As SWX begins to swell toward its 1100 capacity crowd, it isn’t at every gig that one gets to witness what looks like an extra from Quadrophenia busting out magic tricks in support on the evening’s main act. Thus, Ben Taylor AKA the Magic Mod is bemusing the audience, not only by his mere presence on stage, but also by his adept hand with a deck of cards. The nine musicians who comprise The Brian Jonestown Massacre then take to the stage, and leader Anton Newcombe acknowledges the winners of two tickets to tonight’s show via an Oxfam prize draw. It’s all rather quant; magicians and raffles feel a far cry from Newcombe’s typecast role as former junkie tyrant and the band’s mythos of rock and roll chaos.
Nearly twenty eight years since they released debut album Methodrone in 1995, the Bay Area psychedelic rock outfit’s cult status appears as intact as ever. Tonight’s show is a sell-out, as are upcoming gigs in Brighton, Liverpool and London. Early in the set ‘#1 Lucky Kitty’ and ‘The Real’ – both from 2022’s Fire Doesn’t Grow On Trees – put forth the DIY formula oft used within the BJM cannon: Repeatedly circling chord progressions, droning psyche grooves and Newcombe’s lysergic crooner vocals.
The fact that Newcombe had posted both tracks in demo form along with the description “written, performed and recorded today” on YouTube, perhaps highlights a spontaneous and adhoc adherence to a working formula. Considering the breadth of the band’s discography (18 studio albums to date with, incredibly, 3 released in 1996 alone), it makes sense that this approach can fall foul to an inevitable samey-ness.
There are moments, of course, when certain tunes make themselves known within the slush of psychedelia. ‘Your Mind is my Café’ features a surging three chord march and the pleasing sound of Newcombe’s long held notes at the chorus. ‘Wait a Minute (2.30 to be exact)’ bounces with a brighter edge and Newcombe’s whirling, paisley guitar solo hits the mark.
Being met with an enthusiastic audience cheer, ‘Pish’ appears to be the first properly recognised tune of the evening; it’s floating guitar riff and Madchester-esque groove inspires a couple of ladies to sit atop the shoulders of nearby menfolk. At their best, The BJM’s tunes are like audio mantras, irresistibly repetitive assaults that eventually seep into your affections.
The band’s nine musicians form a slightly variable line up of guitars (anywhere between 3-5), bass, drums and synthesiser. Impressive for an indoor gig in January, five out of the nine sport sunglasses. Newcombe is adorned in a beflowered fedora and, when he sheds his denim Jacket early doors, a flowing white shirt and beads makes him appear vaguely Jesus-y from the waist up. The mutton-chopped Joel Gion’s iconic, or perhaps ironic, role as tambourine player endures to this day; considering his three-decades stint jangling the zills, one can forgive him looking so bored.
Before the brilliantly named ‘The Mother of All Fuckers’, a verbose and slightly incoherent Newcombe asks “What’s wrong with fucking mothers? Is it meant to be an insult?” The song mines considerable Velvet Underground-esque mileage from a couple of chords, and an audience member can be heard describing first getting into The BJM through 2004 documentary ‘Dig!’; it’s probably a typical story for many here and one suspects that Ondi Timonder’s film has been central in forging interest in the group’s mythos.
Newcombe’s on stage disposition is always something interesting to observe; he champions “shitty” 1969 guitar pickups (“it’s not about being perfect!”) and leads consistent between-song consultations with his bandmates. Fans will be familiar with Newcombe’s alacrity in berating his BJM brethren and tonight there are several examples; he excoriates a guitar player with “relax, take a drink and watch”, mocks the supposedly hampered acoustic guitar technique of another, and admonishes yet another: “Are you listening?! Pay attention!” Bassist Collin Hegna smiles at one of Newcombe’s rants and one suspects that the whole thing may have descended into schtick.
The show truly comes alive late on with 90s favourite ‘Anemone’; the stoned hippy riff and singalong chorus induces audience clapping, girls mounting shoulders, phones emerging from pockets, a single lighter held aloft. It’s the best received song of the evening. After two hours and ten minutes, Newcombe declares “Thank you all, love you” and signs someone’s vinyl before departing. There’s nothing here that is likely to garner new fans but it’s not particular relevant. These are love-in shows of hero-worship as The Brian Jonestown Massacre continue to ride the crest of their cultic wave.