Black Rebel Motorcycle Club return to the UK to tour their eighth studio album, Wrong Creatures. Having achieved cult status as one of the greatest live bands following the critical success of debut album B.R.M.C. This tour provides an opportunity for the band to play new songs and present a true retrospective of their work in an extended set drawing from their near twenty year back catalogue.
The melting heat of the London heatwave is not lessened by the lack of air conditioning in the Forum. The powdery white light of the smoke-filled stage hangs in place unmoving. The band arrive in a uniform of black biker jackets. Being leather-clad in this heat is a real commitment to a rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic. The spotlight rotates around each of the band members, in turn, creating a hazy camouflage, only the partial silhouettes of the musicians visible at any time.
Songs like Little Thing Gone Wild illustrate how each musical element can be picked out as the focus in a song; up-tempo percussion, crisp vocal harmonies, and smooth guitar changes make it feel like the song is being passed back and forth between the artists. These are beautifully crafted songs, made balanced as much by what is left out than what is included. Guitar parts cut through the wall of sound with razor sharp clarity.
When Robert Levon Been sings on King Of Bones, his sleepy gravel-rough voice almost blends with the music, lifting as the music drops giving this low down dirty rock ‘n’ roll a surprising delicacy. The lighting and smoke is used to great effect, flooding the whole venue with electric colour. The vivid fog is filled with the colours of California sunsets, the neon of dive bars and a psychedelic array of a drug-induced dream.
The audience is so enthralled, despite the debilitating heat, that the people in the gallery leap to their feet at the end of Beat the Devil’s Tattoo. The technical brilliance and frenzied finger work of both Been and joint frontman Peter Hayes overwhelming them. These are devoted fans who seem determined to give themselves over to the experience, dancing and cheering from the top to the bottom of the venue letting the sweat drip off them in a feverish state.
The flailing arms of drummer Leah Shapiro set back in the strobe lighting make her look like she’s caught in the frames of a zoetrope as she smashes her way through Conscience Killer and the marching beat of Ain’t No Easy Way. The range of styles performed in one set keeps things exciting, oscillating between heavy rock, like Berlin accompanied by a pulsing red heartbeat of light, to low down blues peppered with harmonica fills and twanging guitars with beaming yellow spotlights is stirring.
On Question of Faith, the thick velvety bassline underpins Been’s snarling vocal. This is the music of the open road, of cinematic vistas and death speed. A classic American soundtrack portraying a fantasy of the outlaw lifestyle with its freedom, anguish, and heartbreak. The pure emotion of sorrow is captured on Haunt, a noir-ish, slower number with dark, echoing Spanish chords and hushed vocals.
For the first time in the set Been pauses between songs to talk to the audience, announcing, “The last time we came through town, some of you were here, and it was the first time we played this” as they launch into the warped fairground tune of Circus Bazooko. The disjointed Wurlitzer notes are matched flawlessly by Been’s guitar playing.
They return to the sound of their earlier work with songs like Rifles and later in the set In Like The Rose, with a spinning cacophony of guitars layered together in a hypnotic blend. Vocals made heavy with guitars loosed into the deafening buzz of reverb. This technique continues through Carried From The Start notably missing the Hammond organ parts of the recorded version, but not found lacking.
A momentary change of pace comes as Hayes and Been take turns, each performing a solo acoustic number, finally providing the other with a chance to disrobe from their leather jackets and recover from the sweltering heat. Hayes blasts through the bluesy ditty, Shuffle Your Feet with percussion added by well-timed clapping from the audience. Been relieves him on stage with a rendition of recent song Echo. Unfortunately, the audience seems to be flagging a little and take this moment of quiet and calm to chatter. This is a gig going behaviour I have never understood, you’ve paid for a ticket and there is a performer singing their heart out on the stage, the very least you can do is listen.
Thankfully, the return of the full band to the stage for All Rise ends the delinquency in the audience and provides an opportunity for glorious, full-throated harmonies. The choppy guitar and punchy beat of White Palms brings a dizzying kaleidoscope of lighting effects snapping the attention of the crowd back to the stage. The driving, pumped up rock of album tracks from Take Them On, On Your Own; US Government and Six Barrell Shotgun injects some adrenaline into the pit, with crowd surfers floating over the hoard gently passed hand to hand.
After playing for almost two straight hours with power and heart these three musicians are still going without any signs of fatigue. Still on the wave of energy that has been building they reward the overheated revellers with commercial hit and fan favourite Spread Your Love. Paper confetti showers from the ceiling spinning down in a mock shower. At this point, I think no-one would mind if it was real water!
A generous three-song encore brings the show to a close. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club are a live band that should be on every music lovers gig going bucket list. Their stamina is equalled only by their technical prowess, they make even the darkest, dirge laden music rich with melody and restraint.
Photography by Pauline Di Silvestro and Live Review by Sarah Sievers of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club at Forum, Kentish Town, London on 26th July 2018
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