Austin Psych Fest 6: A Re-Imagining

Walk tall, kick ass, learn to speak Arabic, love music, and never forget you come from a long line of truth seekers, lovers and warriors. – Hunter S. Thompson
“The Committee to Keep Music Evil formed in 2001 after the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s ‘Strung Out In Heaven’ tenure with TVT records expired. In conjunction with Greg Shaw and Bomp! Records, founder Anton Newcombe felt he needed to beat The Man at his own game. The Plan was to release BJM music not available through other channels, and to record new bands which we will be producing from time to time—while pursuing the goal of making the world unsafe for rock and roll.”

Day 1

We beg for it.

We kneel at the altar of music’s tongue-lashing.

We psych rock, prog rock, stoner rock, garage rock, tribal rock, blues rock, world rock tourists are roaming your streets, Texas.

We are looking for George’s dead cats.

We are looking for Dubya’s hidden cannibalism.

We are your living dead.

God is dead.

Dead is God.

Dubya ate God for breakfast.

We are here to release Him from the bowels.

As Alex Maas, APF (now changed to LEVITATION) founder and The Black Angels front man pointed out on the final night of the three-day dirge tri-fecta that is Austin Psych Fest, more soldiers commit suicide each day than die in combat.

I would rather dance than die in combat.

I would rather dance than die by my own hand.

I would rather dance barefoot under the big tree,

the one with the swings, the one holding the old young man.

The old young woman.

The old young aging like trees.

Trees age gracefully.

We do not think about age this weekend.

We only think about trees and grass and Aquarius.

It is our age.

It is our brand.

It is no brand.

It is DA MAN’s darkest nightmare.

A white, plaster cow faces the Reverberation stage. In three days this blank canvas will gradually be covered in sketches, love songs, pentagrams, prayers, wishes, secrets, peace signs, confessions, profanity and badly-drawn penises. A young man leaps onto the back of the bull as his friends snap away on their camera phones. Then, they disappear, giggling into the spring night.

I see curved horns and angel wings.

I see taxidermy, mirrors hanging from low branches,

an old black ride hiding a body in its trunk.

Its hood opens and closes like a yawning dog at my feet.

I stumble towards the smell of weed.

Something happens to my ankle bones. I am vibrating.

It’s the Cult of Dom Keller.

They have a hold of my boot soles.

Bass drum drum drum drum drum drum…

Then a siren calls me from her poison cave.

Warpaint anoint.

Warpaint sneak up on you like a siren should.

Ladies “singing each to each” like Eliot’s sad saviors from the ocean caves in that love poem about a confused man at the door of carpe diem sensibilities and too many questions. These women are not confused. These women sound right at home in the balm and breeze of early evening as they suckle our hungry hearts and clear away the bad vibrations of the century.

Our mantra is not about bad vibrations.

Our mantra is not a call to arms or a cliché version of your DADDY issues.

We all have DADDY issues.

We just choose to take our dose of DADDY with a gulp of spirit juice.

This weekend, we will hold his feet over the fire.

Fire walk with me.

We are all Fire Walkers here.

image is mine bitches
Robert Levon Been of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. This photo was taken with my phone. No filter.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club emerge as wolfhounds howl at midnight to the full moon over Austin. We call to each other as wolves do. We also call to our enemies. Stay away, if you know what’s good for you. Their music is good for me. I hear it through my clavicles and hip bones. My deaf ear even wakes up for them. If you see me at death’s door, play me some BRMC, and let me go.

Smoke, lights, moon, airplanes over the tents every five minutes. Bad associations here. How can flying metal resemble a crucifixion? Ask Manhattan. Ask Jesus. Ask Kali and Karma and Judas. Ask all the neo-hippies here hiding from all the other neo’s in the world: neo-capitalists, neo-conservatives, neo-liberals. This is a harkening back to the ideals of the real Age of Aquarius.

We are their progeny of dying angels.

We are the last breath of social revolution.


Post-show dread.

All out of sonic dopamine surge, we lurch to our cars like hungry alley cats.

The drunkard also walks to his car of death alone.

