next month in Australia after a sorely-needed break in the states.
They open with “Hate the Taste” off Specter at the Feast followed by “Beat the Devil’s Tattoo”, the title-track from their fifth studio album. Both are sultry and seductive numbers about addiction, compulsion, that itching we get from drugs, love, neurosis. It’s the come down we dread, but it’s still early. Been leans into the audience, holding the mic in one hand, beckoning the crowd with the other as he screams, “Let your demons run!” This is liftoff.
“Let the Day Begin” marches in with Shapiro on drums, opening up the number that will forever be the band’s homage to the late Michael Been of The Call, a sorely-missed mentor, sound engineer, father to Been and Hayes who died backstage during a festival and still haunts the band’s musical output. It’s a love letter to the human race, and we open it with gusto, clinging to every healing word as the revival begins.
“Rival” rips apart the polite introductions. There’s a rumble brewing on stage between drums, guitar, bass and vocals. A sonic brawl, a bi-product of living on the fringe. It can not swallow the bitter pill of oligarchy, choosing self-immolation over conformity.
What follows is the apropos and bittersweet “Ain’t No Easy Way Out” off third album Howl, both a celebration and a warning to those who expose themselves to the most powerful feeling in the universe. Hayes expertly manages guitar, vocals and harmonica while also fiddling with his malfunctioning ground controls. A master technician himself, he manages to get through song after song despite it all.
Baby 81’s “Berlin” follows, a tribute to the city in which the song was written. It is a bouncy, steady call for revolution instead of self-destruction. The song asks the same question I have been asking for a decade now. Where are the revolutionaries when you need them?
You think that’s a bit risqué? The seventh song is “American X” (originally titled American Sex) off the same album, a dark boat ride through the least palatable part of being an American. Mournful and psychedelic in its lengthy jams, the grinding bass, lurching drums and haunting guitar solos create an atmosphere reminiscent of the Doors’ soundscapes.
“Screaming Gun”, the title-track off a five-track EP follows, a treat for the hard-core fans who relish any deviation from the expected crowd pleasers. “Stop” is number nine, the first track offTake Them On, On Your Own (TTOOYO) a fast car ride of a song, relentless, crazed, furiously running after itself.
Half-way through the set now, Hayes and Shapiro take a break as Been takes the keys for “Promise”, both an oath and a plea. Been’s voice echoes through the concert hall as whistles and shouts from the crowd collaborate with Been’s earnest ballad. Out of the darkness, Hayes and Shapiro re-emerge to join Been on another track off Specter at the Feast. This time it’s the menacing “Fire Walker” that climbs out of the muck and into the light. With lyrics like, “The crime is never what you steal but what you leave behind”, the deftly written paradoxes make this one a personal favorite. Just like gazing into a bonfire, the song’s hypnotic effect leads us into “Lullaby”, a melody that cradles the fans in its shadowy arms.
“In Like the Rose” opens with Hayes’s looping distortions in staccato. The bass’s rhythm follows Been’s heady vocals as the song climbs steadily before it breaks wide open. White lights bathe the stage. The song blooms like a series of fireworks. Now for something bitter and unapologetic. The bellicose “Six Barrel Shotgun” rumbles through like a battalion of bikers riding through a small town. Been’s taunting vocals interspersed with Hayes’s sexually-tinged exclamations to come when he says is almost too much to bear. My blood starts pumping to the spit and venom in the vocals, Shapiro’s caged fury, and like good sex should, it ends with a flush of hysterical and trembling distortion. There’s more.
“Spread Your Love” is the band’s money maker. Their most commercially profitable track, they save it for the last song before the encore. Its ubiquitous bass line begins the anthem’s charge. It takes the sinister of “Six Barrel Shotgun” and flips it on its head, preaching utopian ideals, wild abandon, innocence lost.
The encore is a new invention of two acoustic guitars, a condenser mic and soft amber lighting. Been and Hayes deliver “Complicated Situation” and “Shuffle Your Feet”, two classics off the critically-acclaimed Howl, the album that sealed my life-time habit of all things BRMC. The crowd sings along to “Shuffle Your Feet” as the men smirk and nod, letting the deceptively simple song’s twang wind its way through the bodies in the room as something wholly earnest and optimistic is born on stage.
Finally, the band delivers the gut punch we’ve been waiting for, la’enfante terrible of the band’s compositions, “Whatever Happened to My Rock and Roll (Punk Song)” off their debut album. Been counts off mid-way through the intro, pushing that proverbial red button, detonating the venue with a tribute to the punk aesthetic missing in music today, posing a rhetorical question that essentially answers itself. Nobody can sit still during this number. If there were chairs in the room, they would be thrown.
“Sell It” closes the evening with its drug-infused breathiness. Religion, medication, whatever your addiction, this song tears at the seams of salvation, begs for another hit, just one more taste. And just when you think you’ve had enough, the song ends abruptly, leaving us biting our bottom lips for more of that good old spirit juice.
The next day, Ottaway compares it to Alcoholics Anonymous in response to a fan’s fevered withdrawals. “You just gotta keep coming back,” he writes. For me, BRMC represents those black, leather-clad fists in the air. True rebels. As American as they come. Hard-working, idealistic and always ready to raise a lone fist in the air. This is my America.
Robert Levon Been, photo by Armine Iknadossian