The Brian Jonestown Massacre
Terminal 5, New York, NY
July 25, 2008
The Brian Jonestown Massacre have always seemed to be on the verge of spinning out of control, and the band made good on that promise any number of times during their mid-nineties heyday. It is that sense of volatility which made them more spontaneous – more “real” – than most of the professional bands that rode the post-grunge wave to radio stardom, a discrepancy explored in Dig!, Ondi Timoner’s now (in)famous 2004 documentary film that contrasts the BJM against their more well-adjusted peers The Dandy Warhols. Following his band’s torturous burn-out, ringleader Anton Newcombe retreated to Berlin, assembled a new band, and kept making records.
Fast forward to 2008: At Manhattan’s Terminal 5, a near-capacity crowd of almost 3,000 gathered for the BJM’s only announced headlining date in their home country this year. As he alluded from the stage, Newcombe and friends make enough money overseas to avoid the United States almost entirely, which, given Newcombe’s well-documented trials and tribulations prior to his relocation to Europe, makes perfect sense. But the scarcity of the band’s appearances Stateside made this show much more of an event than that of a standard touring band; even as the crowd filed in, the room seemed charged with anticipation. Following a detached, joyless set from the Icelandic band Singapore Sling, the BJM took the stage to raucous applause, which swelled with the appearance of tambourine player Joel Gion, the most well-known non-Anton member of the original lineup. Gion’s inclusion on this tour is both a pleasant surprise and a bittersweet nod to the old days, especially given his high profile role in Dig!. Longtime producer Rob Campanella sat in on keyboard, and the three-guitar set-up provided maximum chime.
By this point, the Brian Jonestown Massacre are as much a greatest-hits band as any touring dinosaur act. While their most popular songs have never been “hits” in a commercial sense, they are arguably more deserving of the title than anything scoring major airplay on FM radio. The set cherry-picked classic tracks from every stage of the band’s career, lighting on their stoned shoegazer period (“Evergreen”), British Invasion mock-ups (“Servo,” “Who?”), and the wiggy avant-Stones pastiche of this year’s My Bloody Underground album. For the latter, Newcombe brought out Icelander Jon Saemundur to sing “Golden Frost,” a motorik-punk epic with vocals reminiscent of Swedish Chef doing a speech by Adolf Hitler. Through it all, Newcombe, positioned side-stage to give Gion the frontman spot, acted as the center of the sonic maelstrom, his whole body contracting with every guitar strum.
There were some great human moments: Midway through “Hide and Seek,” guitarist Ricky Maymi’s strap broke and a roadie’s awkward attempts to rectify this slowly devolved into a Buster Keaton routine that went on for the duration of the song. While it’s unfortunate that some fans are still trying to get a rise out of Anton at these shows, he handled the few hecklers surprisingly well, actually getting a decent laugh out of his retort, “I don’t suck, you suck! I’m actually very proficient.” Newcombe’s introduction of “If Love Is The Drug,” begun as a eulogy for the song’s recently-deceased co-writer, Christopher Tucker, quickly devolved into a profane argument over songwriting credit and more heckler dodging. The audience wouldn’t have had it any other way: the BJM is one of the few bands where the music is fully integrated with the members’ lives, and as such the Terminal 5 stage may as well have been the group’s living room. (Matthew Van DeWitt; Photo by Andrew Bottomley)