Them Crooked Vultures Live In Berlin: Carrion Rocking

Rock of all ages: Wyndham Wallace checks out Them Crooked Vultures in Berlin and finds something sadly lacking

"You’re supposed to throw underwear," Josh Homme announces after picking up the first piece of clothing that has been thrown at him during Them Crooked Vulture’s Berlin debut. He holds up a tie. It’s clearly not what he was anticipating: he exhibits his disdain by wiping it on his crotch in a slightly puerile display that Dave Grohl, to whom the gesture is directed, fails to spot. But office workers on a night out probably weren’t their target audience when he, Grohl and John Paul Jones first started rehearsals for "the second best band John Paul Jones has ever been in" (© Rolling Stone). But then again, perhaps only a cynic would suggest they had a target audience.

The thing is, though, there’s been a lot of talk of legends these last few years. The word has become tired and overused, much like the word genius. It’s tossed around liberally with scant regard for its meaning, used by overexcited critics seeking to generate more interest in their chosen topic, or by businessmen aiming to sell more tickets. With the recent frenzy of reunions it has seemed almost as though the world is full of mythological musicians towering over us, but the more the word gets used the more devoid of any meaning it becomes. Blur: legends. Madness: legends. The Police: legends. And now we have reached the point whereby Dr Feelgood are apparently worthy of the title. This, surely, is not a moment in history that we ever expected to reach.

And so we come to Them Crooked Vultures: three more legends bestriding the stage like a trio of Colossi, or so the media would have it. Whether or not the band intended themselves to be seen this way is questionable, but the prospect has certainly got a lot to do with the massed army of rock fans they’ve enticed down to the second date of their European tour, and said army greets the three men behind this "supergroup nirvana" (© The Times) like conquering heroes. But are these men really legends? Or is this just slick 21st century marketing spin designed to squeeze extra pennies from music fans?

Let’s take a closer look. John Paul Jones: undeniably something of a legend by virtue of years spent playing bass with Led Zeppelin, one of the most successful bands of all time. Dave Grohl? Sure, he drummed with one of the most influential and beloved acts of the early ‘90s, and Foo Fighters can sell out Wembley Stadium twice, so yeah, to some folk he qualifies as a legend. But come on: Josh Homme? Isn’t he just a very tall man who, when he holds his guitar, reminds one of why they’re known as ‘axes’? Isn’t he just a red haired dude with whom you either want to fuck, or with whom you wouldn’t dare fuck, depending upon your sex? Seriously: do Kyuss, Queens Of The Stone Age, Eagles Of Death Metal and Homme’s Desert Sessions really justify legendary status already? Is that how fast the world moves now?

It’s therefore tempting to dismiss this entire venture as a smart branding exercise, one that affords the general public the opportunity to tick three of these ‘legends’ off one’s must-see list. With Led Zeppelin at their most respected in years thanks to that one-off reunion, Jones’ stock has rarely been higher since their split, drawing in aging rock fans and curious youngsters alike. Grohl has somehow managed to wangle his way to the top of the indie rock mountain by virtue of his ‘nice guy’ image, his association with Nirvana, some impressive biceps and a handful of tunes that sound good in musty student discos. And Homme hangs with the rock and indie rock elite, leaving a trail of swooning girls and envious men in his wake. Together they’ve managed to concoct a band that, before it’s even played a note, has cornered the indie rock and rock dollars, the male and female dollars, the aging and the youth dollar. It’s a marketing man’s dream, and with the touring circuit being – so the business bibles say – the way to clean up financially these days, it’s the perfect time for the three of them to head out across Europe charging €45 a head for the privilege of seeing them in the flesh. There is, after all, something here for everyone, as long as you don’t mind it being loud.

But if it is a cynical marketing ploy it seems to be working pretty damned well. The band’s arrival on stage – with guitarist Alain Johannes lurking quietly in the shadows to the right – is greeted by whole minutes of wild applause before the band have even plugged in, something which leaves them seemingly overwhelmed. In fact, they seem so genuinely humbled by this welcome that it’s almost enough to dismiss the suspicion that this is a route to a quick buck, and as the evening progresses the interaction between the band further undermines any distrust of their intentions. Grohl can regularly be seen beaming at Jones over his kit, while Homme and Jones square up to one another frequently, little grins visible and far from smug. So real does the affection these musicians hold for one another seem, and for the music that they create, that even the perhaps overgenerous gift to Mr Jones of at least two bass (almost) solos and one keyboard solo seems forgivable. Furthermore, when the crowd start chanting "John! Paul! Jones!" between songs it’s hard not to feel touched by their fondness for the man and his history. But then TCV leave the stage after one bow and the house lights swiftly go up, leaving the Columbiahalle with thousands of fans feeling slightly shortchanged by their failure to provide even one encore, or at least an opportunity to salute them one last time with a final curtain call. It’s as though the band have taken the money and now they’re off for a gentle jog.

The problem is that, despite the hormonal screaming of the teenage girls and the committed moshing and crowd-surfing down the front, something seems to be missing. It’s not necessarily about the band themselves: for every time that the Lord is thanked for Grohl’s battering presence behind the drums, there are also moments when one gives thanks for Jones’ solid foundations, never too florid, and for Homme’s contributions, his effortlessly fluent guitar lines tearing songs up and then calmly piecing them together again. These guys know how to play, no doubt about it. But there is a weakness, and that weakness lies in the songs themselves. For every ‘New Fang’ or "Scumbag Blues’ there are at least two more that tumble past in a shower of riffage, all shock and awe but somehow swiftly forgotten. They’re little more than an excuse for the boys to play with their toys, which in Jones’ case includes an armoury of different basses, some sporting flashing lights like children’s shoes.

The key to this lies in the oft-forgotten difference between performance and composition: these guys can rock, but they’re perhaps not so big on writing. Each song seems built upon a simple premise: a gargantuan beat laid down by Grohl, or another monster riff powered up by Homme, but this is then decorated unimaginatively and forgettably through virtue of the power of the ‘studio jam’ alone. If you’re here to lose yourself and bang your head you’re going to be satisfied, but if you came to have your mind levered open by more than bludgeoning noise – though it is one hell of a noise, as loud as this venue has probably experienced – then you can’t help but feel slightly let down. It all seems a little safe.

Towards the end of the show a bra drops limply into the photographers’ pit and, after a slightly desperate gesture from Homme, a security man passes it up to him. He seems a little happier, perusing what seems to be a note written inside one of the cups and miming a phone call to its owner. Then he drops it by his amp, where it lies alone for the rest of the evening. It’s a hint of the kind of behaviour we expect our rock legends to provoke, but, much like Them Crooked Vultures, the bra falls a little short of its goal.

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