It is impossible to articulate what happened last weekend. No one word can truly describe the whole experience. Seeing The Brian Jonestown Massacre play at Webster Hall in New York City and in full effect for the last show of their new tour was a mind-blowing, inspiring experience. Getting to actually meet some of the Massacre after the show took the experience to a whole other level, where words are reduced to mere gibberish.
Let’s start at the beginning. What turned out to be one of the most glorious weekends of my life didn’t start out so great. The rental car we booked to take us up to NYC was late getting to the drop, due to the roads around State College being crowded with thousands of students moving back into town to start school, laptops and empty liquor bottle collections clutched in their sweaty hands. Thanks to the car being late, a chain of events occurred that ended with us having to rent a car the day of the show and drive to NYC in the morning. Determined that nothing was going to stop us from seeing The Brian Jonestown Massacre play live, we pushed through, and ended up having a lovely drive into the city.
When we arrived to New York, the first amazing event of the weekend happened: We found a free parking space across from Tompkins Square park, right in front of a house the jazz great Charlie Parker once lived in. Blown away by finding a free space to park the car in the city, we took out everything we needed and left the car there all weekend without incident.
Once we were actually at the venue, reality finally started to sink in. We were going to see The Massacre live! Anton, Joel, and Matt Hollywood playing together again. I didn’t even think I was going to be able to make it to the show, but two good friends of mine chipped in to get me a ticket for my birthday. Best gift ever. Now here I was, at Webster hall at 8:30 p.m. (what an early start, right?) to see one of my favorite bands–one I’d never seen live before this. So how was the show?
I’m sure many folks in the audience were expecting chaos to erupt at some point. Many fans of The Brian Jonestown Massacre discovered the band through the documentary “Dig!,” which makes it seem like every BJM show must end in a fistfight, band breakup, or a kick to the skull. I admit the film was my first introduction to The BJM too, but I’d been a fan for years now since seeing it, and knew they were much more than “Dig!” made them out to be. Knowing Anton is sober now and getting it together, I didn’t think anything crazy would happen, but I guess I was still a little worried. All my worries faded away as soon as The Massacre took the stage. Once they started playing, there was no room for worry or questions or any other mundane things. All outside “things” and “thoughts” were obliterated, blown away by The Massacre’s wall of psychadelic love magic and pure musical intensity.
They started with “Stairway to the Best Party in the Universe,” one of my favorite songs off their new album, Aufheben. We were only a few rows back from the stage, and ended up getting blasted full force by a catchy thud of the opening song. They followed it up with “Vacuum Boots” and “I Want To Hold Your Other Hand,” and kept the hits coming for nearly two hours. They played a good mix of newer material off Aufheben along with many of the “classic” BJM songs we all wanted to hear, like “Who?” “Anemone,” and “Not If You Were The Last Dandy On Earth,” which Matt Hollywood completely nailed. I’m a big Matt Hollywood fan, so it was great hearing him sing a few songs. He even played bongos for a song. Though The Massacre will always be Anton’s band, Hollywood is a key member and a great frontman in his own right. If Anton is the Mick Jagger of The BJM, Hollywood is its Keith Richards. Joel Gion, lead tambourinist and all-around charmer for The BJM, sang a song during the show as well–”There’s A War Going On.” That was a great and unexpected treat. Did you know Joel has a solo album out, and another on the way? More on that later.
As I looked around me, it was easy to tell the crowd was full of true BJM fans. Every face was smiling, laughing, cheering. The sweet smell of ganja filled the air, from nowhere and everywhere at once. Couples embraced and danced together, phones and cameras filled the air, strangers hugged strangers in pure joy. Being at a show where the majority of the crowd is as excited about the band as you are, is rare and transcendent. I’ve never gotten into so many random conversations at a show with complete strangers. As someone who’s gotten used to lame, jaded crowds at many shows, all this was incredibly refreshing. Not every band can conjure this kind of reaction from a crowd.
For anyone who would question how good The Brian Jonestown Massacre really is, seeing how much joy they bring their fans and hearing how powerful and diverse their sound has become should be proof enough that The BJM are the future of music, the nucleus of a small but talented group of bands making “real” music, putting their hearts and souls and blood into the music they make. Not music to sell platinum records or Mountain Dew, but music that truly speaks to the most fundamental parts of the listener–challenging and emotional music that can take you on a wild journey to places you didn’t even know were inside you the whole time.
