The Black Lips have been a band for 15 years—almost the same amount of time that artists like Lorde have been alive (she’s 17). It’s a formidable tenure for any band, but especially one like The Black Lips, who are seemingly driven by wild antics and good times. The band’s history has been punctuated with stories of outrageous performances—vomiting, urination, on-stage makeout sessions; getting kicked out of India and banned from Canada—which almost seem to garner more attention than their actual tunes. I’m reminded of a feature that ran in Spin Magazine a few years back, in which they explain that performing—in the loaded sense of the term—has always been the crux of their philosophy. “Musicians are the guys who sell us strings,” remarked guitarist Ian Saint Pé. “Entertainers are the ones who are legendary, and we’re entertainers.”
A decade and a half after forming, this still holds true. Friday night at Union Transfer, the band brought energy, enthusiasm, and jangly riffs to life, inciting the already riled crowd with a raucous live performance.
Of course antics alone—even of the most incendiary nature—can only propel a band for so long. After that, one needs musicianship to back it up. The Black Lips’ first record, 2003’s Black Lips!, was a drunken romp through ramshackle garage-punk that teetered charmingly on the brink of dissolution. Since then, they’ve only gotten better. Their most recent, 2014’s Underneath the Rainbow, was produced by the Black Keys’ Pat Carney, and melds their sleazy jangle with cleaner production and hints of rock, blues, and grunge. It’s not as in-your-face as early material, but it’s definitely more listenable. The Black Lips haven’t lost their edge; they’ve simply polished it.
Their set Friday night drew about 50% from Rainbow, juxtaposing the Beatles-y rattle of “Drive By Buddy” and “Justice After All” with the comparatively straightforward raging of “Dirty Hands” and “Bad Kids.” Bluesy single “Boys in the Wood,” featuring singer/guitarist Cole Alexander’s girlfriend Zumi (of K-Holes) on sax, was indulgent, twisted, and thrashing—while “Smiling” (supposedly inspired by bassist Jared Swilley’s stint in jail) matched its rollicking melody with surprisingly on-point vocal harmonies.
All four Lips traded off lead vocals throughout, moving between Alexander’s drunken warble and Swilley’s impassioned crooning. Even drummer Joe Bradley—confined to his set—took a turn spitting out lyrics, while slamming his toms like a Muppet on speed.
Of the four, Alexander proved the most wildly, leaping into the crowd part-way through, and licking his guitar as if it was coated with candy. Saint Pé, the oldest of the group, seemed the most grounded—although on tunes like “Raw Meat” the entire band shredded and bounced.
Over the past 5 years, I’ve seen the Lips three times, and each time I left invigorated. Friday night featured no vomiting, and no urination, but still proved a raucous, indulgent affair. And honestly—I’m a little relieved. The Black Lips are still entertainers, but their live show—like their records—has grown up a little. These days, they sound better than ever.