The fact that the always punctual (har!) Spin was able to roll up to Municipal Auditorium 15 minutes before showtime at Monday night’s Queens of the Stone Age gig and immediately land a prime street parking spot caddy-corner to the arena made us wonder if we had shown up on the right night. We had, and we didn't just have amazing parking karma, as the typically quiet Monday-night-downtown vibe was a heart-sinking sign that Nashville wasn’t quite as ready to rock as we might have hoped.
We soon sauntered inside the lovably aging, antiquated auditorium and joined Music City’s other 3,000 or 4,000 rock ’n’ roll fans, who were standing still, staring at the stage in mid-serenade courtesy of British post-punk revivalists Savages. The quartet was midway through a pretty “just fine” set of slimy, spasmodic Joy Division and Magazine homages, complete with hooks borrowed from Peter Hook, a guitarist’s repertoire of reverb and harmonics-laden early-U2 Edge-isms and a singer who handily pulled off a dead-on Lene Lovich impression (seductive low-register bellowing punctuated by high-pitched chirps).
So yeah, Savages were art-school-record-collection-checklist rock for sure, but with enough hookiness and quirk to justify their existence as a band. A particular highlight was “Hit Me” — a lyrically provocative, tongue-in-cheek commentary on abuse and/or masochism that was a musical feedback fest of rumbling, shambolic noise rock starting with frontwoman Jehnny Beth singing a capella (a la P.J. Harvey’s classic “Rid of Me”), belting out lines like “I’m a dirty little dog” and “Hit me with your hands / Oh, it’s the only way I ever learn.” And if such things are important, Savages sounded fashionably chic, and probably looked the part as well — you know, hip. But we could barely make them out under the shadowy, club-appropriate but not arena-appropriate lighting, not to mention the fact that — save for Beth, who was wearing white — the band was clad head to toe in black and standing in front of a black curtain.
Speaking of curtains, when Savages' set finished, the house lights rose to reveal a massive black one spanning 360 degrees across the orbicular arena, completely covering the entire upper bowl. What’s more, the seats in the lower ring were (speaking optimistically) only about half-filled, though the floor was totally packed.
In the concourse — a high-school-hallway-looking maze of ramps and rails that would be a teenage Tony Hawk worshiper's wet dream — an awful truth that showed the venue’s old-schoolness and lacking technical prowess met every beer-thirsty concertgoer: Municipal, like a pissed-off cab driver on a Friday night, only accepts cash. So upon entrance we noticed a shockingly short beer line, across from an ATM line that snaked a solid 20-plus feet down the corridor.
In that crowd you could spot pretty every type of rock fan straight out of central casting. There were your typical shaggy teenage burnouts, middle-aged heshers, gawky indie rockers, fashion victims from the counties, introverted prog fans, metalheads, straight-up normies, you name it — Queens of the Stone Age bring ‘em all together under one big tent. Nevertheless, in Nashville, that’s not enough people to pack out Municipal. Sure, it was a Monday night. And sure, world-twee college favorites Vampire Weekend were playing over at the Ryman (though the thought of anyone choosing that show over this one scorches our soul). But a top-tier, world-class hard-rock band rolling through town to such indifference isn’t really becoming of a Music City — or “It” city, or whatever the fucking fuck we think we are.
Or maybe it was just circumstance. Queens, even at their commercial peak, were never arena headliners. Rock is an increasing cult genre and frontman Josh Homme & Co. are a cult band. Last night’s crowd, though far from selling out Municipal, was too big to fill any of Nashville’s theaters. So this is the sort of commercial, live-draw purgatory a rock act of Queens’ stature lays in these days. That said, last night the band rocked like a reigning musical welcoming committee in hell.
As the tough-as-nails-looking rockers took the stage, it was apparent that the big rock show they brought with them couldn’t have fit in a theater. Towering two or three stories above the band (and Homme himself already stands a solid 17 or so feet tall) was a massive LED screen that looked like the stoner-rock, junior-size version of the screen from U2’s PopMart Tour. Flanked by floor-to-ceiling, equally blinding lighting and LED towers, the center-piece screen displayed vivid, Pushead-esque animated images of swarming bats, crows and body-hungry vultures, screeching skeleton hands, psychedelic color swirls, be-suited men slowing falling to their deaths and other fun stuff to complement a set that leaned heavily on songs from band’s slow-burning, cerebral and all-around badass latest album, … Like Clockwork.
And Clockwork cuts like dirge-y album/set opener “Keep Your Eyes Peeled,” the dreamy, sonic swirl of the title track, the monster chorus of “Kalopsia,” the driving stoner rock of “My God Is the Sun” and the heady, balladic sprawl of “The Vampyre of Time and Memory” all delivered well beyond even their recordings. The seemingly telepathically connected band of aces — including alt-rock sideman extraordinaire Troy Van Leeuwen (who repeatedly rocked a double-necked guitar), Dead Weather dude Dean Fertita and near-Dave Grohl-rivaling drum hero Jon Theodore — totally subsumed the songs and turned them back out with in-the-moment effects and dynamics that, in case it’s a forgotten art form, reminded all in attendance what a real fucking rock band actually fucking sounds like. QOTSA was firing on all cylinders, rewarding us with a performance every bit as engaging and committed as the band’s mind-blowing 2011 rampage through the Ryman.
Like at the Ryman show, the band also didn’t skimp on the back-catalog classics, even treating us to their signature hit “No One Knows” three songs into the set. Like the kind of concertgoers The Spin usually makes fun of at Rush shows, we air-drummed along to that one and Songs for the Deaf standouts like the set-closing “Go With the Flow” and encore-closing “A Song for the Dead” like total, uninhibited fucking dorks.
Other old-school chestnuts included the frantic, frenetic Era Vulgaris fave “Sick, Sick, Sick” and the Lullabies to Paralyze power-rocker “Burn the Witch.” But hands down, the performances of the night went to a pair of Rated R deep cuts: the smoky “In the Fade” and “Better Living Through Chemistry,” the latter of which was drawn out into an extended jam that peaked, valley'd and climaxed with a sonic narrative as rewarding as a virgin viewing of The Godfather.
Yeah, last night’s show was pretty epic. More of you really should’ve been there.