On Friday, fans gathered at Chicago’s Vic Theatre to see Black Rebel Motorcycle Club hit the city for an epic 22 song set as they promoted their seventh album, Specter At The Feast released on March 18th.
Thenewno2 (pronounced “the new number two”) opened with a performance worthy of their Rolling Stone endorsement as one of The 10 Must-See Acts at Lollapalooza in 2012. The band, best known as the brainchild of Dhani Harrison (son of the late George Harrison), opened the night promptly at 8 pm. Their music is a multi-layered amalgamation of genres: indie, rock and psychedelia mixed with synthesizers, hip hop, electronica, and pretty much anything else you can think of. Reminiscent of Radiohead at times, thenewno2 has a distinctive sound all their own and live, oozes hard rock. Their set culminates with the shirtless, mohawk-sporting drummer, Frank Zummo, giving the audience the bird, as he stands behind the drumset before walking off stage.
Harrison spoke only twice, once mentioning the warmth of Chicago’s welcome inspiring a night of musical experimentation. There were no pauses as sprawling music covered the audience the entire set. Harrison preceded their last song saying, “We’ve got only one song left, but we’ll see you again soon. Probably at Lalapaloo-ta or some-ting.” Gotta love the cheerful mood that inspires end-ting word-ts in t’s.
After half an hour’s break, the venue blacks out. Slowly, dim lights shine on the drums and the audience cheers loudly as Leah Shapiro descends behind the kit. With production in full swing, Peter Hayes and Robert Levan Been walk on stage with badass aloofness reminiscent of James Dean.
Keeping in line with their role models, Been wears a black leather jacket over black t-shirt and ripped jeans. Hayes wears a button-down long sleeved shirt–black, of course. His hair is slicked back, exposing his long sideburns. Been’s hair has been dishevelled to stand voluminously on end. His sideburns also scream of another era. Both men wear leather boots. Drummer Shapiro wears a short sleeved gray shirt.
Named after Marlon Brando’s motorcycle gang in 1953’s The Wild One, the trio does Brando proud as they stand solidly on stage, seeming to contain their emotion before it explodes into chorus. Opening with the track “Let the Day Begin” from their new album, the band either close their eyes or stare at their instruments as they play, seeming to focus on the music itself and ignore audience interruption. They ooze the rock spirit, touching the essence of badassness and showing a seasoned skill that comes with years of touring and music-making.
The consistent percussives leaves Shapiro’s drums perpetually active; Hayes works the strings of his guitar expertly while looking like the rebel your mom warned you about. But Been; Been steals all attention. One moment he’s stationary, sipping water; the next, he’s throwing himself into his bass, propelling himself vivaciously across the stage. His silhouette shows sweat drip from his hair as he propels into a rift.
BRMC lyrics and persona encompass the rebellious spirit. With their leather boots, classic haircuts and emotionless faces singing, “We’re not the righteous, we’re not the innocent, we’re just a sign it’s all gone wrong” as they rock passionately across stage, they’re the rebels your mom warned you about. They revel in their status as the spiritually damned, the morally debased. There’s just something about lack of facial expression, black clothes and aloofness that draws you in every time.
Forty minutes into the two hour set, Hayes and Been swop instruments and stage placement for one song, giving each side of the crowd a little love. Been’s presence is constantly known on stage, while Hayes sinks into the background unless singing. Midway through the set a spotlight shines on Been and an acoustic guitar, encompassing the stage in darkness as the band disappears for a well deserved break. With the expressionless face he’s worn all evening, Been approaches the mic, “I wanted to play a song I usually don’t, but Chicago is especially welcoming. So, this is for you.”
Been strums the chords to The Call’s “You Run,” in honor of his late father, a member of the popular 80’s band. However, two lines in, Been stalls to a halt. For the first time that night there’s a crack in the aloof shell, revealing the deeper humanity behind. He smiles as he steps back from the guitar. “Sorry, it’s been a few weeks,” he jokes as he continues to strum and remember the lyrics. After an interlude he returns to sing.
