Being only a casual fan of Anton Newcombe’s Brian Jonestown Massacre, it’s over six years since I last saw them live here in the ABC. Although the memories are hazy it was a narky but brilliant show, marked by percussionist Joel Gion flouting the recently-passed smoking ban by lighting up on stage and constantly repeating the phrase “straight up and down”, a BJM song title, for most of the concert. Without the calm and (relatively) centred presence of Matt Hollywood, this BJM was everything you saw in Dig!: unpredictable, dangerous and exciting to watch.
Before I get to the BJM before me tonight, the band were supported by psych-drone duo The Vacant Lots. Signed to Sonic Cathedral, Jared Artaud and Brian MacFadyen played rudimentary, repetitive songs inspired by the likes of Jesus and Mary Chain, Moon Duo and the obvious touchstones Suicide. It was a fairly benign set, only coming to life in the furious Vega-esque “6AM” which battered through on a minimal beat and Artaud doing evil things to his guitar. It did, though, feel a bit like a little too late - but you could see these two being fairly thrilling close-up in a sweaty club.
With Matt Hollywood back in tow, this is an eight-piece BJM touring in support of Revelation, the second very good album in two years from Newcombe and co following 2012’s Aufheben. It’s a band with, at points, six guys wielding guitars with Gion, the human metronome, keeping time with his tambourine centre-stage. Once a captivating presence, Gion often looked bored during this show and only came to life infrequently during the rousing sing-along of “Who” and a scene-stealing verse on Hollywood’s “Got My Eye On You”. And that seemed to seep through to the rest of the band on occasion; while all brilliant musicians, there’s often little life on show which means some of the less propulsive tracks drag on in their druggy haze, and over the course of two hours it’s hard to escape some moments of boredom.
However, when Brian Jonestown Massacre are good, they’re very good indeed. New songs like the horns-and-organ jam of “What You Isn’t” and the eastern mysticism of “Food For Clouds” will stand the test of time and become firm BJM favourites alongside the near-perfect opener “Whoever You Are” and the insistent jangle of “Nevertheless”. It’s also worth noting how vital Hollywood is to the band: his pop nous and songs like “Not If You Were the Last Dandy On Earth” and “Oh Lord” provide a counterpoint and a relief to Newcombe’s intensity and there’s no doubt that the BJM are a better band with him in it.
It wouldn’t be a BJM show without a little bit of drama, though: at the end of a fine rendition of “Anemone” Newcombe wails on “all the motherfuckin’ guitarists” in his band, seemingly peeved that they stole his limelight at the end of the track. He seems to call them “unprofessional”, before going on to say “I’m unprofessional [for calling them out in public] too, but it’s my fucking band”. It’s a minor exchange in the grand scheme of things, but the atmosphere on stage remains frosty into the next song. All is forgotten once Newcombe brings the show to the end with a stunning take on “When Jokers Attack”, ending on an extended feedback loop.
As I said, two hours is a bit much to take even for an ardent fan of the band and perhaps a lack of focus needs to be addressed to avoid attention wavering but the eight gentlemen on stage tonight are consummate musicians playing to a rapt crowd. The weapon at their disposal is that the Brian Jonestown Massacre have twenty-odd years of great music to choose from, they just need to choose it a little more wisely sometimes.