We watch him stumble in.

His hands are shaking.

The world is too much with him.

I go to bed in my window-less room just before dawn…

Day 2

Today, a marathon run to Dallas in our gas-efficient vehicle that we push to its limit because we are on a slam-bam mission to see Plowboy open for BRMC, and we make it in the nick of time to see the spawning of a new rock and roll era raised on mother nature and The Clash bootlegs.

If these boys were your kids, you would win parent of the year.

Fifteen, you say? No shit, really?

Yeah, really.

Take your gum out of your mouth and whistle at them. They have been baptized and knighted. They are tomorrow’s correct answer to the standardized test written by Picasso and graded by Kurt Cobain. Wholesome rock and roll with a tinge of 21st century, born-and-raised, blue-hearted old-soul, wisdom.

Then BRMC. This time at the House of Blues where they can play a proper set, a two-hour plus show with hardly any break in between songs because that is how real musicians give you your hard earned money’s worth. And in this age of “CRAPITALISM” when every Tom, Dick and Disney want to fist-fuck the middles class workhorse any way they can through false advertising, hidden agendas, price gouges and false promises, a high return on one’s ticket price investment is much appreciated. Their merchandise is even globally conscious. This is the band of the people. This is the band of real American rock and roll enterprise, the old school kind some people resent for its scrappy, spit in your face, independence. Do or die. Bless their resilient hearts. I hope they write a thousand songs.



You Run.

Devil’s Waiting.


Mercy. Mercy. Mercy.

Through the opaque highway, we dash back to Austin, and I look out the passenger window in a state of satisfied time-suspension disbelief.

Time stands still on the black top,

in God’s country,

in the merciful hands of early Sunday morning

car accidents, construction crews, agriculture

by the dashboard light and to the soundtrack of BRMC’s Howl Sessions.


Like Allen Ginsberg’s magnum opus of the same name, this band exemplifies the “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.” Of course, Allen used the term “hipster” 50 years ago, and what it meant then is what I am referring to. A hipster, in its most diluted essence, can be a wondrous thing to behold.

Goodbye Dallas. Hello again Austin. It’s four o’clock in the morning.

Day 3


Children live in this house for rent.

Child spirit everywhere.

I hear their absent giggles.

I imagine their soft, new hair.

We listen to Bloodletting by Johnette Napolitano before we head out. We are cured of our social disease.

Deap Vally are two ladies clad in dusty daisy dukes and sequined bras. One pummels the drums, beats the bass with bare feet, whipping her burnt orange hair over the tom tom. The river behind them, now calm after the lightning and thunder from the previous night, mirrors a couple lounging on the American flag. I have always loved the colors of our flag. They sit by the water against the deep velvet green of the still-wet grass. Two American girls at their prime, raised on Wonder Bread and Oscar Meyer, picnicking on DADDY’s flag. This is what APF is about. Freedom to do whatever the fuck you want without anyone hassling you for your odd habits, odd costume, odd props or odd taste in picnic blankets.IMG_0568


We bump and grind our way towards Mecca.

Angels color of night.

Color of sin.

Color of innocence.

Someone is dancing alone in the corner.

He is wearing guitar chords for hair.

He is Damien.

He is archangel Gabriel.

He is Kali in the rain.

We are floating around like planets on separate orbits.

The sun is an amorous hyperbole in the southern sky.

Empire is at hand.


The most ascetic religious types strive for this transcendence through self-immolation, self-flagellation and other painful methods I could never quite wrap my head around. Then again, have you seen musicians practice obsessively until their fingers bleed? Without passion, you’re a fashion. [1]

Bloodhounds on my trail, I head for the main stage as the father of psych rock emerges with a fiery-haired lady on keys. As we drool over her sunset tendrils swaying to and fro in the gentle breeze, Roky Erickson’s white dove heart reminds us what this weekend is all about.

Revival. This is a revival. And we are survivors all. Penitants. We are the type of people who would live on the 13th floor of a building, would carve the number into our arms. Like Roky’s second coming, we are reborn into the mouth of Gaia, and from her we emerge like dead stars light years ahead of our own consciousness. I am not on drugs. I am on music. I am on love.

