Thirty years is a long time to keep anything going. It's longer than most marriages, most businesses and certainly than most experimental classic-rock sludge-punk bands are able to last. This hasn't stopped the Melvins from recording and touring since six years before The Simpsons were even on the air. In celebration of this monumental anniversary, the Melvins embarked on a 38-show tour of the U.S. that brought the band to the Firebird on Tuesday night.
With previous performances at Mississippi Nights, Club 367, Pop's, the American Theatre and even the Kiel Center with Nine Inch Nails back in 1995, the members of the Melvins are no strangers to St. Louis: They even played the Firebird as recently as May of last year. So was the band offering anything special on this particular tour to mark its 30-year anniversary?
After a looped and warped intro of the cough from the beginning of Black Sabbath's "Sweet Leaf," the band opened with all guns blazing with the song "Hag Me" from 1993's Houdini album, a common fan favorite. This is a band that always seems to do whatever it feels like live, incorporating drum jams and noise sections, and sometimes neglecting most of its back catalog in the setlist. Was this about to be the set full of classic songs that most fans have been hoping for?
"The War on Wisdom" from last year's The Bulls and the Bees EP was played next and answered that question with a quick "probably not." That said, the song was still a ripper and sounded great for the first five minutes, after which drummer Dale Crover suddenly stopped the show and ran to the mic at the front of the stage, pointing and yelling because someone had thrown beer toward the band. Though clearly not a cool thing for an audience member to do, Crover came off less like the cool guy who also played drums in Shrinebuilder, Fantomas and, oh yeah, Nirvana, and more like a crotchety old man yelling at kids for walking on his lawn. He threatened that the band would leave the stage if it happened again and returned to his seat.
Guitarist/vocalist Buzz Osborne paused for a moment then enthusiastically asked, "So how you guys doing tonight?" with perfect comic timing, and a big laugh broke the tension. The band then started the song nearly just completed over again, so we all got to hear it twice, which felt a little odd, but hey, this is the Melvins. Odd is the band's last and middle name.
Luckily there were no more idiots throwing beer, and the rest of the show continued as planned. Having seen the band several times in the past, I can honestly say it has never sounded better. For those not familiar, the Melvins has had two drummers for around seven years now. I initially didn't see the purpose behind it -- Dale Crover is one of the best drummers in rock music; why would he possibly need someone playing along with him? Previously, the dual drumming seemed somewhat unnecessary. Both guys are playing the same parts and the anticipation that one of them might make a mistake or get thrown off beat from the other is a little distracting.
But in these last seven years, Crover and Coady Willis (also of Big Business and Murder City Devils fame) have locked in, playing together so incredibly tightly that it has created a truly thunderous and unique live sound. The drums sounded like cannons, full of punch and attack like a marching band heading to the battlefield, with the cranked Emperor cabinets onstage pushing thick guitar and bass tones (provided by ex-Butthole Surfers bassist Jeff Pinkus) that filled out the huge sound. I have rarely heard a band sound this good live. Loud, heavy and distorted, but crystal-clear with the vocals cutting perfectly at the front of the mix.
The rest of the set was a good mix of newer and older songs including the groove-driven "Let It All Be" from 1999's The Bootlicker and the frantic "Sweet Willy Rollbar" from 1994's Stoner Witch, all played by the band with passion and aggression. It's easy to see why Buzz Osborne has become somewhat of a legendary guitarist who is looked up to by so many fellow musicians. With wavy gray hair standing up and stretching out in all directions from his head, a silver guitar and a strange turtleneck that looks like leftover wardrobe from a Conan "In the Year 2000" sketch, Osborne looks like something out of a bad '70s sci-fi movie. But he attacks his guitar and microphone like Kong on the side of a skyscraper.
After roughly 90 minutes the band played its closer...is this?...holy shit...yeah, this is a Butthole Surfers cover. Awesome. "Graveyard" from the 1987's acid-soaked Locust Abortion Technician is a song so bizarre and dizzying that it's surprising that any band would attempt to cover it. But of course the Melvins isn't just any band, and it pulled off a brilliant interpretation of this weird old jam to end the show. Sticking around for a few moments after the band had walked off stage, the crowd seemed to want more. Fan faves such as "Hooch," "The Bit" and "Honey Bucket" had not been played and would have made for a powerful encore, but none was given. Considering that Crover and Pinkus were both also in ZZ Top-worshiping opening band Honky, and therefore had played for well over two hours at that point, it didn't seem too unreasonable for them to be done for the evening.
When watching the Melvins live it's sometimes easy to forget how hugely influential the band has been over the last 30 years. It's become safe to say that even if you are not a fan of the Melvins, your favorite bands probably are. Nirvana, Faith No More, Tool and countless others have cited Melvins as a major influence, and it is probably the band most directly responsible for the entire stoner/sludge/doom movement after Black Sabbath. And seeing them live is kind of like seeing Sabbath on a smaller scale, but instead of blowing it by firing the original drummer, it just hired another awesome drummer to back him up.
While the show wasn't exactly the set full of classics many hoped for, it did hit many highlights from the band's career and sounded great enough to keep fans satisfied until the next visit. And maybe that makes the most sense for an anniversary tour: showcasing a bit of everything, spanning its entire career. That's the great thing about seeing the Melvins live -- with a band so inventive with such a huge back catalog, it's easy to get something exciting and different every time.
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