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Live Review: The Brian Jonestown Massacre @ The Triffid 13/11/15

At the end of the documentary DiG! on the bands The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols, and the rivalries and egos of their front-men Anton Newcombe and Courtney Taylor, Newcombe’s fate is left ambiguous, while Taylor and the Dandys are essentially declared the victors.

Having Courtney Taylor narrate the film implies that The Brian Jonestown Massacre has disbanded or at the very least, is no longer relevant. This impression is not helped by the emphasis placed on the self-destructive tendencies of Newcombe, which unfurl in a part-comical-part tragic Jerry-Springer-like reel of fistfights, insults, and heavy alcohol and drug consumption. Even though the film suggests that the BJM is destined to remain in the shadows of the alternative music scene as a result of Newcombe’s erratic behaviour, if their near sold out show at Brisbane’s The Triffid was something to go by, this is anything but the case. Ironically enough, the BJM’s resurgence in popularity probably has a lot to do with the widespread attention DiG! fostered, which renders the final act of the film somewhat irrelevant.

Newcombe continues to produce new music on a yearly basis that remains as experimental and intriguing as the original BJM releases, if not more daring and less indebted to the rock, blues and psych music of the 1960s that inspired the band. This is more than evident with the band’s set, which features all of their most popular songs, as well as some of their more interesting new songs. And by ‘their’, I of course refer to Newcombe himself, who basically is The Brian Jonestown Massacre. This was clear on the night, with Newcombe at one point standing over the keyboardist’s shoulder during a synth-driven instrumental and basically directing him for the entirety of the song. Of course, nobody can deny the important role of Matt Hollywood, who supplied many great songs including Oh Lord and Not If You Were the Last Dandy On Earth. Neither of these songs were included in the set due to Hollywood’s absence, which might also explain why there was little tension on stage. While Hollywood's absence was felt, the BJM has more than enough tunes to make up a satisfying set that fully represents their sound.

Newcombe was joined by beloved percussionist/band mascot Joel Gion, original drummer turned guitarist Ricky Maymi, Rob Campanella on keyboard and organs (who originally produced 2003’s And This Is Our Music), Collin Hegna on bass, Dan Allaire on drums and the band’s newest member and guitarist, Ryan Van Kriedt. For a band with so many guitars it would be easy for the riffs to get drowned out, but the mixing on the night was superb. The set went for a smooth two and a half hours with no verbal or physical altercations, which would have been a nice surprise for anybody who was there because they’d seen DiG! For the fans who had seen the BJM over the years, this was standard fare, but it was surprising to see how much Newcombe enjoyed himself on stage, even pausing between songs to say as much to the audience.

The same can’t be said for Joel Gion, but despite being known as the charismatic scene-stealer in DiG!, his stage presence has always been relatively nonchalant and for the most part it works. After all, Gion is middle-aged and if he was dancing around like a teenager it would seem kind of jarring and really wouldn’t suit the chilled-out vibe of BJM. It must be difficult to do much more considering the length of the set and the simplicity of Gion’s role. Despite this, Gion added some nice touches to the set, particularly when he replaced his tambourine with an impressive set of six maracas. Gion stands for a lot of what makes the BJM great; it’s the intimate touches that come together in a BJM song to inexplicably create a sound that feels complex and important, but in small ways. The BJM are a band that are all about contradictions; they sound like seven bands in one, most of their members are practically interchangeable, and they marry beauty with tragedy.

This was more than evident in songs like The Devil May Care (Mom and Dad Don’t) and Nevertheless, which garnered the most appreciative crowd response. The Devil May Care is one of the BJM’s slower and more melodic tunes, which was amplified for their live set, leaving an even more cathartic and drained feeling when it was over. As for Nevertheless – notably used for the sombre epilogue of DiG! – Newcombe toyed with the audience with a false start before plunging into the song, which was poignantly bookended with Gion’s use of claves. Similarly noteworthy for its simplistic touches of percussion was the languidly presented Anenome, originally sung by BJM female collaborator April Sandmeyer, but sounding more appropriate with Newcombe on vocals. Although Anenome is one of the band’s more emotionally detached sounding songs, its lyrics express some of the dominant themes of their discography - heartbreak, yearning, self-doubt – which is why it feels right to hear Newcombe singing it, as the BJM’s heart and soul.

The band played a host of other classics from their extensive catalogue largely because it was their 25th “silver jubilee” anniversary tour, but also because they are the kind of band who are not afraid to give the crowd what they want, and indeed, seem to genuinely enjoy presenting all the keystone moments of their chaotic career. This included highlights like Wasted, Wisdom, Servo, Going to Hell, Jennifer, Prozac vs Heroin, all of which represent the key albums and sounds of the band, from the shoegaze-tinged Methodrone (1995), to the bluesy, guitar-driven Give It Back! (1997) and Strung Out in Heaven (1998),and then the more melodic and wistful And This Is Our Music (2003). It would have been nice to hear some of the female harmonies represented in the live arena, but Newcombe does a fine job on his own.

While it was a joy to traverse so many eclectic and iconic periods of BJM’s music, it was also great to hear the band experimenting with a more synth-driven, psychedelic sound. The band have always dabbled with psychedelia, particularly on 1996’s Their Satanic Majesties’ Second Request, but here the band fully indulge a more sensory and ambient style with several primarily instrumental-led tracks, and with Newcombe even requesting a second microphone to distort his vocals. Most of these songs were from 2012’s Aufben and 2014’s Revelation, both of which evoke and build on the Indian mysticism toyed with on prior albums. Then there were some of the newer songs like Days, Weeks and Moths or Goodbye (Butterfly) that hark back to the bluesy roots of early albums like Take It From the Man! (1996) and Thank God For Mental Illness (1996), but present a more refined and nuanced sound.

If there’s anything to take away from the BJM’s silver jubilee tour, it’s that the BJM are a more refined and nuanced band, with all the drama and turbulence of DiG! far in the past. The new songs sound more mature and diverse, while the classics are presented in a more polished fashion that play to their strengths. This is a BJM that know exactly what their strengths are, and have amazingly, being able to overcome their weaknesses.

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