Hayes returns to perform “The Fault Line” from the band’s 2005 album Howl, as Been escapes the stage for a moment’s break. He plays harmonica as he strums the guitar, resurrecting memories of their blues inspired roots, something the band has wandered away from. A stillness falls over the room as they listen to the lone singer on stage. As Shapiro and Been rejoin him for “Fire Walker,” anticipation awakens for the livelier songs which subsist within BRMC.
The middle of the two hour set served almost as an intermission as the audience listened to the band play through their slower, contemplative songs “Returning,” “Love Burns,” “You Run,” “Fault Line,” “Fire Walker” and “Windows.” The hungry crowd bears with it only so long, becoming somewhat disgruntled as they wait for the band’s characteristic hi-temp rock to return.
Yet, life and experience have reshaped the band since their last record, clearly seen in the pensive, slower pace of Specter at the Feast. The album is a more contemplative record in remembrance of Michael Been, Robert’s father, who was so integrally involved in BRMC that he was deemed the unofficial fourth member of the band, filling roles from co-producing to running sound on tour. Been died backstage of a heart attack at Belgium’s Pukkelpop Music Festival in 2010. The new album clearly reflects the band’s emotion as they work through their pain and memorialize someone so important in their lives.
After this emotional interlude (and, more practically speaking, a jogging break for their marathon set), BRMC broke the sombre mood with “Conscience Killer.” Hayes and Been look at each other as they began the first chords, smiling mischievously. A happy crowd responds with fists in the air and head bangs as Been theatrically points his guitar out to the audience like a gun looking for consciences to kill. Scary, scary.
As the show breaks the hour and a half mark, Hayes pulls out a cigarette between vocals. The red embers shine through the darkness and production, hanging from his mouth as he plays. The badass spirit deepens.
“Well, goddamn,” Been says after the song “Six Barrel Shot Gun.” “How about another one?”
Fans scream as the band launch wildly into their close, playing “Spread Your Love,” with sensual intensity and ferocity that reverberates through the crowd. The strobe lights flicker so much that all you can see is Been’s silhouette as he propels himself from stage left to right. While lights settle, he returns to his mic and with the third smile of the night, dramatically presses his hand through his hair and reaches out for an invisible vixen. Strobe lights make a resurgence, and he walks to the edge of the stage, throwing himself into his guitar–fingers flying, head pumping. As the lights calm, Been huddles over the crowd with his head on his bass, almost caressing it to sleep before waking it violently for the close. And then he walks away, without looking back.
As lights blacken and tech’s return to stage to prepare for the encore, a fan exhales a “god damn!” seeming to release the emotion of the entire room.
For encore they play, “Sell It,” a song which retains the high momentum fans so much hoped would be their go-home gift. And yet, as their final goodbye BRMC ended with the pensieve lyrics and melodies of their new album’s concluding song “Lose Yourself.” With it’s epic sweep, the song conveys the spirit of a band transformed by life and shows BRMC as they are now, not as they were five years ago.
Overall, the night was a BRMC statement of rock n’ roll. The aging men (with young lady Shapiro in the background), continue a persona, a spirit, a culture of an age gone by. The classic leather-wearing rockers, so often subject of fantasy, inspire a well-needed nostalgia for the rock that needs a re-emergence. And if it also inspires me to watch Sons of Anarchy, I’m ok with that too.
Review and Photo by Jessica Greene
The badass trio are are on tour with thenewno2 for the next two weeks in the US before venturing abroad:
May 20 – Gothic Theatre, Englewood, CO
May 21 – Belly Up Aspen, Aspen, CO
May 24 – Commodore Ballroom, Vancouver, BC
May 25 – Sasquatch Festival, Sasquatch Festival
May 26 – Wonder Ballroom, Portland, OR
May 27 – Knitting Factory, Reno, NV
May 29 – Marquee Theatre, Tempe, AZ
May 30 – The Rialto Theatre, Tucson, AZ
May 31 – Vinyl at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas, NV
June 1 – The Wiltern, Los Angeles, CA
June 2 – The Observatory, Santa Ana, CA
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (Official)