The Black Lips
Personal and the Pizzas
June 11, 2011
Better than: Getting peed on at one of those Black Lips shows of lore.
The Saturday after the release of their new, Mark Ronson-produced album, Arabia Mountain, the Black Lips came to San Francisco. You might think, given this timing, that the band would unveil lots of its new songs for one of the most garage-rock happy cities on the planet. But along with the usual disappointing sloppiness of the Black Lips' live show, Saturday's set also supplied the major bummer that the band left the best stuff off of Arabia Mountain unplayed.
Still, the Black Lips were better this weekend than the last time I saw them at Great American Music Hall: The sound was less soupy, the performances were set at three-quarter mess instead of full-bore, and the band drove the youngish crowd into a proper Saturday night ruckus. Having canceled Sunday's show because of an "unforeseen scheduling conflict" -- yeah, right -- the band got a nearly sold-out crowd that came to sweat and slam and crowdsurf. And if nothing else, the Black Lips provided an adequate soundtrack for that. Pitting erupted occasionally even halfway back on the main floor. One shirtless relatively older dude ("older" meaning over 30) surfed his way to the stage repeatedly, each time getting mercilessly tossed by security back into the maelstrom of arms and torsos in front of the stage. The band members regarded the storm of humanity like it was just another night on the road -- which, for them, it pretty much is. Guitarists Cole Alexander and Ian St. Pe used the speaker stacks as performance platforms, while bassist/vocalist Jared Swilley remained bouncing in the center of the stage.
Most of the Black Lips' catalog is barely produced garage-rock, so it sounded fine onstage. (By "fine," we mean muddy and barely hanging together, but that's standard for this band.) Arabia Mountain, however, benefitted greatly from the knob-twisting of Amy Winehouse producer Mark Ronson and, on two songs, Deerhunter multinstrumentalist Lockett Pundt.
Pundt left the Black Lips' sound more or less alone, but of the two songs he produced, the band chose the worst to play Saturday night. The mild melodic topography of "Go Out and Get It" feels like album filler after the virulent anthem "Bicentennial Man," the song we missed hearing the most in the band's live show. "Bicentennial Man" is easily one of the Black Lips' best songs -- it's certainly up there with (if not better than) "Katrina" and "Cold Hands," both staples of 2006's Good Bad Not Evil that made it into Saturday's setlist.
Of the Ronson-produced new songs, we at least got "Family Tree" and "Modern Art" -- the latter's aggressive merseybeating a highlight of the night -- but no "Time," "Raw Meat," or "Spidey's Curse." The absence of any instrument other than the band's standard drums, guitar, and bass might have explained some of the choices -- Arabia Mountain's taut energy thrives on snippets of piano and saxophone. But the band made a show of playing "Dumpster Dive," a harebrained new song that landed flat without its ribbons of barroom piano.
Those omissions didn't make it impossible to enjoy Saturday's show, but they do make you wonder how well the members of the Black Lips are at judging their own work. Anyone looking for a sweaty moshpit probably left satisfied, but those of us wanting to hear how the band's tightened-up, adventurous new tunes came off in the live setting were disappointed.
Opener: Caught the very end of Personal & the Pizzas, and witnessed the entire slamfest delivered by a band called Cerebral Ballzy. It came in the form of 30-to-90-second blasts of top-speed hardcore punk, with unintelligible shouting over the top (naturally). No idea about the subject matter dealt with here, except for one announcement from the loopy singer: "This song is about beer and pizza and skating ... it's about cheeseburgers." The young'uns up front went crazy for this stuff -- or at least the energy behind it. Call us old-fashioned, but we prefer our angry-sounding music to deal with subjects that, uh, inspire anger. Hardcore about pizza is like a love ballad about the DMV.
You are served: Every beverage, including bottled beer, came in a plastic cup at the Great American Music Hall on Saturday night. All the better for throwing at the stage, at the mosh pit, at the people in front of you. All the better for getting sprayed by airborne beverage.
Check out our full slideshow from Saturday's concert -- your picture is probably in it.