I am on my tipie toes bouncing to The Black Angels later that night. Have you heard their new album? If not, you are like a half-blind, half-deaf, half-awake blob. Let it turn you into a real soul again. Spin it hard on your vinyl machine. Stick in the car and roll up the windows. The nutrients will seep into your navel, and you will like them like a good boy should.

We head home before Moving Sidewalks take the stage because we are older than we were 20 years ago when body and head could marathon through a festival more easily than it can tonight, but, as luck would have it, the next morning, we are on the same flight back to Los Angeles as one of best blues-rock guitarists to hail from the great state of Texas! Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top and Moving Sidewalks drags his lanky frame through the Austin airport sporting his signature orange beard, black knit cap and dark glasses. Obliging autograph seekers, travelling alone into the great, wide open towards the pearly gates of vintage Los Angeles where who knows who/what awaits the man with the muscular riffs.

It rained on and off. The stages by the river put up with some electrical malfunctions.
It rained on and off. The stages by the river put up with some electrical malfunctions.


Go go go go go.

All weekend, all night, always.

This carpe diem dime bag

in our back pockets.

A fifth of sinister.


Grass and mud and clay.

Sacred cows.

Rain dance.

Were you there to see The Black Ryder, The Dead Skeletons, The Warlocks at war with angry gods? To watch as lightening illuminated the slanted trees around the river lined up like sturdy children, heads bowed, waiting in line for more?

More. More. More. More.

Give us more of your honey wire.

Give us godhead good to eat a thousand years.[2]





(April 26-28, 2013) Originally published at

[1] From “Lien On Your Dreams” by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club

[2] This line is inspired by a line from “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg


Pearl Jam live in LA Sports Arena: Lightning Bolt Tour, November 24, 2013 (published by REKWIRED.COM)

In 1992, Pearl Jam was my blossom when I was a shy and awkward 18-year-old writer. Before I even knew who I was, I knew this band would last the test of time. While others slandered them for “selling out”, I knew there was something permanent in the way the five-piece (now six-piece) took angst, heartbreak, feminism, politics and wove a tapestry of strength with the cynicism. I believed in fractured perfection for the first time, and Eddie Vedder’s lyrics taught me a thing or two about writing poetry as well.

Twenty-two years later, I learn that today, they still play like they are playing to a small club of hard-core punks and metal heads who came to Seattle in the early 90s to experience a new genre of music that nobody really understood and some deeply resented. When Pearl Jam first exploded, Vedder’s angry face graced the front cover of TIME magazine in 1993, and grunge was the new buzzword. Today, it’s called rock and roll again. All hype aside, this band is the real deal. From one night to the next, a Pearl Jam set list is never cloned, a band decision that is challenging to pull off. Imagine the bootleg compilation! Pearl Jam has been doing this for over two decades. They continue to defy odds, and the die-hard fans continue to come back for more.

Lightning Bolt, their 10th studio album since their debut in 1991, makes up a healthy portion of the set list with a peppering of songs from Ten, Vs., Vitalogy, No Code, Yield, Binaural, Riot Act, Pearl Jam and Backspacer, as well as selections from singles, EPs, and covers. The band opens with “Oceans”, a lilting introduction to the head rush to come. As the drums and guitar steadily climb the ropes, Vedder warms up his voice by cooing, keening and moaning through the haunting opener. “Low Light” off Yield follows, a subtle, jangly number with warm harmonies. Next, No Code’s “Present Tense” methodically opens its petals to ask a series of rhetorical questions meant to lead one towards enlightenment. Always ambitious with their covers, the band breaks out with a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive” that leads into the Vitalogy hit “Corduroy”, a vitriolic admonishment of the corrupt music industry. We’re in full swing now. “Can’t buy what I want because it’s free!” Vedder repeats as the crowd helps him along, his undying idealism still as fresh as when he was the new kid in the band, replacing Andy Wood after Wood’s tragic drug overdose in 1990.

