People still throw up devil horns at rock concerts—both hands, full extension, a robust howl of “WOOOOOO!” to convey further enthusiasm—and I find that extraordinarily comforting. No sarcasm, no cynicism, no self-conscious “Free Bird” irony. It’s an unabashedly retro gesture—if you were in a crabby enough mood, you’d almost call it “pre-Internet”—which makes it all the more heartening when the horns come out in full force at Roseland Ballroom Thursday night for Them Crooked Vultures, a band that, at the moment, pretty much only exists online.
It helps, of course, that the first dude to saunter onstage is Dave Grohl, back on drums this time, his klieg-light grin perfectly visible even if you’re lurking near Roseland’s back wall a couple miles away. John Paul Jones, Josh Homme, and a totally non-famous but nonetheless impressively dapper rhythm-guitarist gentleman (nice suit, Alain Johannes) soon follow. Ah, the supergroup. Them devil horns are entirely name-recognition-based: TCV have only a few months of Internet hype and a handful of shows to their credit; unless you’ve got a ticket, their songs exist entirely as lousy YouTube bootlegs. Tonight’s is easily the largest, most raucous crowd I’ve ever seen for a concert in which most folks don’t know a single note: no hit singles, no wacky covers, no respite from 90 solid minutes of unbroken stoner-metal unfamiliarity.
Homme, our affable ringmaster this evening, is acutely, sheepishly aware of this. “We’re gonna play a lot of shit you never heard before, and we hope you enjoy it,” goes an early bit of banter. Later: “A lot of new music here.” Later still: “It’s not often you hear a bunch of new music, and you have no idea what’s happening. Let’s keep it going and see how it goes.” Even later still: “You still with us? There are only four hours left. It’s not that bad.”
Of course, shortly thereafter, after Homme calls out a particularly bludgeoning tune called “Nobody Loves Me and Neither Do I,” two dudes brush past me, each precariously carrying three full cups of beer and clenching a fourth in their teeth. It’s a celebration. And even if the songs don’t register as classics, the quartet’s Paleolithic apocalypse of sound sure does, a pummeling triangulation of the bands that really lured everyone here tonight. Grohl, grinning and headbanging as he pounds away, is now perfectly visible mostly as an oscillating blur of hair, a fount of cheerful ferocity that helped make Nirvana friendlier and the Foo Fighters perfectly tolerable. Homme, architect of some of the better underground (Kyuss) and overground (Queens of the Stone Age) hard rock of the past two decades, still affects a disarmingly sexy sort of badassness, his boisterous near-croon of a voice slipping easily into sleazy falsetto, his guitar solos still thrillingly terse blasts of smirking menace.
Yet it’s the old guy who really owns this band. JPJ is a trip up there. The Vultures occasionally get tripped up by here-is-the-butt-simple-riff-we’ll-all-be-driving-into-the-ground-in-unison-for-the-next-four-minutes monotony, a joyless pudding of Ozzfest-era sledgehammer pounding that drains all the personality from a band with three dominant personalities to choose from. But the more indulgent, unwieldy, and ridiculously epic these tunes get—the closer they get to towering Led Zep heights of delicious excess—the better, and having the man himself on bass (and piano! And keytar!) works wonders. Our opening salvo starts as a plodding blues-metal knuckle-dragger, but abruptly speeds up into gleeful thrash or slows to a swamped-out crawl, before dissolving into a long, rambling, psychedelic swagger of a coda, and it’s here that Jones completely takes over, a perfect balance of power and finesse roaming nonchalantly about. “Scumbag Blues” (Homme calls out most tunes by name, perhaps just to help out all them YouTubers) is even better, the surly bassline a deep, muscular echo of the Clash’s “The Magnificent Seven,” marching in thunderous lockstep with Grohl as he oscillates away.
Unhinged, near-formless, Zeppelinesque extravagance is a dangerous thing, of course, and 90 previously unheard minutes of it wears you down no matter how much goodwill you’re showing or beer you’re guzzling. Throughout the night, I get texts from a far less enamored colleague: “This blows,” “This is unbearable,” “Only one of these guys is used to being this indulgent,” etc. And it’s tough eventually to tell what’s good here and what’s simply memorable—the tune with cheesy electronic drums, JPJ on keytar, and a guitarless Homme strutting around like an overmedicated cabaret singer is a fine visual joke but somewhat of an audio atrocity, and the particularly long-winded prog-lite epic that ends with Jones banging out some plaintive, baroque, lovely piano elicits as much confusion as applause.
Plenty of both, though. But will songs with goofy titles like “Caligulove” enthrall us once we can assess them as actual songs? Can Grohl, who’s ultimately a little reserved and unobtrusive here for a guy with his deservedly outsize reputation, recapture the machine-gun grandeur he managed as guest drummer for QOTSA’s mighty Songs for the Deaf? And will we eventually throw up devil horns to honor where Them Crooked Vultures are going, as opposed to where they’ve been?