The show ended all too soon with a 12-minute version of “Straight Up And Down,” so good that everyone in the front row had to get pregnancy tests. There was a moment that stood out in this last song, when Anton and Matt Hollywood were facing each other, wailing away on their guitars. The two were in pretty close proximity to one another, and putting together an incredible jam. It really felt like the two occasional adversaries were totally in sync, melding together to form the cosmic organism that is The BJM. I took this as a great sign that The Massacre is a complete band once again, and is through with much of the drama from the past. Anton and Matt were absorbed into the music pouring out from their guitars, oblivious to everything but the next chord. It’s shows like this that will stop all the “Will anyone freak out again?” discussions, and rev up the “Why aren’t these guys more well known, and where can I get their albums?” discussions.
Speaking of albums, the first thing we did after the show was head to the merch table to buy some vinyl. My friend Jason scored Aufheben on blue vinyl. I grabbed Her Satanic Majesty’s Second Request on bananna yellow vinyl. I would’ve grabbed the last copy of Joel Gion’s solo album Extended Play, but the guy in front of me in line grabbed it right before I could (my only disappointment of the whole night).
As we leave the merch table, who do we see on the concert floor, but the one, the only Matt Hollywood, just chilling out by himself. I couldn’t believe no one else was flocking to him, so Jason and I went over to say hello. We ended up chatting for a little while, and got our albums signed. We thanked him for the great show, shook his hand, and told him how happy we were that he was back in The BJM. Matt Hollywood was a total class act, quiet but very kind, totally handled our ridiculous enthusiasm very well. It was great getting a chance to tell Matt how much we enjoyed his music.
We then left Webster Hall to head down to the afterparty at Cake Shop, where Flavor Crystals was playing, along with some other bands. It wasn’t long before a few more members of The BJM trickled down to hang out.
Frankie “Teardrop” Emerson was the second BJM member I got to chat up. Many fans don’t know who Frankie is even though he has been in the band for 13 years because he was cut out of “Dig!,” apparently to make the narrative flow more smoothly. Needless to say, he wasn’t too thrilled about that, and you shouldn’t be either, because Frankie is pretty awesome. He was very chill to talk to, and he told me a bit about his other project, The Situation. He signed my vinyl as well, and really seemed to appreciate our love.
When Joel Gion made his way to the downstairs of Cake Shop, a buzz went through the room. It took us a while to talk to him because he was surrounded by starry-eyed girls most of the time he was there. He was very relaxed about it all, smiling his Joel smile and doing his best to give each one a little of his time. We approached him in one of the rare moments when he wasn’t surrounded in a wall of adoring female fans, and he was just as friendly and personable as one would imagine. Joel told me he was heading back to Portland after the tour to work on his second album, which is good news for everyone who enjoyed his first one. Not content to just have “the best job in rock ‘n’ roll,” Joel wants people to know he can do much more than play the meanest tambourine in rock. Though some may see what he does in the BJM as ancillary to the main sound, the fact is The BJM never feels quite right without Joel Gion and his tambourines. One could argue he’s the most important tambourine player in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, despite his exclusion from the prestigious Tambourine Players Hall of Fame. But that’s for future rock historians to decide.
Tired from the long day of driving, rocking and drinking, we were ready to call it a night and head to our friend’s apartment to crash. Who do we run into on the way out but keyboard and guitarist Rob Campanella! Rob and I ended up talking for longer than I would’ve expected. We got to tell him how great the show was, and how much we appreciated the band’s music. He told me about some bands I should check out, like The Quarter After, the Lovetones and Asteroid #4. Rob also wanted me to make sure I told everyone about the Committee to Keep Music Evil, a website started by Anton, Greg Shaw and Bomp! Records to “beat The Man at his own game.” If you’re a fan of The BJM, you need to go to this site and bookmark it ASAP. You can pick up albums from great underground bands, as well as special BJM releases only available through the website. The forums are full of fans who post up setlists from shows and trade MP3s of live recordings. It’s an innovative way to change the relationship between fans and bands, and is something I’d like to see propagate in the future.
By the end of the night, I knew I had enjoyed a truly special evening. Getting the chance to actually meet and talk to members of one of your favorite bands is an incredible experience I hope every one of our readers gets to have in their lifetimes.
As we were driving out of the city, hungover and still buzzing over the crazy show we’d just seen, we witnessed our final miracle of the weekend. As we were approaching the Chelsea Pier, and I was resting my eyes in the passenger seat, my friend startled me awake by yelling “Holy shit! It’s David Byrne!” I opened my eyes, and there he was, biking past us like a unicorn in a meadow. He was completely white: white shirt, white pants, white hair, white bike, white headphones. It was a magical moment, watching David Byrne glide past us, whiter than the Republican convention. I like to think a single sunbeam followed him all around the city. All I know is, it was the perfect end cap to what was one of my best weekends ever, and one of the best shows I’ve ever been to. Thank you, BJM, for helping save the music industry from itself. As long as these guys are still making music, there may yet be hope.