By ALEE KARIM
Kowloon Walled City
June 5th, 2012
The Fox Theatre
Better than: The rest. And rest. Thankfully.
The San Jose-based metal band Sleep is part of a pre-Internet coterie of bands that gained an astonishing reputation in their absence. For every Soundgarden reuniting to cash in on their earlier notoriety, there's a Jesus Lizard or a Harvey Milk (the Athens, Ga., band, that is) that's discovered a far more cogent groundswell of attention via online communities than they'd enjoyed in their twenties. And so, a rock 'n' roll dream delayed has become just desserts to a slew of hard-working bands who've moved on to child-rearing, day jobs, and (usually) other bands.
That is how an outfit like Sleep -- whose swan song, a PR exec's worst nightmare of a stoner riff practical joke, is the hypnotic, lore-establishing hour-long track, "Dopesmoker" -- ends up headlining The Fox having released no new material for nearly two decades. All of which begs the question: Is this a good idea?
Openers Kowloon Walled City graciously set the vibe in a way few openers manage, every crushing unison anticipating Sleep while remaining utterly unto itself. Speaking of gracious, this audience was less cynical Hessians and more toddlers waiting to meet Teletubbies. By 8:30, The Fox was steadily filling, and everyone was lapping up the heavy. It was going to be a good night, you could tell.
Oxbow began dropping its spare, post-punk heaviness before nine. This was a good choice for intermediary act, as the relentless Kowloon demanded a follow-up who offer breathing space. With Oxbow, those spaces were more sinister portents than pockets of relief, earning each resounding slam that followed. Featuring the perpetually denuding Eugene Robinson at the helm, Oxbow had charisma to spare, something sorely lacking in underground metal.
Speaking of charisma, Sleep's Matt Pike (he of Oakland's High on Fire) may hold the crown. Hitting the stage shirtless and molesting the opening strains of "Dopesmoker" out of his guitar, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was the '70s, despite the fact that this brand of optimized stoner doom is very much 21st century. If the openers were like a wary village collectively exclaiming, "Hey, that volcano's about to bust!" Sleep were the very magma itself, smothering ecstatic onlookers and affixing whatever expression they may be wearing at the point of contact. A healthy dose of Dopesmoker opened, leading to burly selections from Holy Mountain and Vol. 1. It hardly mattered what song was playing at any given moment; everything coalesced into one tremendous molasses ur-riff (did frontman Al Cisneros mention they were playing a new song? Was that a Sabbath cover I just heard?) Frankly, it all gets a bit same-y after a while, but the sheer force of what Sleep do insists on itself so persuasively, the crowd kept swaying and salivating for more.
This wasn't your average, or at least expected metal audience, either. Divided fairly evenly between female and male with nary a poseur in sight (except for yours truly, who's looked the narc at metal shows for the better part of two decades), this was a healthy showing of the Bay Area metal community to celebrate local heroes.
And celebrate they did: fists were pumped, tattoos were flaunted, and enough weed was smoked to warrant Humboldt County as a competitive influence on the GDP. Yet through it all a benevolent sense of fun reigned supreme. Closing with a movement from Dopesmoker, Sleep resolved the night with an authorial completeness which all in attendance felt and took home, an expression happily affixed until the next eruption inevitably displaces it into another.
Personal bias: I've been dying (DYING!) to see Sleep live for about five years.
Random detail: Couples sharing their favorite "I saw Matt Pike drunk!" stories.
By the way: The Fox is so regal and overwrought, it's un-metal, then metal again.