“Lightning Bolt” follows, the radio-friendly title song off the latest album, a bouncy number with a traditional, pop-song structure. The touching “Amongst the Waves” reinforces Vedder’s love of all things ocean-related, a surfer for life. The autobiographical “My Father’s Son” picks at the old scab of Vedder’s troubled childhood, honoring the father he never really knew. One of my personal favorites, “Given to Fly” off Yield follows with Vedder almost whispering the first verse as the subdued guitar and drums wait their turn to open up mid-way through, soaring, plunging, speeding up, pulling back. It’s a euphoric number.

Now, almost a third of the way through the set, “Swallowed Whole” off Lightning Bolt takes its place in line at song number ten. The guitar opens in a style that is reminiscent of The Who, a dominating influence on the band. This is a hearty rock song, allowing McCready a solo or two that lights a fire under his fingers for the rest of the night. Number 11 is “Immortality”, a classic off Vitalogy that some have translated as being a tribute to the late Kurt Cobain. With its whiny, bluesy guitar interludes, the song is an apt reference to the complicated story of Cobain’s legacy. “Some die just to live” is a paradoxical statement that is just one example of Vedder’s lyrical prowess. “Infallible” off Lightning Bolt follows, trudging along in its steadfast staccato, making way for another classic, “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” off Vs., which opens with just rhythm guitar and vocals. An arena of fans sings along to this one: “Hearts and thoughts they fade…fade away…” the crowd offers in harmony. When all the stadium lights are turned on to reveal thousands holding their arms up while singing, “I just wanna scream ‘Hello!’” the euphoria was electric.

The delicate “Future Days” off Lightning Bolt is next, opening with Boomer Gaspar’s keys, leading into harmonies and acoustic guitar, Jeff Ament’s stand-up bass rounding out a touching piece about the acceptance that comes with age, when one’s angst and demons take a back seat to a world view that is more inclusive. Always a blessed contradiction, the boys plunge into “Even Flow” off Ten, one of the angrier classics about homelessness. It would be a serious transgression to not include this in a Pearl Jam set. McCready decides to play the entire song with the guitar behind his back. This is the difference between other indie bands and Pearl Jam. They are unapologetic about putting on a show for the fans. Not too cool for stunts, this band is about a good time and flaunting their talents. The crowd chants along to the now-infamous chorus.

In full-swing now, “Do the Evolution” follows, a full-bodied, distortion-heavy number off Yield. Still only at song 17, “Mind Your Manners” off Lightning Bolt is a punk-themed force of nature, charging through, stopping and starting on a dime, reminding the audience that this band’s roots are as deeply entrenched in hard-core punk as they are in stadium rock. McCready is in seventh heaven. “Sirens”, also off Lightning Bolt, is a heady number that sets the stage for “No Way”, another song off Yield. These last two numbers are deceptively simple and well-behaved, because what is next is one of the band’s darkest, loudest, fastest numbers from the album Vs. “Blood” is a spinning, sinister, screeching anthem about Vedder’s distaste for the media’s glorification of lead singers: “Make Ed big. Turn Ed into one of his enemies.” Vedder’s bloodletting puts a cap on the first part of the show. The band exits as McCready strips off his sweat-soaked shirt.

First encore.

Song 21 is “Better Man” off Vitalogy, a story about a woman in a loveless relationship that is one of the most heartbreaking songs you will ever hear. This band doesn’t shrink from sentimentality, and once the drums enter, the song is less about victimization and more about resilience. Song 22 is another classic with the feminist edge that Vedder has always reveled in. A jangly guitar opens up “Daughter” (originally titled “Brother”) with a scene at a breakfast table. “She holds the hand that holds her down. She will rise above.” I cannot tell you how often this song gave me courage to defend myself against the males who tried to denigrate and silence me. Thanks for that, Ed. As they are wont to do, Pearl Jam love to add interludes and extensions to their songs that are covers of classic rock songs like Pink Floyd’s “Another”, which rounds out “Daughter”.

