“I hope we don’t fuck this up” mutters Robert Levon Been with a smirk before he sits on the monitor at the front of the stage and starts the ragged strumming of The Line, a piece that once closed their shows but is now a two-part acoustic break from the plunging and soaring rock songs the rebels are known for. Tonight, the less boisterous songs are put to the test, but the real noisemakers come out towards the second half, lifting the audience out of its reverie. During Spread Your Love, a modest pit starts, polite like Amsterdam. A guy surfs some bodies, and then I lose my boyfriend David, an OG punker, to the “tame but fun” pit. He emerges later with a set list.
We flew from Los Angeles to see the band in a venue that true fans call Church of BRMC. It is mid-tour, and the band must be exhausted. Leah Shapiro has healed from her surgery, and she carries the songs with confidence and grace. She is masked by guitarist Peter Hayes from where I am standing, yet I am so grateful she is here. To be quite honest, something is slightly off tonight. Despite it, the boys look good and sound good. Leah is healthy. The fans are happy. Been, boyish rogue as ever with plenty of stage presence for all three members combined, briefly addresses the audience between songs and thanks them for their support and for continuing to invite them back. He smiles like he has a secret.
Hayes, larger than life on stage, emerges like a tempestuous beast chained to the ground, writhing with the tethered instrument he has enslaved himself to, shying away from the crowd’s leering eyes but nevertheless breathless in his relationship to his instrument. On this tour, Hayes has added tom-toms to his instruments. We are astounded as to how much taller he looks when he has a guitar in his hands. He transforms right in front of our eyes like a warlock. His charm is in his unassuming nature, his obsession with the music and the willingness to share works in progress with the most faithful fans who crowd around him after the show and lean into the cold night air, their faces aglow by Hayes’ phone which he holds tenderly and patiently for the ladies to hear his latest compositions. It is something to behold.
After the show, we find writer Ian Ottaway backstage, now living in Berlin, the mad trickster poet of the band. Ian, like all geniuses, has a reputation that precedes him, for better or worse. There he is with Rob: Counselor, brother, muse and foil. We talk about his writing for a while. I hope someday we will see a physical book from this accidental poet. If you don’t believe in black magic and leprechauns, hang out with Ian for a spell.
The Paradiso, is, in fact, an old church, with its stark white banisters and moldings, its stained glass and humble size. It is a cheery church, if that is at all possible. It insists on being loud. It has been retro-fitted and redesigned for live shows. I watch in awe as the floor opens up after the show and the band’s equipment rises up on a modular platform. The whole city is modular, Dave muses. I appreciate this observation and keep repeating it during our stay. Modular. As in accommodating. The Dutch are, in the same way, accommodating. Time after time we experience this radical tolerance by the Dutch. Oh yes let’s see. No problem. Let’s see what we can do. One has to learn to “roll with it”, in this life, as the saying goes. The Dutch roll on by on their bikes and scooters with their toddlers in helmets. Trolley, bicycle, car and pedestrian merge and converge without any difficulty, an effortless ballet of humans in transit. The whole city floats along like magic, as if on oiled tracks. We are impressed with the common decency of this culture, made up of international faces and accents, a conglomerate of nations. It is diverse. It is peaceful. We barely see any police, appropriately spelled Politie. Laissez faire is in the air. Cats patronize coffee houses here. Prostitutes have a union. Swans float in the grey-green canals. There is water everywhere. We fall in love.
And when on the road, rolling with it is mandatory for survival. As an infamous roadie once said, nobody is in charge while a rock band is on the road. The situation is in charge, whether it be bad weather, bad auto mechanics or bad health. BRMC has seen their fair share of situations, and they have emerged more vital then ever. Their new album, Wrong Creatures, is set to be released in January, but digital downloads have made it possible for fans to get familiar with the new tracks early on. For now, more touring in Europe, then a rest, then U.S., then back to Europe. Maybe Dave and I will return to Europe as well and join the traveling carnival for a leg.
Oh yes let’s see.
Let’s see what we can do.