By Max Miller – Staff Writer – [email protected]
Josh Homme nearly died from complications in a routine knee surgery in 2011. The experience sent the Queens of the Stone Age frontman into a depression and spurred the writing of …Like Clockwork, the band’s often melancholy, always cynical sixth album.
But any sense of despair was completely absent when the band performed at the U.S. Cellular Center last Friday. The group, now entering their 17th year of activity, roused their audience with their baleful boogie and nuanced Neanderthalisms.
Backed by a massive projection of video clips based on the new album’s grim, cartoonish artwork, the band took to the stage with a swell of noise that nearly drowned out the crowd’s ecstatic applause. At the behest of drummer Jon Theodore, the Queens commenced festivities with “Keep Your Eyes Peeled,” …Like Clockwork’s eerie, plodding opener.
Although the set leaned heavily on new material, Homme and company made sure to treat longtime fans to older tunes like Lullabies to Paralyze’s “Burn the Witch,” or the sauropod stomp of “No One Knows,” which was met with the sudden scent of marijuana wafting through the air.
The band even threw in some highly unexpected numbers like “Misfit Love” and “In the Fade,” deep cuts which may have been unfamiliar to the casual fan.
The Queens often focused on their calmer, more groove-oriented songs rather than thrashier old-school numbers. When they did perform upbeat numbers like “Little Sister,” the audience seemed confused on how to reconcile the need to go wild with the formal, seat-lined atmosphere of the U.S. Cellular Center. This problem became especially blatant during “You Think I Ain’t Worth a Dollar, But I Feel Like a Millionaire,” one of the group’s most ferocious cuts, which was additionally neutered by the lack of former bassist Nick Oliveri’s throat-rending screams.
Conversely, when the band eased up for some of …Like Clockwork’s slow-burning piano ballads like the title cut or “The Vampyre of Time and Memory,” the lush arrangements filled the hall more appropriately and even brought out some lighters, waved reverently as if the band were playing “Free Bird.”
The piano was handled by Dean Fertita, who also took the spotlight, literally, on “…Like Clockwork,” singing lead vocals while Homme sang the harmony lines. Fertita also joined Homme and veteran member Troy Van Leeuwen on guitar for some cuts, leaving no holes in the group’s sound and allowing Homme to rip out bluesy solos on numbers like “If I Had a Tail” and “Make It Wit Chu.”
When the band left the stage after Songs for the Deaf’s classic “Go With the Flow,” the audience erupted into the usual practice of cheering and clapping to lure the group back onstage. As a spotlight once again fell upon Fertita, he began playing the sorrowful opening piano line of “The Vampyre of Time and Memory,” the centerpiece of …Like Clockwork, a moving meditation on mortality punctuated by baroque guitar solos.
From there, the encore only picked up in energy. Praising Asheville as a place he would love to live someday, Homme offered up a gift for the feverish crowd before him in the form of “Mexicola,” a heavy-hitter from their self-titled debut album, and the first song off that album the band has played live in two years.
The Queens then capped off the evening with the rollicking fury of “A Song for the Dead.” The song’s seemingly never-ending start-stop outro allowed the band to continually goad the audience into a frenzy. By the end, Theodore was flailing around on the toms dramatically like Raoul Duke trying to swat at imaginary bats, silhouetted against the animation on the backing screen.
The crowd quickly became incensed, and a sense of bittersweet disappointment was palpable in the air after the house lights came back up. After all, as all-encompassing as the setlist was, and as masterfully as Homme and friends handled their instruments, most fans would probably have sat up with them all night, given the chance.
Conspicuously absent that evening was Rated R’s “Feel Good Hit of the Summer,” a throwaway anthem with a rallying cry of “nicotine, valium, vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy and alcohol.” The same goes for “3’s and 7’s,” an upbeat number with a guitar riff recalling hot rods and “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
But the Queens of the Stone Age that came to Asheville may be too mature and wizened these days. Homme preaches ominously on “…Like Clockwork” that “holding on too long is just the fear of letting go.” The band has clearly taken the philosophy to heart as they approach their second decade of existence – no small feat in a world where other bands from the early-2000s rock revival like the Strokes and Franz Ferdinand have found themselves victims of lesser songwriting and critical apathy. Homme, who disbanded from his former act Kyuss and has refused to take part in any of their recent reunion activities, has proven himself a firm believer in forward momentum.
But at the same time, he follows up the sentiment expressed in “…Like Clockwork” with a pessimistic cry of, “one thing that is clear, it’s all downhill from here.”
An auditorium full of Queens of the Stone Age fans in Asheville would likely disagree.