Next is a tribute to the late Lou Reed with Vedder alone on stage. He plays “After Hours” after confessing that he really misses Reed. “Miss them while they’re still here,” Vedder advises, after joking that the sentiment might make better sense after drinking a bottle of wine. He is on his second bottle. Number 24 is the deceptively jaunty and brief “Sleeping By Myself”. As Vedder accompanies the band on ukelele, the song laments a musician’s loneliness while on the road. Yet another Pink Floyd cover, “Mother”, rounds out the sapphic theme of the encore. A politically-charged piece offering a series of rhetorical questions from son to mother, followed by the mother’s comforting answers, it is a timely message during the current horrors of drone strikes and the NSA’s unapologetic spying on its citizens. Vedder’s baritone growls, whines, warns, accuses. It is a lullaby to his two daughters, to his fans and to himself.

The crowd is ready to get loud again, and the band gives us what we want: “Breath” (from the Singles soundtrack), followed by “Go” and “Porch” off Ten. This is classic Pearl Jam, some of the oldest and most empowering songs every written for troubled youth. All three songs represent what it is like to be young and still unleashed. Remember that itch to get out, to get as far away from home as possible, to travel the world and cross the line? These are songs to drive fast to, to get arrested to, to drink and fuck and fight to. These are songs for the young and the stupid, God bless us all.

If this were 1993, the mosh pits would be in full swing. But this is 2013, and after the Roskilde tragedy in 2000 where nine fans were accidentally killed and several wounded, Pearl Jam had to take a step back and reevaluate what this music thing was really all about. The result? The band has learned when to pull back a little during live sets. This is why I am disappointed that the band did not open “Porch” with the foul-mouthed, greasy distortion I have been patiently waiting for all night. They start it out with a more subdued tone that completely deflates the epic introduction that serves as a catapult for the rest of the song. Is this a precaution, I wonder? Is the band afraid of its own force? As it is, one fan is pulled out of the pit and escorted off stage, and Vedder stops mid-song to inquire about the man’s well-being. The trauma of Roskilde is ever-present, the band still mourning the incomprehensible tragedy. This is how music can be a weapon, after all.

“Porch” is also the song that goes on for a while, spiraling into a long, winding jam that, in the past, allowed Vedder time to climb and hang from risers, jump into and surf the crowd, offering up his body to be bruised and scratched night after night. Tonight, Vedder stays grounded for the most part. Instead, he passes a wine bottle around to the fans, climbs the swinging lamps that are lowered every now and then for the musicians to kick and shove around the stage and swings out into the crowd before landing yet another jump on cue.

Second encore.

The stage rotates to face the back of the arena, and Vedder does the twist while singing “Last Kiss”, a Wayne Cochran cover, to the fans who have been staring at his back for most of the show. “Unthought Known” off Backspacer is next, the muted guitar strumming climbs slowly with Vedder’s confident baritone until the keys and drums pull in McCready’s lilting guitar. It’s a lovely number. A cover of The Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me” sustains the former song’s energy, both songs taking advantage of the large space, reaching into every corner of the venue to pull out that epic, stadium-worthy chorus. They nail it.

Finally, song 33, the last song of the night, is yet another cover: Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In the Free World”, another personal favorite, breaks open, and we are awash in that unmistakable guitar riff that ushers in one of the most subversive American rock songs every written. The stark imagery, the relentless assault of distortion and a hard-driving beat frames the harmony that is a call to action to citizens of a “free” country. McCready doesn’t smash his guitar this time, although he has already penetrated the amplifier with his guitar headstock and surfed the crowd at one point. After struggling with Crohn’s disease, it is good to see McCready looking so spry.

In fact, the whole band looks healthy and happy. Who would’ve predicted such a thing from some of the loudest, angriest, hard-working rockers in the history of American rock and roll? Here’s to 20 more years of songwriting, touring and activism. Eddie, Stone, Jeff, Mike, Matt and Boomer, may the jam always be with you.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: The Eye of The Storm « Rekwired

Robert Levon Been, photo by Armine Iknadossian

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

Robert Levon Been, photo by Armine Iknadossian


Last Night On Earth with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club at The Troubadour 12/21/12 « Rekwired

Last Night On Earth with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club at The Troubadour 12/21/12 « Rekwired.

