Better Than: Frostbite.
When I go to a concert, I always want to like the bands. I really do. I wouldn’t show up if I didn’t think I was going to enjoy myself. There are plenty of other places I could be.
I approached Friday night’s Bowery Ballroom show, headlined by Swedish neo-classic blues-rock band Graveyard, with an open mind. Having heard their albums and found them pleasant enough, I decided to give them a chance to fully impress me live. I’ll just come out and say it now: I was not impressed.
I have this bias when it comes to bluesy rock. If you are going to play something resembling the blues, you had better feel the fucking pain. And convey it to me so convincingly that I feel it with you. Make me want to console you and buy you a beer, at least. Better yet, dig down deep into your soul, rip it out through other body parts like fingers on guitar strings or frayed vocal cords, and share something emotionally powerful with me. Whether celebratory or mournful, blues-type music should make the listener feel something more than just a groove.
Last night there were two problems with both bands (the Shrine, from Los Angeles, opened). The first problem was the sound mix: only the bass and drums could be heard. This one’s the fault of the Bowery–usually the best-sounding venue in town–or of whoever was mixing the sets. It was so bad that fans were shouting complaints between songs. (One audience member was particularly vocal: “More guitar! Louder! Turn that shit up!” And later: “Turn those motherfuckin’ guitars up!”) Fancy fretwork appeared to be taking place onstage. It’s a shame we didn’t get to hear it.
The second problem was a lack of authenticity. Oh, there was enthusiasm, yes. Guitarist Josh Landau of the Shrine was energetic, as was drummer Jeff Murray. And there was talent. Vocalist Joakim Nilsson of Graveyard is an undeniably strong singer. (He sounds as much like Chris Cornell as anyone can sound without being Chris Cornell.) Graveyard drummer Axel Sjöberg is capable of speedy fills (overkill in the midst of a ballad, if you ask me). But what was missing was grit–the sort of weathered, wizened potency that distinguishes actual blues-rock from the imitation of.
I’m not saying you have to be Howlin’ Wolf to get blues or roots music right. The Black Crowes, for instance, got it. And you don’t have to be American. Deep Purple (Mk II) got it, for the most part. But for every band that gets it, there seem to be about five others that don’t. You can be great musicians. You can have the vintage gear, the long hair, the retro mustache. You can pay tribute to your influences all you want, but if you’re not connecting with your audience from the gut, if you’re not transcending the past–the music that made you want to do what you do–and wringing your heart dry here in the present, then what the hell are you doing, daring to play this music?
Maybe you need a tutorial with Mashed Potato Johnson.
Overheard: “Us California guys are freezing our balls off!” – Josh Landau, the Shrine
Critical Bias: Texas.
Random Notebook Dump: After a while, you start seeing familiar faces at metal concerts. My hairdresser was in the restroom.