About a decade and a half ago, MTV began taping live specials at the Hard Rock Live in Orlando, Florida, where I was born and raised. These were typically stiff and awkward affairs. Before the artists began, some producer would tell the audience to wave their hands and act like the artist was rocking out because it was easier to catch this footage beforehand, and often artists would perform the same songs several times in a row in order to get a televisable take. When I saw Queens Of The Stone Age play one of these live specials, they blazed through their set, didn’t repeat a lick, cursed a lot, and then capped the evening off with former bassist Nick Oliveri smashing his ax into the corporate sponsor’s sign, eventually breaking both into pieces. That episode never aired.
A decade and a half later at their headlining set at Riot Fest, Queens Of The Stone Age again demonstrated the tension and balance that’s made them the most durable and acclaimed hard rock outfit working today. They are simultaneously both descendants of the raw, loose ethos of the Stooges and the Cramps, wherein nothing is sacred and anything could fall apart at any time, and they have also become slick, arena-rock professionals like Metallica, capable of hitting the complex notes and giving the audience what they want. The days when Oliveri might actually make everything go to crap are long gone, but the backing band Josh Homme has assembled these days are uncannily good at channeling the feeling of an unhinged rock show wherein anything could go off the rails, even if everyone involved is well aware there’s too much at stake with these festival paychecks to leave much to chance.
I could be wrong about this, but I’m almost certain that last night’s Riot Fest was the first time the California stoner messiahs have headlined a major U.S. festival. Later this year Queens Of The Stone Age will play Madison Square Garden, and I’m certain they will feature prominently in most of next year’s three-day getaway announcements. Last night the band showed they certainly have the back catalog to hold the casual listener’s interest, and whenever things began to feel a little perfunctory—like the slick but crowd-pleasing run through of “Little Sister”—Homme knew it was time to cut loose and throw out a deep cut like “A Song for the Dead” so Troy Van Leeuwen, Dean Fertita, and Michael Shuman could dig in and get lost in the pulsating groove. They pushed the song to ecstatic, mammoth heights, and for a second it felt like they were so hypnotically locked in that we could all ride it out forever. And then Homme finished the final chorus, and it was all over.
Much of the set was pulled from their recent album Villians, and the band has figured out a nice balance between maintaining the hip-swinging, danceable energy of the recorded versions while uncorking the vacuum-sealed tightness that Mark Ronson imprinted on them, sometimes to their detriment. Fortunately, drummer Jon Theodore was much less restrained on live run-throughs of “The Way You Used To Do” and “The Evil Has Landed” while still staying true to the song’s shimmying ethos, pummeling the audience into the ground one second and getting them to move the next.
Homme is capable of conveying both great wrath (opener “You Think I Ain’t Worth A Dollar, But I Feel Like A Millionaire”) and emotional vulnerability (“Go With The Flow”), but at heart he’s an old-school crooner in a leather jacket, soulful even when sneering. He’s still trying to turn the backseat jam “Make It Wit Chu” into one of the band’s signature numbers, even if most of the crowd didn’t seem to get into it. On “Smooth Sailing” he showed he’s still pop culture’s reigning champion of casual disdain, never letting his contempt for “the status quo” ruffle his feathers. Homme works very hard to make you think he’s barely working, but last night he showed that he’s a born perfectionist who knows how to include just enough rough edges to make the final product hit even harder.