Darls in Charge
We admit it — The Spin definitely has a thing for the way great rock 'n' roll pits opposing forces against each other. When it's done right, the marriage of opposites can produce something like what we saw Friday night at Mercy Lounge, where Those Darlins celebrated the release of their new full-length Blur the Line. Being longtime fans of the Darlins, The Spin got off on the way the Nashville rock group has updated their music by subtly changing their band dynamic.
They're a classic rock-guitar quartet, with the intertwined axes of Nikki Kvarnes and Jessi Zazu making room for Nikki's drolly psychedelic melodicism and Jessi's combination of rhythm and lead. Throw in the stoic but expressive drumming of Linwood Regensburg with new bassist Adrian Barrera's in-the-pocket playing, and the result is a band that balances rock 'n' roll classicism with idiosyncratic expression.
Friday night's festivities began with an opening set from Music City's most nondescriptly named music band, Nashville transplants Music Band. With a sound that is infinitely better than their name, Music Band blasted through some psych 'n' roll grooves, including — according to a friend of the band — a significant amount of new material. Alicia Bognanno-fronted newcomers Bully — who are among our favorite new bands in town — followed, playing one of their first sets as a quartet thanks to the recent addition of lead guitarist Kyle Hunter. Hunter does a good job of fleshing out Bully's tight little tunes, with Bognanno's bubblegummy vocals tunefully anchoring Bully's grunge-pop sound in the Kim Deal/Kim Gordon tradition. The slinky, languid blues of Adia Victoria felt like a peculiar choice for the third slot, we thought, but Victoria's rhythm section — featuring former Heavy Cream drummer Tiffany Minton and former Black Belles bassist Ruby Rogers — was sleek and locked in. Maybe on a different bill Victoria & Co. really would have held our attention, but with our antennae set to receive loud, full-on rock 'n' roll, their set felt incongruous, and the crowd felt restless for a lot of it.
Blur the Line is an evolutionary step ahead for Those Darlins — the way we hear it, the record takes the band's message of self-empowerment to new levels. If there's a slightly reflective, downcast air to Blur the Line, the way the band performed the new songs was clean, forward-looking and satisfying on a formal level. Regensberg's drumming never overpowers the overall performance, yet he guides the band, and provides equally appropriate background vocals. Barrera, who looks like he could have played bass for Faces or Mott the Hoople, does straight-man duties with a '70s rocker's imperturbable mien.
Dressed in white, Jessi sang the set's opener, "Ain't Afraid," a Blur the Line track. "There's a tumor growing on my body," she declared. And here's where we remind you of those opposites we mentioned earlier — Jessi combines energetic and ascetic impulses in her songs and onstage presence. She reached out to the crowd with a slightly manic expressiveness, but she's a self-contained performer. On the other hand, Nikki — dressed in purple and black — sings in the cooled-out voice of a girl-group vocalist, as if she were channeling Mary Weiss along with The Cramps' Poison Ivy.
Throughout the set, the band rocked out in a variety of modes, moving from mutated Sun Records-style rockabilly to blithe '60s pop. Nikki and Jessi sometimes shared a single mic, like The Beatles used to do, and played their amalgam of styles for the adoring crowd. Another track from Blur the Line, "In the Wilderness" sounded even more like David Bowie, T. Rex and Mott the Hoople than it does on the record. "Screws Get Loose," the title track of the Darlins' 2011 full-length, registered as the sardonically optimistic pop tune it is, while the new record's "Western Sky" came across as the Darlins' fusion of '60s and '80s pop.
Drawing from Blur the Line, the band made the most of the groovy, spooky changes of "She Blows," which reminds The Spin of a modern take on late-'60s California rock — perhaps Those Darlins will one day cover Spirit's "I Got a Line on You." As for cover versions, the group showed the good taste to essay Alex Chilton's "Free Again," a tune Chilton first recorded for his 1970 solo album. Its theme of regeneration and liberation fit in with the vibe of Blur the Line.
The Spin got off on the band's sonics — Those Darlins integrate guitar noise, Jessi's keening, impassioned lead vocals and Nikki's single-note leads into a style that is rooted in rock basics. Nikki took the mic for "Night Jogger" and showed her super-cool, self-contained, post-rockabilly persona at its best, while Jessi contributed a lot of frenzied guitar. The night drew to an end with the new record's "Optimist," and Jessi thanked Darlins fans everywhere. "I can't say how grateful we are for everything and everybody in our lives," she said. "Everybody helped us, really." The set ended with the cheerfully diseased '50s-style rock ballad "That Man," another Blur track. The song mentions "that maggot brain where nobody looks the same," and "That Man" is a typically ambivalent view of the way human beings interact.
It was late, but the crowd howled for more. Those Darlins complied by bringing up members of opening acts Aida Victoria and Music Band for a suitably unhinged version of Lou Reed's old Velvet Underground drug-euphoria tune, "White Light/White Heat." With Regensburg laying down a flat, steady beat that original Velvets drummer Maureen Tucker would endorse, Those Darlins & Co. gave the song an extended workout. The night closed with "Be Your Bro" from Screws Get Loose, and it was simultaneously loose and uptight — just another example of how Those Darlins make any number of rock 'n' roll contradictions work to their advantage.
Pour One out for my Homme
The fact that the always punctual (har!) Spin was able to roll up to Municipal Auditorium 15 minutes before showtime at Monday night's Queens of the Stone Age gig and immediately land a prime street parking spot caddy-corner to the arena made us wonder if we had shown up on the right night. We had, and we didn't just have amazing parking karma, as the typically quiet Monday-night-downtown vibe was a heart-sinking sign that Nashville wasn't quite as ready to rock as we might have hoped.
