I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked… angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night… (Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems, 1956)
Atlanta’s Roxy is dark. It’s nine o’clock. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is set to take the stage. Drinks mix with smokes and tangle between leather jacket types and high rise office hipsters. A single spotlight turns on. The piano waits at the end of it.
The Wild One, a 1954 film starring Marlin Brando, is based on the Hollister motorcycle riot which accentuated the tense lines dividing the marginalized and the mainstream of society. The film is the source of the Black Rebel name. Before 2005’s Howl, Black Rebel’s loud vibe was sharpened by this literary drawl – a gritty rock band that doesn’t play by the rules. Now, those impulse sounds are fused with more layers – a smoothed out mix that makes Howl zydeco punk… beatnik folk… starry dynamo.
The show starts when Peter Hayes walks out and sits down at the piano. “I leave myself behind in pieces,” he sings, “I know you'll need them when I'm gone.” His band mates still absent, Peter turns to the guitar and harmonica and belts out,
Restless sinner, rest in sin,
He's got no face to hold him in.
He feels his day's as dark as night,
He's been waiting with the blind just to find a place to hide his ghost.
Robert Been and Nick Jago join Peter as “Shuffle Your Feet” cautions that the peaceful protest keeps war in demand. Then everything stops as if time were to save souls. Back again. An infectious riff plants the attending eyes on the silhouetted threesome as they start “Ain’t No Easy Way,” their first single from Howl.
Everything feels desperate – the throwback strobe effect, the instruments rarely used at rock shows (like the appearance of a trombone and a makeshift accordion later in the show), the gut effort of Been who had the flu, the violent appeal to something more… for something more.
“White Palms” has Hayes hanging on doubt and prayer:
Jesus, when you coming back
Jesus never coming back
Jesus won't take me back
Jesus never coming home…
I wouldn't come back if I'd have been Jesus
I'm the kinda guy who leaves the scene of the crime.
Tease this with a little “Shade of Blue” anecdote that gives up, “U.S. Government” that drums out the deception of what is seen and what lies undercover “to keep a smile,.. to keep me in line… to keep me high,” and landing with “Stop” which seems to personify a drug dependence and admits that, “We don't know where to stop / I try and I try but I can't get enough / I won't fail you but you won't bleed for me.”
The trail leads the band and audience to recognize struggle and push toward what it means to be whole. Black Rebel dragged itself from a band breakup and various drug addictions, so the weight of the world and the promise held out and not forgotten are strong notes played out after “Stop” and before “Gospel Song.” It is here that Black Rebel lingers. A hymn-like ballad on the album progresses to full electric vibes tonight. And it lingers and it lingers as if improvising finds its heights stuck between two verses of walking and staying with Jesus.
The encore didn’t relax the prodding that makes Black Rebel more folk than rock. For example, "Devil’s Waitin'" seems ready to settle into a framework and hedge a bet that the devil may not be around the corner and there is some value in experiencing the battle and war... that there may be someone to, "Pull me up, on the other side," and not "leave me standing alone in the light."
Black Rebel knows how to blend a five act play into their show, dipping and driving for crescendo before dashing down again, only saved by conclusion and contentious hope. Their layers are peeled back with a vulnerable piano at the start and a tired accordion sucking air at the close. The in-between is a dance of sensuality and sincerity that makes you rally around questions of Jesus and love and long for some other answer besides the refrain "And we may never be here again."
And, to return to Ginsberg, his angst might fuel Howl in the sense of wander, but, where Ginsberg leaves off with little directive, Black Rebel pulls in with their anxiety and hooks on to a distant hope evident in the reversal: "And we may/hope to be here again."
If you have a moment, visit Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, likely my newest favorite find, at www.blackrebelmotorcycleclub.com. And, if you have a chance to see their show, go check it out.