I fell in love with a sweet sensation
i gave my heart to a simple chord
I gave my soul to a new religion
Whatever happened to you?
Last Thursday, something serious happened, something really important. The two great religions of modern man collided in a moment of cultural fury. Football met rock'n'roll in a face-off, and football lost. I'm not going to speak about Russia's loss to Spain in the European Championship. No. I’m on about something less cataclysmic, but more immanent, warmer. A shot in the arm delivered in 2 hours, equivalent in potency to the 10 day seismic party that shook this great nation as their heroes pirouetted over the fields of Innsbruck, Salzburg and Basel, where they tragically came a-cropper.
I'm talking about rock'n'roll. This was rock'n'roll. If the Cure, right, if they totally loved Led Zeppelin when they were young... no... if The Cult were Cureheads.. no, if Spiritualized ever got their shit together or Oasis really, really had balls.... no no no. You see, I'm grasping at straws, because I'm starting with a British band. Let’s face facts. Today, the 4th of July 2008, it is appropriate that we remind each other that America gave rock’n’roll to the world. Europe didn’t, Africa neither, and Russia not at all. America did. And this is why so many British or European bands who love rock’n’roll have to, at some stage, go to America. It’s a pilgrimage. Some understand the journey (Stones, Led Zep, U2) and mature as artists as they reach back into their own roots. Others fail embarrassingly (Oasis). America is the melting pot, it’s the bridge for wherever you want your rock’n’roll to go. Europe could never handle something as twisted and lonely as the American South to have emerged. There’s not enough space.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (BRMC), who’s performance at Moscow's B2 last Thursday is presently under discussion, are American. They live in LA, and hail from San Fran. But lately they’ve spent some time in the South. And that’s really important. I came across some comparisons with Oasis, and frankly find that very hard to accept. BRMC's music is a much more evolved, astute and intelligent beast than the shouters from Manchester. To use the aborigine expression BRMC trace a song line from their urban west coast roots to the heart of the American South. This is the revolutionary music of the southern swamps, the bridges, the heat, and this is why they should be proud. They are American; their music has a seamless undeniable sprit that traces an audible path from college radio to Lomax anthropological recording.
“If you look directly at something, it’s in-apprehend able”
In the documentary Searching for the Wrong Eyed Jesus musician Jim White looks under the rocks and stones to find some truth about the American South: “To find the gold tooth in God's crooked smile”. It is a profound film about real people and the stories they tell each other about themselves. BRMC brought their blues with them and generously shared it with us – dragging up from the swamps an evening of such sonic intensity (respect to B2 as the sound was SUPERB), such feeling, that I simply closed my eyes and listened, and what I heard was a thing of beauty. Rancid angry guitar-lead verses punctuated by euphoric beach boy harmony choruses, finger picking soulful blues, 8 minute atmospheric guitar workouts, delivered out of a barrel of a gun.
Robert Levon Been (Bass), Peter Hayes (guitar), and drummer Leah Shapiro (who frankly does a better job live than the temporarily indisposed drummer Nick Jago, if the evidence on You Tube is to be believed), literally beat us into submission in a venue that delivered atmosphere and conviviality in equal parts. Been and Hayes share vocals, often alternating verses and chorus in what I can't resist calling a “twin vocal attack”, for the laugh. They enjoy it too by the looks of things and do it, I would suggest, because they can.
”Weapon of Choice” burned the room with a white noise chorus perfectly contrasted against a “get-yourself-arrested” low down dirty riff underpinning (shared) verses. How refreshing it was to be in a Moscow club and listen to 300 music lovers chant “I won’t waste my love on a nation” in unison. From there it was into an 8 minute ”Ain't no easy way”: a primal southern juju hoe-down played (live) with a delayed electric (not a resonator) and death-echo harmonica. Think Black Sabbath playing Muddy Waters in an echo-chamber. During ”Spread your Love” they came closest to Spiritualized, who I've seen twice, but decimated the British pretenders with a burning driven piece of blues, where Been and Hayes once again shared verses and joyously combined in a chorus. Stipe had Mills, these guys have each other. They of course played ”Love Burns”, a genuine crowd pleaser and followed it up with “Need Some Air”, in an obvious nod to heroes the Jesus and Mary Chain.
Hayes then treated us to two solo finger-picked pieces of southern blues poetry that sadly lamented the losses, admitted his failings “I been living on a fault line”, and humbly gave thanks for the here and now, commanding respectful silence in a venue almost full to capacity. “Faultline” has us all singing. Been provided an enjoyable cameo when, sitting on a monitor, he tuned his guitar for about 3 minutes before delivering “Weight of the world” (“It has to be right!” he explained).
It was all carried off effortlessly. These guys are the real deal – members of the church. Every song, however, broody, mean, vulnerable or angry, possessed the essence of a great pop song, that instant mind erasing quality where all you can hear, is all you can feel.
Churches, prisons, bars, forests, mountains were almost perceptible in the black noise delivered from the stage. People openly turned to me and started explaining how lucky they felt to be there. There was a little crowd surfing (why not?) and a lot of respect for a band that have to be amongst the best in the world at the moment.
Each band member played with a punk intensity matched by the others, but each had their own style, made their own noise. To fully apprehend this group you listen to the parts but are moved by the whole (Pixies, Beatles, Smashing Pumpkins). I honestly have not heard anything so utterly convincing, so demanding of attention, since the Pixies humiliated the Red Hot Chili Peppers in front of 120,000 people in Dublin’s Phoenix Park in 2004, or Motorhead doing the same to Black Sabbath in 1981 Dublin's Dalymount Park. They may be young lads, but BRMC is maturing into a deeply powerful black wall of sound that embraces, cajoles, suffers and inspires. This is life-affirming blues, anger is a gift, remember. “Suicide is easy, what about the revolution?”
BRMC rightfully espouse a musical politics that is angry, that seeks revenge for the travesties perpetrated on American culture by American politics. And they are one of the reasons why I am jealous of my American friends. This cocktail of roots, blues, rock, roll, Jesus and mind-twisting California was enough to make my skin tingle and my ears happily bleed. This was a communion, and it was a privilege to be there.
I told Polina twice that the gig was like the first and last chapter of a book, where all the routes and roots that stretch out from the beginning return, the same, but different, having been on the journey. If you love rock'n'roll you have to see this band.