by Elliot Davies
Brooding garage psyche ne’erdowells Black Rebel Motorcycle Club play at excessive volumes to a heaving congregation of the devoted. We love them and they love us. So tonight, let us spread our love like a fever.
There’s a t-shirt for sale tonight based on the poster Agent Mulder used to hang on his office wall in The X-Files. It features the same blurry photo of a flying saucer, but instead of I Want To Believe, it reads I Want To Be Leah.
Leah is, of course, Leah Shapiro, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s drummer. This t-shirt was originally produced late last year in order to raise the funds required to save Leah’s life. She was suffering from Chiari Malformations, structural defects of the brain and skull, and using a series of channels, the band attempted to raise £20,000 for the necessary brain surgery.
Well, they did it, and Leah is still very much with us. When she takes to the drum stool tonight, mere months after her operation, there’s a palpable feeling of relief in the room. Since 2008, Leah’s become an integral part of the band. Losing her would have been unthinkable. It’s great to have her back.
As part of her recovery, Leah had to effectively relearn the drums. Luckily, her doctor was a BRMC fan. Intimate with their back catalogue, he was able to map out the perfect sequence of songs to help her get to grips with her kit once again.
With its relatively simply beat, Beat The Devil’s Tattoo was apparently the song they started with, so it’s fitting that it’s the first song played tonight, too. On record, it’s a loose and threatening death march. But live, the air of menace has now been replaced by one of triumph: It sounds like a defiant victory hymn for Leah’s resilience, an instant dismissal of any lingering doubts that her ordeal might have affected her commanding abilities.
This is followed by Let The Day Begin. Another weighty song for the band, this one was written by Robert Levon Been’s father, Michael, who recorded it in 1989 with his band, The Call. Now sadly deceased, BRMC recorded their cover as a tribute. I bear this in mind as they play it, and I find myself thinking, for the first of what will be many times, I bloody love this band.
BRMC are a band who want to be your band. Many are quick to dismiss them as plodding revivalists or worse. But those who invest their time invariably discover that beneath the scowls and the black clothing lies an intoxicating combination of radical politics, heartfelt songwriting, intricate musicianship, and a sense of loyalty and determination that does their name proud. Those that get into this band really get into them, and you get the impression that Peter, Robert, and Leah refuse to take this for granted.
The amount of money raised for Leah’s treatment is a testament to the close relationship between the band and their fans, but this is a two way street. Their current UK tour is short, consisting of just two dates, and it’s likely that they were initially organised to tie in with the band’s European festival commitments. With no new material to promote, a lesser band may have treated these dates as routine days at the office. Not these guys. In what feels like an expression of gratitude, we’re treated to a mammoth two hour career retrospective set, consisting of 21 of the band’s most beloved and potent songs.
For me, the set peaks early, with an incredible run of four songs: the spectral, shimmering Returning is rudely interrupted by the pitch black riff from American X, a jarring sound that requires Robert to violently wrench his guitar to produce. This gives way to some deliciously languid soloing over a tight groove, which develops into a riotous crescendo before effortlessly shifting back into that riff. Perfect.
This is followed by the hauntingly beautiful Salvation, which segues magnificently into Heart + Soul. The latter, as is often the case with epic album closers, eventually descends into a deafening freakout that sees all three members viciously thrashing their instruments. Large swathes of the crowd collectively lose themselves.
But this cathartic outpouring of light and sound occurs at the exact midpoint of the set, and we’re left wondering – how on Earth are they going to follow that?
With a few acoustic songs. OK, fair enough, everybody needs a breather now and then, and all BRMC shows since the release of 2005’s Howl have featured an acoustic stretch. It’s a nice change of pace, and it allows the band to air some of their subtler, slower burning songs.
The problem is, there’s acoustic, and there’s unplugged, and tonight they go for the unplugged approach. Crouching over a single mic, it’s almost inaudible, and the crowd gets restless and frustrated almost immediately. A pity; not least because the song played, Complicated Situation, is one of their best.
But while the audience is bemused, they’re not lost. Hey, this is BRMC! It would take quite a lot to turn us against this band! And as soon as things are plugged in again, we’re back on their side.
The next section of their set features a moment that stops me in my tracks. Sandwiched between the brutal Stop and the blazing Spread Your Love is Awake. By some distance it’s my favourite song by this band, and every time I hear it, the inside of my head starts to feel like a pot of noodles left on the boil. If BRMC are my band, then this is my song. Hearing it tonight provides one of those rare moments when the world doesn’t feel like such a hopeless place.
The idea that salvation might lie in a chord progression, played at a considerable volume, sounds like the tenet of a strange religion. If there’s any band that’s likely to subscribe to the notion that rock music can be a religion, it’s this one. As they sing during the final song of the night:
I fell in love with the sweet sensation
I gave my heart to a simple chord
I gave my soul to a new religion
Whatever happened to you?
Whatever happened to our rock’n’roll?
Whatever happened to my rock’n’roll?
Well, whatever happened to it, it was alive and well tonight.