Here’s the thing about Queens of the Stone Age: They are, as a friend of mine observed, like the cilantro of rock 'n' roll. You either have the gene that makes you love them, or they leave a soapy taste in your mouth.
I wouldn’t say I have the gene, to be perfectly honest. A great live show, however, will win converts of the most diehard of soap-eaters. Saturday, QOTSA fought a tough war against the cavernous sound challenges of St. Paul's Roy Wilkins Auditorium and mostly won. But in doing so, they lost a lot of the nuance and texture that defines them far beyond their riff-heavy brand of rock 'n' roll.
Luckily for them, they had a crowd of almost 5,000 fans who clearly had the gene, even though the California band took a couple songs to get hot. By the time frontman Josh Homme & Co. got to “My God Is the Sun,” however, fists were pumping, the main floor was alight with cell phones recording the show like a post-modern sea of cigarette lighters, and the overwhelming stank of skunk weed was in the air.
Surrounded by 10-foot strobe lights that alternated between explosive and casting an eerie, almost TV-static glow on the proceedings, singer/guitarist/ubiquitous rock wunderkind Homme and QOTSA charged through their 19-song set, highlighting the biggest songs of their 20-year career as well as several off their latest record, the Mark Ronson-produced Villians. The band overcame the lousy acoustics through sheer volume and bravado, with hard-hitting riffs and hooks just as catchy as those of their '70s and '80s influences. (“The Way You Used to Do,” is just a more serious “Hot for Teacher,” for God’s sake.)
But -- and this is a big but -- QOTSA aren't just a band of sheer volume; there are twists and turns and dynamics a mile wide to their best songs that got lost in the translation. Sometimes keyboards were too loud, sometimes vocals weren’t loud enough, sometimes things started to sound sludgy (and not in a good way). Two-thirds of the way through the set, things were definitely tasting soapy, although QOTSA superfans could easily ignore it by remembering what the songs were supposed to sound like. The band -- especially Homme and guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen -- made the best of it with rock 'n' roll kinetics, occasionally lashing out at some of the flexible plastic light rigs on stage. Juxtaposed against the rigidly fixed columns of light that surrounded them, the swaying lights seemed a little silly.
Throughout the night, there was something clearly haunting Homme, as his “hippie” banter about everyone loving each other couldn’t be separated from the recent rash of tragic violence at concerts. Most notable (and close to home) for Homme: last year's mass shooting at a Paris concert venue during a performance by Homme's other band, Eagles of Death Metal. Through that lens, even the most rock 'n' roll song intros -- Homme stressing how important it was to “Go With the Flow,” for example -- came with a double meaning that hung heavy.
The home stretch of the set, however, was like a whiskey chaser for the heavy hearts, bad sound, and soapy taste: The band cranked into the highest possible gear for “Little Sister” and pulverized the final three songs. After a perfunctory break, they returned to encore with “Un-Reborn Again” and “Song for the Dead,” which nearly ended prematurely as Homme bumped into Van Leeuwen and went flying backwards over the base of one of the light tubes.
He finished the song on his back. I was sold.
Random notebook dump: In many ways, QOTSA represents the logical conclusion to the 25-year delusion that is "alternative rock" -- it's just plain old rock, people. If Kurt Cobain’s early flameout is Jimi all over again, and Pearl Jam’s retreat into cult following isolation is the Greatful Dead, then QOTSA might sometimes be Rush and might sometimes be the Eagles. But really, if there’s a logical comparison, it’s the sheer majestic weirdness that was -- pardon the band name comparison -- Queen.
The crowd: Take exactly the mix of rock 'n' roll diehards, awkward dancers, and radio-listening bros you would expect, give them the distinctive look of someone pumped full of overpriced tap beer in plastic cups, and stick them in the world’s largest high school gymnasium.
Overheard in the crowd: “Dude, I am on so much acid!”
Random notebook dump, photo edition: This found still life of an empty mini-bottle of Fireball and deserted plastic beer cup in a toilet stall feels like a metaphor.
Critic’s Bias: There are many great QOTSA songs, but no amount of Fireball and cheap beer could make me think “No One Knows” is anything but irritating.
Notes on the opener: The crowd seemed to know every Royal Blood song, but it was honestly hard to tell if it was because they were familiar with the music or if their bass-and-drums chugga rock was just that predictable. (It was.) Running a bass through enough effects to make it sound like a guitar isn’t really all that cool. These guys are experts at writing songs that sound like The Last Song Of The Set™, as every single song sounded like the big closer -- until the next song.
The band milked their time on stage more than any opening act I’ve ever seen, from “which side of the room can cheer the loudest” antics to rote drum solos to half-hearted crowd walks. Sorry, Royal Blood fans, if you want to listen to a bass and drums combo that will actually freak you the fuck out, I suggest you search Spotify for Big Business.
If I Had a Tail
Monsters in the Parasol
My God Is the Sun
Feet Don't Fail Me
The Way You Used to Do
You Think I Ain't Worth a Dollar, but I Feel Like a Millionaire
No One Knows
3's & 7's
The Evil Has Landed
I Sat by the Ocean
Make It Wit Chu
I Appear Missing
Villains of Circumstance
Sick, Sick, Sick
Go With the Flow
Song for the Dead