It’s about 9:30 when Band of Skulls hit the stage in Hell’s Kitchen, right at the river’s edge Thursday night. Terminal 5 smells like the inside of a bong. There are lots of couples, both kids and oldsters from across the river: it’s stoner date night. There’s a healthy crowd in the house, although the turnout wouldn’t have been enough to sell out Bowery Ballroom. Getting halfway to the stage, even with a sturdy laptop case slung over the shoulder, is no problem. This audience is mellow, courteous, considerate: hostility is not a stoner value. And there’s not a single stinky, annoying Bushwick trendoid to be seen anywhere.
The four-piece band open with a song that sounds like one of those rap-rock acts from the 90s – Limp Bizkit, maybe? – if that group had actually taken the time to listen to RZA’s murky, sinister Wu-Tang productions. A cynic would say that Band of Skulls have the metal for the guys and the phony “R&B” for the girls, but that doesn’t do the band justice: they’re a whole lot more than that, as their unfailingly catchy, roughly 90-minute set proved. It’s easy to see why people like this band. They’re all solid musicians, and constant touring has made them tight as a drum.
What’s most obvious is that this crew is happiest at their heaviest, and so is the crowd. There’s a point toward the end of the show where guitarist Russell Marsden, bassist Emma Richardson and drummer Matt Hayward hit a tricky, stomping, tumbling passage straight out of The Ocean, by Led Zep. Marsden adds some over-the-edge, vintage Jimmy Page noise to his precise, slithery, Robin Trower vibrato while Richardson pounces on the changes. A muddy sound mix doesn’t do much to reveal what a nimble bassist she is, at one point flying up to the 14th fret or so while she’s singing, firing off a lick just as tricky, and not missing a beat. This is where the band’s chops are put to the test, and they pass that test flawlessly. It’s a fair bet that if they stick it out, beyond the last dying embers of what’s left of the radio-and-records era, they’ll be a hell of a metal band.
Throughout the rest of the show, they show off how eclectic they are. Early on, there’s an acid funk-tinged number that draws a straight line back to the MC5. There’s a heavy but dancey anthem that draws a line back to 80s goth. One of the numbers midway through sounds like a mashup of peak-era Oasis and, say, The Streets. Hayward proves to be a capable acoustic guitarist on the unexpectedly psych-folk ballad on which he plays both kickdrum and hi-hat simultaneously while not missing a guitar chord: neat trick. Keyboardist Milo Fitzpatrick stays out of the way but is a welcome presence when needed, whether providing twinkly psychedelic ambience or apprehensive organ, particularly during segues or suspenseful bridges. The high point of the set turns out to be a propulsive, Gemma Ray-style Euro-ghoulabilly number with a macabre metal chorus grafted on. That’s when the bullshit detector shut down and pure bliss sets in.
Lyrics don’t factor into what they do: we’re all brothers and sisters, and if you wanna find yourself, you gotta roam. Whatev. But the music so often kicks ass – and leaves you wishing they’d kick more. At the end of the show, Marsden – who has mastered the art of getting just enough feedback out of his stack of Fenders without shutting down the PA – balances high on one of the wedges, then raises his beautiful vintage Fender Jazzmaster, headstock up, balanced in his palm…and then flings it sideways into the stacks and leaves it feeding as he saunters offstage.