Them Crooked Vultures, Royal Albert Hall, London
Birds of a feather rock together
As when reviewing the various Live Aid events, there's always a difficult balance to be struck between the underlying charitable rationale of a concert, and the actual music on offer. In this case, the charity is the wholly laudable Teenage Cancer Trust, which patron Roger Daltrey reports has now set up more than 20 specialist care units across the country, thanks substantially to the annual Royal Albert Hall concerts. This year's series was kicked off in brutal fashion by the supergroup Them Crooked Vultures, the alliance of Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, Led Zeppelin multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones, and Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Josh Homme, who must go to work each night feeling like he's won the rhythm-section lottery of a lifetime.
There's much to admire about Them Crooked Vultures' debut album, not least the sheer sonic ambition still sustained by several of heavy rock's most successful contributors. But while some elements transfer well to the live arena – most notably Grohl's spectacular drum sound, surely the most impactful percussive barrage to hit this venerable hall since the Cream reunion of a few years back – in other ways, the performance was guilty of some of the less attractive aspects of prog-metal practice that once ushered in the punk revolution.
Not the least was the fetishisation of instruments: barely two successive songs would pass without Homme, Jones and auxiliary guitarist Alain Johannes all replacing their axes – OK if your instrumental armoury is as tasteful as Homme's, with its red/black Telecaster, beautiful royal-blue custom model, and what appeared to be a gorgeous black and stainless-steel Gretsch, but an appalling aesthetic crime if it's Jones's endless parade of ghastly, curlicued basses, each uglier than the last, culminating in a huge machine, which seemed to have more strings than the average harp.
Grohl, by comparison, satisfied his inner tech-head with just a neat micstand that automatically swung the microphone into range exactly when needed for his vocal parts, then away again as soon as his lines were done, so as not to impede his furious assault on skin and cymbal. An ingenious device – unless, of course, he has a small child permanently positioned behind his drum-stool twisting the stand at the appropriate moments, the 21st-century equivalent of being stuffed up a chimney.
There's no denying the sheer bulldozer impact of the riffs to the likes of "Scumbag Blues", "No One Loves Me & Neither Do I" and the elephantine tread of "Dead End Friends". But heard end to end in this manner, it becomes clear that that's all they are: just riffs, with tricksy little rhythm flourishes replacing the diligent songcraft that might turn them into great songs. It's also clear that most of them are Homme's riffs, cranked out in the terse, mechanistic "robot-rock" manner he devised for Queens of the Stone Age. Tonight, he restricts himself largely to rhythm guitar, slashing away gamely while Johannes shoulders lead guitar duties.
Homme is the most unassuming of rock frontmen, tall and ungainly, looking more like an off-duty cricketer in his black jeans and blue shirt, with his stage moves more akin to your dad dancing than to a heavy metal adonis throwing shapes – all aspects I find more endearing than his vocals, which lack the emotional dynamism required of a heavy rock singer, leaving the songs flat and unengaging.
It would be remiss not to acknowledge that for most of the audience, tonight's show was like a blessing from rock heaven. But for myself, the best bits – the guitar interplay on "Scumbag Blues"; the point when the deceptive intro to "Elephants" gives way to its high-speed chase riff; Grohl's embodiment of the spirit of the Muppets' Animal – are outweighed by the worst, chief among them Jones's evil organ part to "Caligulove", and the achingly overlong and dull "Bandoliers", during which time seemed to stand still, and not in a good way. In between, it seemed mostly like business as usual. But for the best of motives.
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