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.”

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is (still) Not For Sale

Peter Hayes
Peter Hayes @ The Music Box

An open bar, trendy hors-devours, swag bags and stretch limousines. The red carpet’s long and narrow tongue greets us with cameramen (why are they always men) lined up on our right side. My friend Jen hesitates in front of the intimidating mass, not sure how to proceed. I grab her arm and say, “We’re nobody. They won’t bother us.” So we run by the paparazzi who are checking their batteries and adjusting their lenses, waiting for the beautiful and damned to totter in on their Louboutin heels. Hey, I know my high fashion terminology. My sister works in the god-forsaken industry, after all. It looks like there is one cameraman for every guest, and every other polished attendee is dressed in a faux-weathered leather jacket, as if in standard-issue tough-guy uniform. But we are not here with switchblades and chains, ready for a rumble. The cause is modern-day slavery and the trafficking of humans for sex and forced labor. The Not For Sale campaign has teamed up with All Saints and BRMC to make tonight happen. The numbers are staggering – 30 million in Thailand alone. Women and children kidnapped and sold by manufacturing companies from all over the world, including the United States. Capitalism at its finest, folks!

At the newly-renovated Music Box theater in Hollywood, I score free drinks at an open bar and feel guilty for not having any cash to tip the bartender with for pouring my organic vodka. Meanwhile, President Obama is across the city charging $35,800 a head for a dinner, courting the Hollywood elite, rapidly acquiring a hefty campaign budget in hopes of re-election so that his hair can grey even more rapidly, so that he can continue to chip away at the massive Berlin wall that is our United States Congress. Wall Street is overrun by citizens being brutalized by the NYPD, Turkey is under post-earthquake rubble and bone, Gaddafi’s sodomized corpse is on display in a vegetable crisper and I’m feeling guilty about not tipping with money I don’t have. They don’t take credit here. Cash only. I have been living off credit for a couple of months now after my knee surgery forced me to stay home from work. When Courtney Love screamed, “I got no credit in the straight world,” is this what she meant?

Sarah Ferguson is here supporting the cause, sitting in a VIP booth in the corner while lights and cameras illuminate her fair skin. Remember when she was considered a rebellious, young royal? I was a teenager when she divorced that life and turned her back on Windsor Castle.  Weight-loss ads followed, and now she is here to support anti-slavery while England recovers from their own civil unrest. It is the age of Aquarius, in case you were wondering. It is that time again. Time to unleash the disgruntled masses onto the paved streets, tanks or no tanks. Time to take back our country from the sticky hands of the corporate sharks and crooked money lenders. We want our pound of flesh. But, as Shakespeare made clear, it is not that easy, is it? A pound of flesh to even the score is what Shylock wanted. No more and no less. And the 99% want justice, want criminals on display, want to jail and tax the men who gorged themselves on people’s humble dreams while writing off hookers and blow as business expenses. “Let them eat cake,” is not what we are being told, of course. That would be in bad taste. We would much rather attribute such insensitivity to a woman who was, in her own right, essentially sold by her family in a political transaction. Slavery comes in all shapes. But I digress.

I am here primarily to see Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. I have been following this band for a few years now, and every live show is another dose of sonic dopamine that I have come to crave, and similar to heroin’s effect, post-gig nausea promptly sets in at the stroke of midnight. This is par for the course, along with a few days of tinnitus. It is all worth it.

The band arrived on motorcycles, not in limousines. We know this because we see the cycles lined up in the parking lot. Humble could mean being misconstrued as unsuccessful. This is not the case with BRMC. Their devoted fan base and tireless touring keep their flame lit. Their visit to Cambodia last month after playing in China is a testament to their devotion to the Not For Sale cause, and although they believe in making a difference, they were raised in a home that encouraged it. Robert Been’s mother, who I meet backstage, is an activist in her own right. His father, the late Michael Been, was known for his upstanding morals and spiritual mentorship. Their son is a bi-product of this sincere concern for justice and the welfare of those less fortunate, and thus the reason the band is here tonight.

