I haven't seen Queens in about ten years. Mostly because they started playing larger venues, partly because I no longer really felt connected to their music. Era Vulgaris fell a little flat for me, despite having some great tracks on it, and I couldn't get into Them Crooked Vultures. Queens slid to the backburner, and, eventually, to the bottom of the pile. And they're honestly just better than that, and I'm not sure why I stopped listening to them completely. When the new album was released, I was interested, but not in a rush to hear it. As luck would have it, I managed to get a ticket to their 'surprise' show in Brooklyn last Friday, and suddenly felt a little more motivated. I don't have a clip from the show, so please enjoy this fourteen minute vehicle for double guitar solos while you read.
...Like Clockwork (hereafter just "the album" because that is awkward as hell to put into a sentence), is good, better than the last record. Strange in places, and in a new way for them. Softer at first glance, and extremely personal. But I'm not here to talk about the album, and these songs are not soft live. They're dark and seething, and the spite and regret are palpable in the air and on the unusually earnest and personal vocal turn from Homme, though this sort of thing has become a lot more usual for him as time has gone on. But more on that in a minute.
The venue is oddly shaped, dark, with red lamps dotted around the room, and was crowded by the time I arrived, schlepping over an hour in an epic tropical downpour, with mixed feelings about seeing a familiar band for the first time in a decade, my thirty-second birthday looming in two weeks, and pants wet to my knees. It was so packed that I could not get near the stage (or maybe I've just gotten old, and didn't try hard enough), so I took up a spot behind the sound desk, where I could see that the setlist had only the new album, in order, written out on it. And, as advertised, that's what we got, followed by Millionaire, No One Knows, and Song for the Dead. All three have been live favorites of the band for years, but I think it's telling that they're also all from Songs for the Deaf, arguably their best work and definitely their best album for live material. This album, too, really shines in live performance, in the way only really Queens and a few other bands ever really seem to achieve. Queens is an unusually tight live performer - I swear I've never heard a flubbed note at any show, unless you count that one time at Lupo's when Joey Castillo was drumming for them for the first time and missed a few cues. I remember being impressed by how professional they were, and how quickly he was picking up the songs - the drums in Queens are hardly straightforward. Joey is out, but Jon Theodore (Mars Volta) was more than satisfactory as a replacement for either Castillo or Grohl (who drums on the new album), and I did not feel their absence. Castillo being gone had been my biggest concern. After being slow to take to him at first, he had eventually become one of my favorite live drummers. Thankfully, I clearly had nothing to worry about.
|Queens of the Stone Age at Brooklyn Masonic Temple, June 7th, 2013|
Concern number two was the material, which was still new to me - how would it play live? And I was surprised by the answer. It was...the only word I can come up with is poignant, which is awful. And I don't mean the feeling of seeing them again, the nostalgia I was experiencing - I mean the music dripped with poignancy. With melodrama. The kind that you know is over the top, but you don't care and you can't help yourself, because you're just that lost in whatever you think your saga is. The album appears to be about heartbreak, bitterly so, but without much anger. It seethes, but it doesn't have the sheer force of past albums. The difference with past material shows in the live performance. Homme sits and plays the piano several times, which is not something I had ever seen him do before, and there's a commitment to vocal delivery that I've heard before, but definitely not lasting through a whole show. Van Leeuwen, Fertita, and Shuman are unerring as always, and Van Leeuwen is as entertaining a guitarist as he ever was - not to detract from Homme, who can still riff. There were, however, none of the extended, grandiose double guitar solos characteristic of live Queens shows - it seemed like they were under threat of curfew and wanted to get through the album and as much of an encore as they could manage. Given how long it's been since I've seen them, and how often I've seen them stand on stage and riff for minutes, I didn't mind getting an extra song in exchange this time. Song for the Dead is possibly one of the bleakest-sounding tracks they've ever put down, and it only sounded slightly less so that night for lacking Lanegan on vocals. It's one I've heard them do many times before, and it stirred memories, more of them good than I had expected. Queens has always been a very personal band for me, whatever the fuck that means. I don't just mean none of my other friends like them, which is mostly true. They just have these associations in my mind, with memories. With a past I don't often think about, even if it wasn't really that long ago. The new album is very much about memories, and the things that steal them, but instead, it seems to have returned some to me that had been lost. And I'm grateful for that, and for the realization that in a world of constant disappointment, with ourselves and those who claim to love us, Queens of the Stone Age still doesn't suck.