May 6, 2012

That Was The Show That Was: Brian Jonestown Massacre | Wonder Ballroom, Portland, Ore. | 4 May

That Was The Show That Was:  Brian Jonestown Massacre | Wonder Ballroom, Portland, Ore. | 4 May

What began for Clicky Clicky as an excursion of curiosity turned out to be one of the most surprisingly rich rock and roll performances of recent memory.  Brian Jonestown Massacre, ever a shifting fixture of the Pacific Northwest indie scene, played last night to a VERY appreciative and virtually sold-out crowd in Portland in support of their latest full-length, Aufheben.

Contemplating the entrance line encircling the block emphasized the mystery as to why the storied act's popularlity thrives to such a degree in this part of the country. It's certainly not the '90s anymore, and the band's output since their famous implosion (immortalized in the 2004 documentary Dig!), can safely be summarized as "scattershot." So, while Clicky Clicky has treasured the act's 1995 debut, Methodrone -- a monument to '60s-stung shoegaze -- the balance of their discography has felt flat, lost in a drowsy, opiated state. These perceptions, it turned out, were due to a lack of understanding that Brian Jonestown Massacre is a band whose work must be experienced, not mediated through iTunes playlist or poor car stereo. Its live presentation is what makes the act exceptional.

The crowd crowding the Wonder Ballroom surprisingly appeared to consist mostly of fans too young to have witnessed the band a decade before. Its anticipation gathered while presumably band-chosen music pumped through the massive PA at a volume larger than most other concerts: Spacemen 3, trance, Psychocandy and Songs About Fucking, set the mood for those awaiting Anton Newcombe and company.

As the Massacre took to the stage, audible surprise was heard among the crowd. Newcombe was accompanied at this show by notable old bandmates and foils: the floaty Matt Hollywood and seemingly real-life cartoon character Joel Gion. Gion in particular was fascinating to observe, as he was in Dig! with his too-far mod haircut and oversized glasses. At Wonder Ballroom he affected the appearance of a 1950s beatnik dock worker, one thinking "I guess I'll try out this newfangled rock music." Truly, a spectacle to behold -- if he is acting, give Gion an Oscar. To add to the sleazy rock god image that Brian Jonestown Massacre has so cooly concocted, the roady doubled as Newcombe's valet, removing Anton's jacket periodically while minding the refreshments; straight Jack Daniel's. All this before the band had even played a note.

The Wonder Ballroom is notable for its slightly awkward, high school gymnasium-styled layout. However, the strange space is rendered irrelevant by the tremendously loud and clear sound board manned by someone who earns their pay. As BJM launched into the first batch of tunes, its four guitarists could be heard distinctly. Newcombe's vocals, sounding as stoned and dethroned as on record, were mixed just below the surface and the bass, drums, and Gion's tambourine smacked in the gut. Despite the panning of instruments in what seemed like a hundred different directions, nothing was sacrificed in brute force. Each individual amongst the mass assemblage of musicians played just slightly differently from the next, creating a rich, woven quilt of reverberant chords and subtle, single-note leads. One guitarist doubled everything Newcombe played, but with a completely over-fuzzed 12-string. What had sometimes seemed crowded and unnecessary on record was now crucial to the entire experience, the complete nostalgic idea.

For the first half of the set, the group focused mainly on songs from Aufheben. "Stairway To The Best Party" continued the slow, laconic angle achieved by their best downtempo numbers. "Seven Kinds of Wonderful" and "Clouds Are Lies" both used wailing, distorted and circular guitar figures to create just the right swaying hypnosis. The best track of the new bunch? "Viholliseni Maalla" was awesome, with Hollywood taking the lead vocal, his unique, soft voice perfect fit for it. Though Newcombe would probably scoff at the idea, the tune indeed parlayed a sort of filial respect for Deerhunter at their most pop.

After a middle break, the group played a small batch of songs from their vast back catalog. Methodrone tracks "She Made Me" and the grinding garage classic "That Girl Suicide" each elicited huge responses from the audience. Up-tempo songs like "Not If You Were The Last Dandy On Earth" and a faster "Vacuum Boots" incited the entire Ballroom to dance, though songs like that never came along quite enough.

Even so, Brian Jonestown Massacre proved last night that a more-traditional rock experience can still be surprising, vital and complex. After a tight set, the band closed without an encore. Instead, it was a 10-minute power jam, with all four guitarists soloing individually, each echoing lead bearing a perfect imprint of some lost era of popular music. As the men departed, guitars against the amps in a feedback chorus, the allure of the group was made plain.

The band completes a West Coast tour May 12 (full dates here) before embarking on an eight-day tour of Australia with Raveonettes followed by a month in Europe and yet another spin around the U.S. beginning Aug. 16. -- Edward Charlton

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1 comment:

DanP said...

EXCELLENT description of the wonder that is BJM live.