The Agit Reader

Stoner Rock Graduation Ceremony

September 21st, 2017  |  by Brian O'Neill

Midnight Ghost Train

The Midnight Ghost Train
Kung Fu Necktie, Philadelphia, September 8

In a perfect world, The Midnight Ghost Train (pictured above) would have played to more than the dozen or so people who showed up at the Kung Fu Necktie. Cypress Ave. the Kansas group’s latest release, has left the trio’s previous stoner metal inclinations far behind them, leaving in their place the stripped-down, riff-heavy, boogie-down rock & roll record that Tom Waits might have made had he grew up on Black Oak Arkansas.

“Red Eyed Junkie Queen” is certainly a story that Waits could have told, and in the same gravel-voiced intonations affected by Steve Moss, but definitely not with his screaming guitar accompaniment. Also exemplary were “The Watchers Nest,” down-tuned but not downtrodden, and the explosive punk rock sneer of “Tonight.”

The second most impressive thing about the set was how seamlessly replacement bassist Alfred Jordan III fit in despite not playing on the record and having a limited time to learn everything. Even more impressive was how the trio, rounded out by drummer Brandon Burghart, gamely performed for the sparsely filled room as if it was the last concert they would ever do. It’s a cliche to suggest a band play with the same enthusiasm for six people as for 6,000 in attendance, but The Midnight Ghost Train achieved that unlikely goal.

Queens of the Stone Age

Queens of the Stone Age
Festival Pier, Philadelphia, September 7

Queens of the Stone Age (pictured above), on the other hand, packed the outdoor Festival Pier about a mile down the road the evening before. But although it was so long ago that most of the backwards-baseball-hat bros in attendance were drinking baby formula at the time rather than the $12 domestic brews they quaffed at the show, Josh Homme once played to smaller crowds too, with the stoner rock luminaries Kyuss. The main factor that allowed Homme to graduate from sweaty clubs to TMZ innuendo was not his rejection of stoner rock tropes, but his underrated skill as a songwriter. He’s under-appreciated because the building blocks to the best Queens material are riffs, the same reason most don’t immediately think of James Hetfield as a gifted songwriter. But when you’re the one constant in a group whose last five albums all cracked the Top 20, you’ve got to be doing something right.

Those songs that were on display, kicking off with the mariachi-swing of “My God Is the Sun” and the industrialized “Turnin’ on the Screw” and continuing for nearly an hour and forty-five minutes.

Outside of the drum throne, filled by Jon Theodore only since 2013, the rest of the Queens lineup has been more or less intact for the past decade, stabilizing a notoriously fluid group. Troy Van Leeuwen makes a perfect foil for Homme and not just with his suit and new-wave purple tie contrasting Homme’s rockabilly button-down, although it can be argued that their combined choices of stagewear is the fashion statement embodiment of Queens’ music.

Still, this is Homme’s show. Everyone else got mics, but only for the band’s trademark backup sighs, and only the frontman spoke in between songs. He doesn’t say very much, but made a notable exception when he saw a kid with a neon-yellow sign up front that read “My name is Zeppelin and I skipped the 1st day of skool (sic) for RB and QOTSA.”

“Kid, this is fucking school,” he remarked before introducing “No One Knows.”

Homme and company performed seven songs off the newly released Villains, most notably the live debut of the spastic “Head Like a Haunted House” and the murky yet strangely optimistic “Fortress,” with its Rolling Stones shuffle and Michael Shuman’s snaking bass line.

“This is a song we can all dance to,” Homme said of “Make It Wit Chu.” However, the funky yet not soulful stilted offbeat from 2007’s Era Vulgaris fell a little flat, as did the couplet of “I Appear Missing” and “Villains of Circumstance” off the new album. Queens melodrama on record breaks up monotony, but in concert it just seems like that’s when you check your phone or get a beer.

The shifty “If I Had A Tail” roused the crowd, barreling into a bellicose end of the set, including the shuffling boogie of “The Way You Used to Do” and Dean Fertita’s prominent synths on “Un-Reborn Again,” which segued into the killer riff of “Little Sister.”

Set-closer “Go with the Flow” and the single-song encore, “A Song for the Dead,” were a fantastic one-two punch to end the evening, a perfect encapsulation of the band’s ability to have off-kilter rhythms with searing guitar and make it catchy as a January cold.

Royal Blood

Support act Royal Blood (pictured above) was no slouch in the catchy department itself, or the riff section either for that matter. Nobody told them that the days of the two-man blues-rock band were done even before The White Stripes broke up, and that’s probably for the best since Mike Kerr plays the bass like Angus Young plays the guitar. One key difference from their many predecessors in all things lo-fi, Royal Blood doesn’t seem to have a punk rock bone in their bodies. Instead, the duo relies on meat-and-potatoes bluesy hard rock, whose existence inspired the punk rock rebellion.

The entire set was steeped in classic-rock tradition. The massive yet simplistic chords Kerr plays and Ben Thatcher’s bombastic percussion have invoked comparisons to Jimmy Page and John Bonham, respectively, though there’s a far more modern aesthetic at work, especially on the rhetorically questioned new album, How Did We Get So Dark? In fact, they’re probably pinching themselves getting to prod Homme for pointers every night on tour since Queens is a likely influence as well.

The band played five songs from the new album including the dancey, fun, and not at all dark “Where Are You Now?” that kicked off the show followed by “Lights Out,” a two-song salvo that gave even those new to the Brits grist a reason to dance. The response from the very filled Festival Pier suggested more than a passing familiarity with Royal Blood, but those unfamiliar undoubtedly liked what they heard as well.

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