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Story by Andrea Jenels & Thomas Calkins III
BRMC definitely brings the volume to their live set. Many bands bring a stack of amps on stage, and actually only use one or two out of the pile (quite frankly because it looks cool and if you're bringing around a couple of spares on tour, why not?). In the case of BRMC, it is to believe that all of the bass cabinets and the Optimus Prime looking guitar rig are indeed fully armed and dangerous. The posing problem is that loud in and of itself, doesn't constitute "good."
It's not that they were too loud for me (least I be citied as an aging geezer), it's that the wrong things were too loud. When I saw BRMC the last time they came through, I thought the opening act Duke Spirit had a better mix. Maybe it wasn't as earth shaking, but it was more balanced. I could hear everything. I fully understand there is this idea out there that the headliner is obligated to "outdo" the opening act with ball vibrating volume, and that somehow passes as confirmation of their status in the hierarchy of rock. I get that; I just don't see any scientific proof that it actually makes a group more appealing. In fact I'd argue that the first victim of the volume wars is always going to be the song itself, as instruments and the frequencies they inhabit begin to become indistinguishable from one another, until it descends into a giant wall of indecipherable bass groans. With two full-sized bass cabinets and plenty of help from the usually brilliant Turner Hall PA system, we had plenty of bass on hand; no need to close the deal any further.
I wouldn't bitch so much about this specific issue if it wasn't the very reason I refuse to spend my hard earned unemployment money (sarcasm) at other local "establishments." Turner Hall is usually a far cry from anything that could even remotely qualify as "crap sound," but as the set rolled on I began to feel like I needed less lights and more drums. I don't care how hard or soft new drummer Leah Shapiro hits, the toms and cymbals shouldn't be non-existent. Luckily enough the soundman seemed to notice about five to six songs into the set that we couldn't hear anything more then the kick drum and the slight crack of the snare (fighting for air from underneath the bass guitar) because the drums began to become more distinguishable from that point on, but not by a helluva lot.
The second stop at Turner Hall also brought out a second swing of technical difficulties and stalls in the show, leading one to the opinion that either BRMC or Turner Hall are far too forgiving to their technical support people. Not that it was a big deal, but if you've only seen them twice at Turner you'd think the problem was endemic, and that the tech's have an affinity for pre-show Scotch. It didn't make me cringe by any means, but when that shit begins to get under the skin of the folks playing and singing, it eventually becomes very difficult for them to hide their irritation from the crowd, until it's like being in the same room with a couple of angry lovers; it's none of our business but we're right in the middle of it. Which is exactly what happened when Peter Hayes' guitar rig began to develop free-will about half way through the show...maybe it was Optimus Prime?
A lot of people like to criticize BRMC's performances as being too stoic, or their material too unoriginal. I don't give a shit about that, there are plenty of "original" acts I wouldn't cough up the $24.50 for (I'm looking at you, "noise-artists"), and the boys (and recently added girl) don't have to flop around like fish to convince me they're into it. My main criticisms of this specific show lie in the technical issues and the composition of their set (which could probably also be chalked up to technical difficulty). Of the two performances I've seen at Turner Hall, both seem to hit a weird valley near the center of the set, kinda creating an anti-momentum. I don't mind the more low-key numbers at all. I think they advertise the boys' ability to write, sing and play without any assistance from heavy wattage. I just think you need to get in, hit those fuckers and move on. Maybe don't remove the band from the stage, or move them in and out quickly with limited pauses. I don't know how it is in Europe or on the West Coast or really anywhere else, but it seems to me that out here we don't want a bad ass rock and roll band like BRMC to "make love" to us. We want them to get in here, smack us around, and kick us out before two o'clock. If the set is 15 minutes shorter in overall time but packs a wallop, you'd be a non-musical idiot to complain.
To be honest, even though BRMC have an excellent slice of Americana material built into and around their superdark groove-rock, they aren't actually great with dynamics in their live set. Like an over-muscled guitar amp, they're either on 1 or 11. I'm not saying that is a shortcoming at all, but when you build dynamic shifts into the arc of a set list, you kinda want to place them in that third position (which they did masterfully), but you also want them to be the pinnacle of the set where they almost act as a "bridge", not a hiccup before closing rockers. Unfortunately, for a musician, the difference between the two is merely timing, not even strength of performance, which in this case can't be criticized at all. But, with all of this nit-picking aside, I had a great time and most non-musicians probably didn't even notice these issues. Hell, maybe some did notice but didn't care because the most important piece of the puzzle was there; the band played great. Another important point to make is that sometimes no matter how much you prepare, gremlins get in the gear, and you just got to keep on rollin'.
I remember this July night at the Cactus Club some years ago now, sickeningly humid and cramped. I was slumped over on the front steps with a nauseating migraine and my head resting in my hands when one of the club's rather insistent doorpersons orders me to either get in the bar or leave. Real charmers they can be. I decided to take my chances inside the sweaty and over capacity bar area, figuring if I have to throw up, Cactus has a bathroom, ya know…easy math. I muscled my way through the jammed up crowd to the front of the stage. Tonight Black Rebel Motor Cycle Club is making a Milwaukee stop in the midst of their tour of smaller venues (of which, Cactus was the only really legitimate one we had back then). Even though the place was jammed full of folks who paid heavy at the door, I'd be willing to bet the club took a hit to land BRMC, or at least flirted with the risk of doing so. In return, the band brought the fire that night, and somehow my headache was cured.
The show in many ways was actually kind of a little brother to the one I just saw at Turner Hall. They had the smoke machines and slimmed down light show. They even had a guitar tech guy standing at the side of the stage, trying to sneak between the amps and a drum kit, unable to be anything but obvious. Nobody chuckled ironically about it though. In fact it was kind of amazing that they could pull of a "big show" in a small place. I remember it as one of those gigs where a band takes the audience to the woodshed, and just puts a beating on them. During the final encore of the night, like some kind of rock and roll commando, Bassist Robert Levon Been jumps into the audience, bass and all, putting a good scratch on my forearm with what I suspect is the business end of some strings. This dude is knocking us around like the label doesn't have any lawyers, while the rest of the crew are holding the line on stage and just capping the night off with a little touch of unhinged mania. It's what a guy like me looks for in a show. Not to push the tired argument that intimate shows are better, but if Black Rebel Motorcycle Club can bring a big show to that little room, I'm full convinced they've got the firepower to pull off the opposite. Maybe I just haven't been able to catch them at Turner Hall doing just that. More than likely I'll throw my money down to see if they can do it next time, so ultimately they must be doing something right.
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