Black Lips’ reputation as a wild live act goes before them. With a track record of various forms of outrageous exhibitionism, their last gig at Heaven in 2008 ended in a chaotic stage invasion which brought the band into confrontation with security. After their September show was cancelled due to ‘exhaustion’, this end-of-year gig was awaited with keen anticipation as the first chance to hear the Georgian quartet play London since the release of their sixth studio album Arabia Mountain back in June.
The wait was well worth it. Whilst Black Lips seem to have matured from their previous gross-out behaviour, they have not lost any of their dynamic stage presence. Now the music does most of the talking. In festive mood, on the final stop of their short European tour before returning to the States for Christmas, the band delivered an adrenaline-fuelled performance of their ‘flower punk’, a form of psychedelic garage rock executed with controlled power.
High on the playlist were of course tracks from the outstanding Arabia Mountain, an unlikely collaboration with Midas producer Mark Ronson, who was in the audience tonight. Although it has more obvious radio appeal than their previous output, thankfully the band’s rough edges have not been over-polished, resulting in one of the best guitar-based albums of 2011.
First single Modern Art was performed with infectious drive (though sadly minus the otherworldly theremin), while follow-up single Family Tree was satisfyingly raucous even without the rasping brass. Dumpster Dive came across like a laid-back Rolling Stones in their early-70s country-rock heyday, and New Direction was a crisp slice of two-and-a-half-minutes pop punk.
Older numbers like the sing-a-long riot song Bad Kids also went down well, with the more excursive trips into feedback and distortion giving a fuzzy fringe to the evening. The late-60s influences in particular on Black Lips’ music is no secret but these guys are far from pastiche merchants, bringing their own anarchic energy and offbeat humour to a retro sound.
Guitarist Cole Alexander and bassist Jared Swilley alternate on lead vocals (during and between songs), with the most provocative acts being to throw some of the party streamers into the crowd, which were even more enthusiastically returned. When the band leave after a pulsating hour-long set, there is an inevitable but peaceful occupation of the stage – and this time even the security guards seem in good humour.