Welcome to the Brian Jonestown Massacre

Photo by Rosina Carbone

Rosina reviews the Brian Jonestown Massacre @ Enmore Theatre – 16 November 2023

Good things happen to those who wait around concert venues. So when singer Anton Newcombe and guitarist Ryan Van Kreidt spill out of the doors of the Duke to greet the throng of flat caps and bootcut jeans patiently loitering on Enmore Road before the show, it’s patience rewarded. And, a patience better held on to by Brian Jonestown Massacre fans in the coming hours.

A show like this will be a carefully devised trial by fire and drunken spiels that weeds out those undeserving of the soft and sure wash of psychedelic rock the band has to offer. Their controversial last Sydney visit in 2018 soiled with heavy criticism for misogynistic outbursts from Newcombe also proved it was a test of tolerance at a dear moral price. One wonders who will last as spiritualists, aged bohemians and the indie youth begin to join the sold-out floor.

If r/thebrianjonestownmassacre and setlist.fm are to be believed, the band’s globe-trotting tour, which sees 11 dates in Australia alone, has been fraught with uncertainty. With setlists halved in Dallas due to cold weather and extended intermissions held as members left the stage during internal disputes in too many locations to mention, Sydney’s first infliction was the loss of Joel Gion for the remaining Australian dates. Announced only hours before the show, founding member and band tambourinist would be leaving the “Jingles and Jangles” to Australian guitar tech Shea Roberts on the grounds of a family emergency. 

The Brian Jonestown Massacre @ Enmore Theatre. Image credits: Rosina Carbone

The Portland ensemble has undergone multiple iterations under the sole leadership of Newcombe, with FIRE DOESN’T GROW ON TREES (2022) and The Future Is Your Past (2023) the latest neo-psychedelic and shiny garage albums in a thirty year career that has spanned the outreaches of shoegaze, folk and even krautrock. Now with 20 albums and 14 EPs feathers in their wide-brimmed hats, the Brian Jonestown Massacre has been one of the few bands to continually cultivate a discrete cult-like following for their ever-consistent quality of Eastern-inspired rock. A younger audience flocks to the scene after discovering Give It Back! (2008) tucked away in the pretentious corner of a record store, or when encountering their erratic depiction in cult rock doc Dig! (2004) alongside fellow Oregon band the Dandy Warhols.

Homey vintage rugs are laid out under rows of amp cabinets and open bottles of wine. Anton Newcombe fills a tall glass with vodka and Woolworths homebrand soda water, but mostly vodka. Backlit in warm reds and oranges, the band embrace and laugh amongst themselves as the audience stands still looking in. 

It’s minutes before a bouncing drum beat lights up and Newcombe falls in with the brilliant 12-string passes of “#1 LUCKY KITTY”. The front row slouches over the barricade with unconscious smiles and eyes glazed to the bouncing of the bassist and the willowy undulation of guitarists in time with their loose strums. But, momentum is lost as quickly as it was gained when the track comes to a close. The line-up of seven musicians resume their reserved conversations as guitars are handed to techs. A couple of hecklers vie for Newcombe’s attention only to be assured that re-tuning some of the gear will simply lead to a better experience for everyone. Between songs, there will be a constant turnover of guitars, tambourines will be traded for maracas and amp knobs will be meticulously adjusted. Time is not of the essence, art is. And so we wait.

The Brian Jonestown Massacre @ Enmore Theatre. Image credits: Rosina Carbone

The setlist is a resolute display of confidence in new material, with more than half the duration allotted to the debuting albums. The triumph of ascending chords in “Fudge” and springy acoustic energy colouring “Wait A Minute (2:30 to be exact)” work effortlessly to construct illustrious veneers that coat the concert hall. From 2015’s Mini Album Thingy Wingy, “Pish” is the first inclusion of an older release, earning a sigh of recognisability from the crowd. Newcombe’s lucid drones lay thick over the drawn-out guitar reverb faithfully adorned with tambourine.

Newcombe sips his soda vodka and speaks on humbleness, gratefulness and remembering our ancestors in the long introduction to “Forgotten Graves”, encouraging the audience to wish surrounding fans peace. Those intent on stoking the chaos yell over the soliloquising. It’s met with a firm “Shut the fuck up and enjoy the show. Respectfully.” 

For a while, the floor is a sea of bobbing heads with lips pressed shut. The Brian Jonestown Massacre is not a band you sing along to lest you interfere with their ritual. The only exception will be the meandering melody of their standout hit “Anemone” from Their Satanic Majesties Second Request (1996) that the audience murmurs along with the chorus.

The Brian Jonestown Massacre @ Enmore Theatre. Image credits: Rosina Carbone

Newcombe becomes increasingly pedantic with the contributions of his band members, calling out for slower drums and tambourine that is “like walking, not like dying”. After a few restarts and personal spats, Van Kriedt raises his guitar as though to bludgeon the bad-mouthing frontman. Some members walk off irritably, not to return until we reach the tail end of the setlist. Patience has waned in both the band and the crowd as the Enmore boos for their return and the musicians remaining on stage grimace through Newcombe’s profane retaliation. The show confirms the mythology that the Brian Jonestown Massacre has been one day from falling apart for the last thirty years. It’s a credit to the music that they’ve avoided succumbing to that fate.

Off-script and expectedly unexpected, the band run overtime with impromptu performances of “New Low In Getting High” and “Maybe Make It Right”. The weakness of Newcombe’s voice becomes noticeable, which he attributes to their relentless schedule. It seems the aim of the show is to continue on for as long as possible until enough members of the band give up and retire to the wings. 

Outside, the Enmore is being pelted with rain and the masses are hailing Ubers by the kerb, excitably whispering to each other about the spectacle as intimate as it was pantomime. I’ll certainly miss the attention of detail to the mix, swishing guitar and all that effort expended on a solo tambourinist. But, I guess we can wait. 

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