The Black Angels, Bluebird Theater, Denver, CO – 6/14
Never have I published an extended article on a band and then felt compelled to write about them again after seeing the show in question. But someone needed to rise above the neo-jamband, hippie-clamor and show the world that "psychedelia" does not just mean shallow bliss, and the Black Angels are inspiring many music lovers around this country by doing just that. Their music has been a healthy shock to my system lately, and in concert it was transcendent. I talked so much in Boulder Weekly about the Velvet Underground and Syd Barrett and proving that some of the best, most enduring music of the 1960's the music that so deeply influences the Black Angels was not flower-powered at all, but in fact deep and dark. And the real point is what's happening at this moment: a young band that just put out their second album is improving beyond belief and becoming one of the most honest and important American groups to come around in a long time.
To be sure, last night I felt like my heart was on fire, standing a few feet from the band in the midst of one of those rare sustained series of unforgettable moments where you feel like an artist is singing to you, even through you, staring into your vulnerable soul with music and lyrics that very hauntingly, very realistically say, by chance, "this is exactly what you've been feeling lately; this is what you're feeling right now; and this is what we have to tell you about it." Maybe I felt like singer Alex Maas was taking the part of Indiana Jones at the end of Temple of Doom, exclaiming "You betray Shiva!" and pulling my heart out with his bare hands. I'm not sure, but the music was great.
It was one of those precious, unpredictable experiences where you lose and find yourself many times in a span of an hour or so, with ears bleeding and soul humming, body bouncing to what was once called rock n' roll: a treacherous din infatuating all within ears' range and mesmerizing, slaying, even metamorphosizing those close enough to be sprayed with the singer's sweat as he prowls about the stage slamming a tambourine off either wrist in his moments of genuine ecstasy. No other concert I've seen and I've been to maybe a thousand and performed hundreds more has ever captured a feeling, a series of current, personal events, an explosion of the honesty within me, taken hold of it and taken an electric shock to it, like the Black Angels did in Denver last night. It was like all the music and all the emotion I know and love, and continue to identify with for better or worse as I age, was wrapped up in a ball of sound and thrown back at me in one dark star-burst of an hour-and-a-half set of rock music.
If Time Out of Mind had not been released in 1997 but instead in 2001, when I was heartbroken with open wounds and surrounded by negativity, and I’d somehow seen Dylan perform those songs at a small club in Pittsburgh like Metropol, it may have matched the relevance of last night. But then again, the execution, intensity and aggressive release of such a young, vital band as the Black Angels would not have been there for Dylan in his old age. And the Black Angels’ music is not sad; it’s a barrage of brutal truth. Last night vaguely reminded me of seeing Arcade Fire at Shoreline Amphitheatre on their second tour after Neon Bible came out those songs had become much stronger in concert and had begun to come alive and not pale in comparison to songs from Funeral but instead compliment them. But Arcade Fire's songs are eventually about hope, whereas the Black Angels' message is something akin to a Bill Hicks routine: "we are all one/nothing exists except this moment/and there is no such thing as death." I'm especially reminded of those philosophies during "Sniper At the Gates of Heaven," when Maas sings "what do you do when Hell surrounds you?/how hot does it get?/I think I've already felt it," and in that cliff-hanger moment in "Young Men Dead" the audience loves so much, when Maas cries out "we can live if we're too afraid to die."
Anyway, they started in total darkness, Stephanie Bailey pounding away as if she were the only drummer on Earth and if she let up for just a second the world would stop turning. I can't think of another female drummer who is such an impressive, perfect fit for a heavy rock band, although the way the Black Angels gradually swap instruments as their set goes along is priceless and adds to the ceremonial feeling of their shows. And the lights were so low you could barely make out their faces as guitarist Christian Bland and Mass sung the back-and-forth, call-and-response love-sick romp that is "Manipulation" together: "watch out for her dark side/soon you'll figure out/she's training you/and she's got you, don't she?" And then, with an insane howl from Maas, who was clearly ready to take the night over, they dove into "You On The Run" and "Black Grease" back-to-back and the show really started, with the audience flipping out as one and a sudden burst of projections flashing behind the band, including footage of Native American ceremonies, real war film, pill popping, mass meat production, boxing, even images of young female gymnasts spliced with pictures of huge black crosses. Somehow it all made sense.
The music veered from their signature bluesy, super-charged tribal stomps to long Eastern-influenced V.U.-style jams to slow, maniacal explosions (like the San Francisco-inspired "Mission District," which hits so close to home with me) that gradually and powerfully bring the crowd to a boiled-over, wailing frenzy and directly blur the line between audience and artist in a way that just doesn't happen anymore at rock shows.
But the Black Angels, in their current state of evolution, essentially perform a thrilling mix of pain and pleasure, bound together in a huge sonic blast of unconditional love without fear or mercy. Alex Maas kicks and screams before, during and after their songs not because he is complaining or attempting to escape from something: he is celebrating freedom from guilt and corruption and thrusting a rusty dagger into the heart of what America has become. Christian Bland plays a 12-string electric with so many effects and so much volume that it literally hurts to listen, but you identify with and embrace the pain. And the rest of the band is just so into it that you can't help matching their rapture.
The funny thing I realized while walking out onto the streets of Denver after midnight was that they didn't play my three or four favorite songs ("18 Years," "First Vietnamese War," "The Prodigal Son," etc.) and I didn't notice or care, although I did leave wanting to hear "Doves."
And yes, I had seen the Black Angels before, in San Francisco, two years agoaround the time their debut album (_Passover_) came out, and that show was good. I was with a pack of friends from the TLXN crew, and Jesse had just come down from Seattle and moved in with me. We brought a bottle of Jameson into the Independent and killed it during the opening bands, and when the Black Angels came out it was enjoyablebut just so much of the same feeling and the same sound throughout their set. Passover is one of my favorite albums of the past few years and I visit it weekly like an old friend who really understands me, but its only weakness is that all the songs sort of melt into one. The new album, Directions to See a Ghost, is an animal of evolution and diversity, spanning many influences and emotions, and a statement to the growth of a great young band.
That night at the Independent, I was busy chasing my girlfriend around the club, dreading the inevitable disconnection but loving the friendship (and intoxication) all around. The Black Angels did not pull me, or us, in; we left early, complaining that it was too much of the same. But last night at the Bluebird Theater, in all honesty, might have been the single most memorable night of music in my life, for sheer power and relevance for me personally surpassing even my experience seeing the Pogues and Sinead O'Connor in Dublin, Ireland on Christmas Eve, although that was powerful for completely different reasons, so I won't compare.
In essence, I felt like Lester Bangs at a Funhouse-era Stooges show, when corporate rock was just beginning to show its ugly face and the primordial thump of Iggy and his young Detroit troops showed the faithful what rock was really about. The Black Angels are very young, too and getting better.