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Too obscure to sink one's teeth into

Brian Jonestown Massacre
Turner Hall
Milwaukee, WI
Mar. 27, 2009
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Story and photos by Gypsy Davey

"There may be a great fire in your soul,
yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it,
and the passers-by see only a wisp of smoke coming through the chimney."
- Vincent van Gogh

An appropriate quote that sums-up the passions and internal struggles that continue to haunt the spirit of Brian Jonestown Massacre's frontman and founder Anton Newcombe.

There are two sides to this Brian Jonestown Massacre spectacle, those that seem to "get it" and those that don't. Let me preface this review by placing myself in the camp with those that don't. That is not to say that I'm unappreciative of their accomplishments or that I undervalue their contributions to the revitalization of the 60's Haight-Ashbury vibe, nor is it a declaration against their artistry. Songs like "When Jokers Attack," "Servo," and "Nevertheless" are brilliant little gems; "Open Heart Surgery" hands down is my personal favorite. But when terms get bandied about, such as "genius" or "God-like," I take notice. I had to see for myself. It's debatable as to how much of the Anton Newcombe character depicted in the 2004 rockumentary "DiG!" is real vs. created, certainly Anton's position sides with the later. Half of me can't help wonder though, exactly how many go to his shows for the music or the hopes of witnessing the next flair-up, that has infamously become part of the Anton folklore. Tonight I was here to cover them, whichever version of them, showed up.

The Minneapolis band The Flavor Crystals opened the evening. Their airy lo-fi drone filled the Hall as the crowd slowly collected towards the front of the stage, their music drawing them in as if locked in some tractor-beam, faces full with mesmeric expressions. The pool gathered now larger, as the Crystals finished their set, still transfixed were the crowd, not a head bobbing, not a toe tapping. Not that anything else could be expected under their current sedation.

The house lights dropped, the crowd erupted, and fittingly I now quote from BJM's "All Around You (Intro)," paraphrasing of course..."You will be richly rewarded for your courageousness...what do you say we start the show?" Touring their 13th studio release, their first in over four years, My Bloody Underground - an obvious tip-of-the-hat to predecessors My Bloody Valentine and Velvet Underground - the band dug right in to the evening's sound. A sound parroting their latest more closely than their previous works, and in the process netting an unintelligible derangement of aural ambiguity too obscure to sink one's teeth into. You can either attribute it to the disservice done at sound check or Anton's wimpish delivery, but not much of the evening's lyrics were audible. Something about kicking Jesus, and not giving a fuck about WWII, is all I was able to make out while the music played on top of it all. That, and the celebratory birthday tidings to the drummer, met in full clarity while the music was at rest. But during their performance, the music overpowered the vocals, which is truly were the fun lies, and so not hearing them made it feel like getting only half of the show intended to receive. Musically speaking, it is what it is...but lyrically, is where their magic happens, I mean most listen to Dylan for his lyrics, right?, so you feel slightly fleeced having lost Anton's to the sea of boundless din. Unfolding for us however, was a spectacular assemblage from a diverse collection that had more than a handful moving in dance, and a lot more finally tapping their toes. But for all of the associations to flower-power, the rebirth of the age of Aquarius, multi-colored tie-dye psychedelia, tripped-out paisley-patterned life, liberty, and the pursuit of hippyness hubbub, that has surrounded the band since their inception in the early '90s, their performance Friday night - nearly 20 years later - felt more monochromatic, all falling somewhere in the analogous hue of gray.

I'll conclude with this quote by Jesse Hassenger, regarding final thoughts on "DiG!" "But the film's subjects and makers are reluctant to raise a sad, very rock-and-roll point: it may be more fun to hear outlandish stories about the Brian Jonestown Massacre than to listen to their records," or attend their shows, I might add.
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