What did you miss if you weren't at the Old Rock House Thursday night? Not only another solid, grooving Black Angels set, but a band that is undoubtedly in command. It's almost as if their many stalwart fans are just excited to be watching the one band out of a million that listened to "The Velvet Underground and Nico," and then actually made it. But for all the comparisons it draws from critics and influences it wears on its sleeves, the Black Angels come through sounding fresh and huge and harmonious. Yes, drone can be harmony.
The performance at the Old Rock House on Thursday night was purely musical, without gimmick or innuendo -- even the modest light display seemed incidental. Any sex or personality or swagger you required seethed through the music, purring and shrieking in dirge and shuffle -- the heads of the musicians downcast or stolidly looking out at some obscure point ahead. No between-song banter, no sluggish feedback stunts or meandering solos. Business, business, business. But not business as in square -- the band was here to play.
When Christian Bland played the first opiate notes of "Young Men Dead," a quiver went through the crowd. Stephanie Bailey (looking tough and stoned the whole show) set up the monstrous backbeat groove, the cradle for Rishi Dhir's elastic low-end bass. Alex Maas's trebly, doped-out croon haunted the packed house even as it would in an Austin basement. His slight smile during "Doves" was perhaps the most any of them gave away throughout the show. Everything was on and the band knew it.
The set ended with the hypnotic drone-funk of "Dee-Ree-Shee," the best tune of the night. This was The Black Angels at the height of its power, and probably, popularity -- selling out bigger and bigger venues, its albums consistently well-received and bought like crazy, its fan base ageless and cool. The band will never be the Rolling Stones, selling out sports stadiums around the world, franchising itself into capitalist ubiquity. Now, more than ever, people support artists who keep doing good work on a modest scale -- Arcade Fire me no Arcade Fires.
So, when Rishi Dhir, cross-legged, cradling the twang-chiming sitar in his lap, kept playing beyond the end of "Dee-Ree-Shee" and the band left the stage, I saw something interesting happening. On one level, you could call it normal dramatics; but Dhir's playing was no novelty act -- it was gorgeous and strange, perfectly bridging the 4/4 of rock, blues, raga, still droning by the pulse of the dissipating song.
It was an attempt to keep the audience on edge, to show that the Angels' music is still mysterious, and the musicians will still do things exactly the way they want. The Black Angels do not compromise -- even set in the gloss and polish of the Old Rock House, the band sounded menacing and tough. More importantly, timeless.