Live Report: Monster Magnet and Royal Thunder at Bottom Lounge
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It was a hard, warm rain in Chicago. The kind of rain that streaks pavement with splattered streetlamp arcs and regret; the kind of rain that forces brief encounters with strangers huddled under dimlit storefront awnings; the kind of rain that makes otherwise sensible men think they can impersonate Raymond Chandler. The reasons why I missed Zodiac are utterly banal, but if you'd like to stay in a noir state of mind, let's just say I stopped to help a glamorous widow and wound up with a snootful of bad dope and a five-mile headache.
Nestled under the shriek and clatter of the Pink- and Green-line El tracks, the Bottom Lounge feels just as out of place in the West Loop as does everything else: the area is a bizarre collision of gentrifying condos and bistros, vestiges of Chicago's one-time meat-packing hegemony, and semi-abandoned loading docks and rail tracks. All of it falls just blocks away from the United Center and the expressway, yet it feels as isolated and claustrophobic as any barren industrial outpost. The crowd that showed up on November 16 for Monster Magnet was every bit as mongrel, with a queer amalgam of frat bros, over-eager goths, middle-aged professionals, metalheads, leather ladies, and uncertain-looking teenagers. All came to rock, however, and all were sated. (Stray observation: To the dude who came to the show wearing a bright green nylon over his entire face, I'm really sorry that nobody else got the memo about the impromptu reunion of The Locust.)
When I last saw Royal Thunder — opening for Pallbearer in September of 2012 — the band was a four-piece, and their set felt like a well-deserved victory lap celebrating the brilliance of their debut Relapse LP, CVI. Even then, the key to the band's allure was clearly the simmering tension between the pulsating, blues-derived and classic rock leaning bent of the music, and the harrowing vocals and introverted presence of bassist and singer Mlny Parsonz. Now, however, Royal Thunder has been reduced again to a three-piece, and while I'm not privy to any information on the recent personnel changes, the band sounded wounded and more than a little searching, which made for a fascinatingly raw set.
Early on in the set, Parsonz seemed bedevilled by a bass that wouldn't stay in tune, which gave the Janis Joplin-gone-riot grrrl strut of set opener "Whispering World" an even rougher edge. The band still focused their set around CVI, but an airing of "Mouth of Fire," one of the true standouts from their self-titled EP, was a thrilling display of the band's dexterity. Nevertheless, pulling out such older material in a set which also featured two new songs served as further demonstration of the interesting mismatch between the confident blues swagger of the early songs and the muted, psychedelic soul-searching of the band's latest output. One of the new songs even further blurred the Royal Thunder template by applying a mystical blues filter to a synthesis of Pearl Jam and Hole.
Given that the material on CVI was written for two guitars, band founder Josh Weaver was always going to sound stretched-thin, but he acquitted himself admirably with judicious use of effects pedals, and by leaning hard on Parsonz's jacked-up bass when he needed to stray from the rhythm lines. His solos felt perfectly of a piece with Parsonz's straining and thoroughly emotive vocals, and he clearly soloed not for flash, but for fire. His simple but sharply effective flourishes felt pulled from a painful, vital place. Royal Thunder felt like a band in transition, but in such a way that any flaws sounded like necessary obstacles, mental barriers to be broken down and transcended.
If Royal Thunder's set posed a set of challenges for an audience primed for greasy rock armageddon, New Jersey's itinerant lords of sleaze, Monster Magnet, needed no such interpretive cartwheels. Dave Wyndorf and his merry accomplices greeted the rammed-to-capacity crowd with equal parts genuine appreciation and put-on rock and roll entitlement. As Wyndorf mentioned in our recent interview, Monster Magnet has focused most of its energy on touring Europe, so their first North American tour in a decade was always going to be something of an experiment. Based on the rapturous reception the band received in Chicago, however, one hopes it won't be another 10 years before they return.
Monster Magnet's set was a nearly flawless exercise in crowd-pleasing. The bulk of the material was drawn from the two albums that first brought them to widespread attention in the States, 1995's Dopes to Infinity and 1998's Powertrip. This meant that the majority of their set was devoted to hard-rocking groovers, but the few times they dipped into full-on space rock extravagance, hoooooo mercy, did they ever. Even though the tour is ostensibly a tool for promoting their new album, Last Patrol, the only songs they played from it were the songs that most cleanly fit in with their psychedelic past - "Last Patrol" and "End of Time." The mid-set freakout that attended "Spine of God" was perhaps the most jubilant moment for the longtime faithful, but the (pre-encore) closing tandem of "Powertrip" and "Space Lord" brought the house to a quivering mass of joy. Because, apparently, getting a room full of hundreds of alternately (or simultaneously) drunk and stoned people to shout such gleeful exhortations as "I'm never gonna work another day in my life!" and the necessary "Space lord, MOTHERFUCKER" is just another day in the life of the universe.
If ever one needed living proof that rock and roll is all about self-indulgence, then look to the Wyndorf. The frontman spent most of the band's set with a guitar, but given that he was already flanked by two guitar players, heaven knows if his was even plugged in. He mostly treated it as a flat surface for thrusting lewdly against, and the neck as a wonderful prop to be spun with wild abandon. Goofy theatrics? Well, yeah, of course. But here's the thing: Don't you ever just have that urge to be awesome? Doesn't it come to you in your private moments, when you're singing a little too loudly in the shower, or air-drumming the NPR Marketplace theme song a little too boldly on your steering wheel? Dave Wyndorf's stage presence is a living testament to doing those things that we all think are awesome. Cursing a whole bunch? Awesome. Giving the middle finger and pretending to have intercourse with the air? Awesome. Jumping up and down and flailing on a guitar? Awesome. Turning your back to an audience and fiddling with a waist-height effects board because you grew up thinking Hawkwind was awesome? AWESOME.
I'm not being facetious. Rock and roll survives because rock and roll is made up of grand, absurd, insulting, ludicrous gestures. Rock and roll is a lust under whose thrall we all want to fall every once in a while. To see a band instantiate that lust so completely is a rare pleasure, and one that kindly invites all critical hesitations and caveats to hoof it to a poetry reading or a J. Crew or a sensible bedtime with all the other ramrods.
The day after the show, my daughter asked me to draw a spaceship. Look at it. That's the space lord, motherfucker.
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