The Brian Jonestown Massacre make Vancouver levitate at long-awaited return

Photo by Bradley Garner
Photo by Bradley Garner

The Brian Jonestown Massacre and Vancouver have long shared an acrimonious past. After a fan pelted founder Anton Newcombe with a cup of beer in 2007, he launched into a slur-ridden tirade, and the San Fran psych mavens walked offstage at the Commodore Ballroom. A trend of cancelations followed: a story abounds that they once gave zero notice except for a note posted on the venue door, without a word about refunds. And just two or three years ago, they pulled a show before the promoter even revealed the ticket price.

The BJM have been one of my favourite bands for the past 12 years. In high school, when my friends and I told our parents we were staying the night at each other’s houses, but we were actually dying in a field somewhere in rural Nova Scotia, guess what was playing, scrambled, through our cheap-assed portable speakers. Guess what was blasting from our car stereos as we rocketed down dirty, pothole-riddled country roads.

For one night, this past Victoria Day at the Commodore, I became that overly eager fan I was when I first moved here, who no longer had to drive three hours to catch the odd show in Halifax. I once again became that overly eager fan who was always first in line, first in the venue, bee-lined towards the front of the stage, and, if the wait-time between doors and the opener was long, had zero reservations about sitting on the cold, studded metal grating at the foot of the barricade. I never thought I’d see the BJM given their relationship with Van (and Newcombe’s residencies in Berlin and Iceland). So all I could think heading into (and during) the show was, “Vancouver, DO NOT – FUCK – THIS – UP.”

We didn’t comply.

Unfortunately, Newcombe will never shake his reputation for being easy to piss off. Being the target of his vitriol or even catching a boot to the head has become sport, a cherished prize, even the attraction. Projectiles as harmful as pint glasses or as innocuous as miniature glow sticks flew at the stage from time to time. A glass shot straight through the drum kit. The BJM’s tambourine hero Joel Gion saw this and contorted his face into an uncompassionate “Well, if you wanna be a dick, you’re gonna get it.”

And Newcombe gave it. He blasted the crowd’s actions as “just idiocy” and called on security to do their jobs. “Or here’s a better idea: how about the audience be the security?” Launching bottles is not just a danger to the band but to the audience themselves, he warned, “like if someone hits your girlfriend.” At a hip hop show, “someone pulls out a gun and starts shooting people, and it has nothing to do with you.” Dramatic and controversial, yes. Just what (some in) the crowd wanted.

But on to the good stuff, because there was plenty of it. Three hours and twenty minutes of it, to be exact.
Some of the biggest BJM fans I know understandably have reservations about seeing the band at this point in their career: they’re no longer in their “prime,” often narrowly defined as their DiG! years. But I’m here to quell those concerns: the BJM do not run from their past.

Hype was high not just because the BJM finally returned after nearly nine years but because hours before the show, Timbre Concerts announced that there was no opener; the BJM’s set was listed as running from 9:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. “Are you – shitting – me???”

Three hours is God-damned plenty, but the BJM pushed beyond even that, playing for an additional 20 minutes. Their three-page set list mixed jangly blasts of upbeat rock (Gion first flexed his percussive might, with two shakers in his right hand and four in his left, on “That Girl Suicide”) with more conventional tunes like “Who?” and perhaps their most defining song, “Servo”. Psychedelic sidewinders “When Jokers Attack” and “Geezers” weaved through dusty outback takes like “Nevertheless” and lighter fair like “Jennifer”.

The band drawled with the sedated “Wisdom” and touched upon the achingly personal with the most fragile gems “(David Bowie I Love You) Since I Was Six” and “The Devil May Care (Mom & Dad Don’t)”.

When the BJM set out on droning excursions that churned the audience with waves of repetitive patterns, the band always returned to greater form with their more beloved tunes. Newer songs including Vad Hände Med Dem?”, from their latest album Revelations, served as ideal transitions.

“I know it’s a long concert, but chill out. We got more songs,” Newcombe said, slightly admonishing the crowd immediately following another bottle attack. “We’re doing an experiment.”

They never clarified what that experiment was, but after a ferocious version of the normally skeletal “Yeah-Yeah”, he politely directed the band to play guitar loops and to not “go crazy” on the drums. The band again meandered for some time before the psychedelic dam burst, flooding the Commodore with a torrent of hissing distortion and vigorous reverb. One by one, while the music played on, the band members dropped out and left the stage. Even after nearly three-and-a-half hours, the BJM left fans roaring for more.

“Keep music evil,” the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s motto goes. Keeping music evil doesn’t involve trolling Anton Newcombe because you watched DiG! once and maybe recommended it to a friend. It doesn’t involve paying $40 for a chance to personally drive him away from your city for nearly a decade. And although parenthood and sobriety have allegedly mellowed him out – even though a sense of levity always resettled in spite of flying objects – there’s only so much provocation anyone can take. We never know when the BJM will stop in Vancouver again, so don’t take them for granted, for your own kicks. And if you can’t dig that, you ain’t got no shovel.


Leslie Ken Chu

Leslie Ken Chu