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Jan
02

REVIEW: Black Angels at Bluebird Theater, 12-31-12

Posted By: Adam Perry
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In the music world, New Year’s Eve in America has become known as a jamband stronghold, and this year was no different: The String Cheese Incident was spreading joyful banality for hoola-hoopers in Broomfield; Furthur, the watered-down Dead cover band featuring a Madame Tussauds-style Jerry Garcia, filled San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic with tie-dyed nostalgia; and Phish packed Madison Square Garden for four nights, culminating in a zany NYE extravaganza during which the Garden stage and floor were covered with fake grass and the band chipped golf balls into the audience and played vaguely golf-themed songs such as “Wilson,” “Lawn Boy” and “Driver.”

But this year (or last year, now) I wanted something deeper out of a musical New Year’s party than nostalgia, humor or cheesy ecstasy.

So the Black Angels’ remarkable set at the Bluebird Theater in Denver on Monday night was the perfect alternative to a typical it’s-all-good New Year’s Eve concert. In fact, the powerful Austin-based psychedelic rock quintet even had the gall to open its two-hour-plus set, following the sleek Denver hard-rock outfit Snake Rattle Rattle Snake, with “She Said Don’t Play with Guns,” an unmistakable nod to the depressingly routine spate of mass-shootings our nation has suffered in recent years. Performed just minutes from where the abominable movie-theater massacre occurred in Aurora, the warped gypsy punk of “She Said Don’t Play with Guns” hit home in a painful but ultimately very necessary way.

But it wasn’t all bleak and/or disturbing: A few songs in, the Black Angels brought a young local man on stage to dance and shake a tambourine. So it seemed. Eventually the song — one I hadn’t heard before, with a “love me forever” chorus — broke down into a vamp, and keyboardist Kyle Hunt tapped Dancing Guy on the shoulder. The young man proceeded to invite his pregnant girlfriend onstage and propose to her: The subsequent public engagement drew smiles and hollers of approval from band and audience alike.


Black Angels frontman Alex Mass — in life irreverent and soft-spoken but in his stage presence sinister, stalking and pounding a floor tom with maracas — recaptures the spirit of what made the dark side of the aforementioned ’60s so extraordinary: The blazing, wicked cool of “Sister Ray”; Pink Floyd’s malevolent wraith-like dirges calling for axe safety; the vastly underrated 13th Floor Elevators; and trips that sought more than pleasure.
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The Black Angels, who Monday night in Denver also recalled the Doors’ “Not to Touch the Earth” in the sinful melodies of “Bad Vibrations,” got their name from a Velvet Underground song and, like V.U., feature a no-nonsense female drummer. The tasteful, serious Stephanie Bailey, an indie sex symbol with her long blonde hair and muscled arms, pounds away in a workwoman-like manner that suggests playing the drums are literally a compulsory function of her body.

All night, the ’60s were invoked, not so much through nostalgia but, instead, forward-thinking takes on past innovation. New multi-instrumentalist Rishi Dhir — who resembles a more genuine, cheery Jason Schwartzman — brought Ravi Shankar to mind with repeated sitar meanderings during otherwise purely hard-rock tunes. Guitarist Christian Bland had a vintage guitar for every occasion. And the Angels’ Spartan light show — now devoid of the Native American imagery that for years so aptly juxtaposed the tribal stomp of songs like “You On the Run” — is a more menacing, innuendo-filled swirl than the usual neo-psychedelic background fare.

After “Black Grease,” the 2006 tale of emotional destruction and vice from Passover, drew fist-pumps from the crowd with its final chorus of “you kill, kill, kill / anything you want,” Maas looked down at the time on his cell phone and proceeded to meekly count down from 10 before the band launched into the churning war-cry of “Young Men Dead.” It’s not often in America we’re reminded at concerts of the reality that we’re a nation still entrenched in the longest war in our history, but it was necessary and welcomed.

In the end, the highlight of my night — besides the Mexican-comic wallpaper in Mescal’s bathroom across the street — was that the Black Angels encored with “Mission District,” a slow, vicious crawl through the San Francisco neighborhood I left for Colorado in 2008. With Maas alluding to the brutal, apathetic gentrification of the half-Mexican, half-hipster area while Bailey’s drums gradually brought about a distorted eruption, the Bluebird audience erupted in response. After “Mission District” was deftly devolved into a slow-motion freak-out referencing “Astronomy Domine,” being alive in 2013 — and the way-below-zero temperature out on East Colfax — became a reality worth meeting, through both harmony and horror, rather than hoola-hooping out of mind.

  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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