That said, BRMC does not mingle with the crowd before the show. They don’t pose with models and ex-royalty while their audience gets good and liquored up. They shyly appear one by one at the edge of the stage, peek out to see what’s what and then disappear again. They are skeptical of such glamorous parties, but they are wily enough to understand that tonight might provide a necessary boost in the cause’s visibility and budget. It might also give the band a chance to win over some new fans before the release of their sixth album.

They walk onto the stage without fanfare or warning. The true fans know when they’re about to appear because we know their pre-show playlist: Spiritualized’s “Don’t Go/Stay with Me” followed by The Ronnette’s “Be My Baby”. Peter Hayes and Been saunter out, heads bowed, not even looking at the crowd as Leah Shapiro unassumingly takes her seat behind the drum kit. A hard-working, hard-touring, hard-rocking trio of talented musicians who know a good cause when they see it, BRMC scream “Fuck the US government” into the microphone before their subversive track, “US Government,” ends. Unapologetic dissent. This song is played live sparingly for obvious reasons. And then “Six-Barrel Shotgun” with a chorus that echoes the bitterness of citizens who have been chanting in the streets for over a month now: “We shook hands, and the criminals won.” The words mean a lot to me since I essentially work for the government as a public school teacher by day. Both my government and my union keep chipping away at my modest paycheck, so I am more than happy to spew some bile tonight.

After the show, Peter runs outside for a smoke, and Rob greets fans and friends while leaning against a wall. He’s really good at leaning against walls, that one. James Dean reincarnate, some say. Others feel the spirit of Jeff Buckley in his gentle speech and wry wit. His bass hooks are epic, and that is all that matters to me. He wears his leather jacket tonight, along with all the other trendsetters. But, this specific look is one that the band took on years before motorcycle jackets and boots re-emerged on the catwalk. BRMC’s aesthetic has remained classic black and leather for over a decade now, and they do not wear labels on their clothes, although they do support labels that are politically conscious and ethically sound. Of course the irony in all this is that the less they try to call attention to what they wear, the more the media focuses on just that. No dummies, the band understands that image has its place in rock and roll, but Rob doesn’t miss the opportunity to sarcastically point out the “importance” of fashion when he gets up to the microphone earlier in the evening. He’s been known to mock the couture contingent before, even when agreeing to play during fashion week in Manhattan last year where he donned a black velvet dress and leopard-print coat over his usual jeans and t-shirt.

Peter hangs around for a bit, so naturally I take the opportunity to ask him about the harmonica malfunction and their latest jaunt to China. They (wisely) refrained from playing the incendiary track “US Government” for fear of being jailed or having their audience jailed simply for being there. Peter’s gracious, yet endearingly awkward, conversation is still disarming, even after several encounters with the man. Low key and humble, he responds to our compliments with a shrug and chuckles softly when another fan schools him on how to accept a compliment. When Leah beckons him over for a post-gig hug, he obliges. He is a genuine talent, and like most perfectionists, is hard to please. This quality is what legends are made of, and no matter how many jingle writers cross over to write catchy top-40 hits (Foster the People), I know without having to ask him that he will never stoop to that in order to make a buck. He would rather pump gas for a living, if that job still existed.

BRMC earned its stripes years ago. Dropped by Virgin Records in the middle of touring for their second album, they started their own label and continue to work without an expensive producer in the studio. They do their own writing, mixing and recording. They even put out the acoustic-heavy HOWL knowing that that they might lose fair-weather fans in the process. They have credibility in spades. Now, before you die-hard fans bring up the fact that BRMC has been allowing songs to appear in car commercials and cell-phone ads for a pretty penny, let me refer you to one of my favorite pop-culture critics. Henry Rollins has expertly covered this exact issue for me, so I won’t even bother to put my own spin on it. I refer you instead to the disgruntled and consistently eloquent punk icon instead:

Selling out is making the record you’re told to make instead of making the record you want to make…. Pay them! Pay them double! Pay them now! It’s about fucking time!

Copyright © 2011 Armine Iknadossian. All rights reserved.