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.
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.