We soon sauntered inside the lovably aging, antiquated auditorium and joined Music City's other 3,000 or 4,000 rock 'n' roll fans, who were standing still, staring at the stage in mid-serenade courtesy of British post-punk revivalists Savages. The quartet was midway through a pretty "just fine" set of slimy, spasmodic Joy Division and Magazine homages, complete with hooks borrowed from Peter Hook, a guitarist's repertoire of reverb and harmonics-laden early-U2 Edge-isms and a singer who handily pulled off a dead-on Lene Lovich impression (seductive low-register bellowing punctuated by high-pitched chirps).
So yeah, Savages were art-school-record-collection-checklist rock for sure, but with enough hookiness and quirk to justify their existence as a band. A particular highlight was "Hit Me" — a lyrically provocative, tongue-in-cheek commentary on abuse and/or masochism that was a musical feedback fest of rumbling, shambolic noise rock starting with frontwoman Jehnny Beth singing a capella (à la P.J. Harvey's classic "Rid of Me"), belting out lines like "I'm a dirty little dog" and "Hit me with your hands / Oh, it's the only way I ever learn." And if such things are important, Savages sounded fashionably chic, and probably looked the part as well — you know, hip. But we could barely make them out under the shadowy, club-appropriate but not arena-appropriate lighting, not to mention the fact that — save for Beth, who was wearing white — the band was clad head to toe in black and standing in front of a black curtain.
Speaking of curtains, when Savages' set finished, the house lights rose to reveal a massive black one spanning 360 degrees across the orbicular arena, completely covering the entire upper bowl. What's more, the seats in the lower ring were (speaking optimistically) only about half-filled, though the floor was totally packed.
In the concourse — a high-school-hallway-looking maze of ramps and rails that would be a teenage Tony Hawk worshiper's wet dream — an awful truth that showed the venue's old-schoolness and lacking technical prowess met every beer-thirsty concertgoer: Municipal, like a pissed-off cab driver on a Friday night, only accepts cash. So upon entrance we noticed a shockingly short beer line, across for an ATM line that snaked a solid 20-plus feet down the corridor.
In that crowd you could spot pretty every type of rock fan straight out of central casting. There were your typical shaggy teenage burnouts, middle-aged heshers, gawky indie rockers, fashion victims from the counties, introverted prog fans, metalheads, straight-up normies, you name it — Queens of the Stone Age bring 'em all together under one big tent. Nevertheless, in Nashville, that's not enough people to pack out Municipal. Sure, it was a Monday night. And sure, world-twee college favorites Vampire Weekend were playing over at the Ryman (though the thought of anyone choosing that show over this one scorches our soul). But a top-tier, world-class hard-rock band rolling through town to such indifference isn't really becoming of a Music City — or "It" city, or whatever the fucking fuck we think we are.
Or maybe it was just circumstance. Queens, even at their commercial peak, were never arena headliners. Rock is an increasingly cult genre, and frontman Josh Homme & Co. are a cult band. Last night's crowd, though far from selling out Municipal, was too big to fill any of Nashville's theaters. So this is the sort of commercial live-draw purgatory a rock act of Queens' stature lays in these days. That said, last night the band rocked like a reigning musical welcoming committee in hell.
As the tough-as-nails-looking rockers took the stage, it was apparent that the big rock show they brought with them couldn't have fit in a theater. Towering two or three stories above the band (and Homme himself already stands a solid 17 or so feet tall) was a massive LED screen that looked like the stoner-rock, junior-size version of the screen from U2's PopMart Tour. Flanked by floor-to-ceiling, equally blinding lighting and LED towers, the center-piece screen displayed vivid, Pushead-esque animated images of swarming bats, crows and body-hungry vultures, screeching skeleton hands, psychedelic color swirls, be-suited men slowing falling to their deaths and other fun stuff to complement a set that leaned heavily on songs from band's slow-burning, cerebral and all-around badass latest album, ... Like Clockwork.
And Clockwork cuts like dirge-y album/set opener "Keep Your Eyes Peeled," the dreamy, sonic swirl of the title track, the monster chorus of "Kalopsia," the driving stoner rock of "My God Is the Sun" and the heady, balladic sprawl of "The Vampyre of Time and Memory" all delivered well beyond even their recordings. The seemingly telepathically connected band of aces — including alt-rock sideman extraordinaire Troy Van Leeuwen (who repeatedly rocked a double-necked guitar), Dead Weather dude Dean Fertita and near-Dave Grohl-rivaling drum hero Jon Theodore — totally subsumed the songs and turned them back out with in-the-moment effects and dynamics that, in case it's a forgotten art form, reminded all in attendance what a real fucking rock band actually fucking sounds like. QOTSA was firing on all cylinders, rewarding us with a performance every bit as engaging and committed as the band's mind-blowing sold-out rampage through the Ryman in 2011.
Like at the Ryman show, the band also didn't skimp on the back-catalog classics, even treating us to their signature hit "No One Knows" three songs into the set. Like the kind of concertgoers The Spin usually makes fun of at Rush shows, we air-drummed along to that one and Songs for the Deaf standouts like the set-closing "Go With the Flow" and encore-closing "A Song for the Dead" like total, uninhibited fucking dorks.
Other old-school chestnuts included the frantic, frenetic Era Vulgaris fave "Sick, Sick, Sick" and the Lullabies to Paralyze power-rocker "Burn the Witch." But hands down, the performances of the night went to a pair of Rated R deep cuts: the smoky "In the Fade" and "Better Living Through Chemistry," the latter of which was drawn out into an extended jam that peaked, valley'd and climaxed with a sonic narrative as rewarding as a first viewing of The Godfather.
Yeah, last night's show was pretty epic. More of you really should've been there.