Review: Queens of the Stone Age at the Aragon

Queens of the Stone Age singer-guitarist Josh Homme towers over his band, the audience, his music. He’s an imposing figure in no-nonsense black shirt and jeans, with a scarf dangling from his back pocket like a tail or a talisman. He exudes don’t-mess-with-me presence.

But the voice is softspoken and casual, the voice of a guy who spends a lot of time in wide open spaces with not a lot of company. When he sings, he doesn’t growl or threaten so much as croon, breaking out a falsetto that belies his imposing physical stature.

And those seeming contradictions are all there in the music, integrated to create an imposing mess of menace and vulnerability, power and poignance. Homme and his quintet have risen to rarefied status in the last decade; without big commercial singles they nearly filled the Aragon on Monday night and will return Friday to play to a capacity audience – nearly 9,000 fans on two Chicago nights.

Not a lot of pandering was involved to get there. If anything, some of Homme’s music in the last decade can charitably be described as “difficult.” He’s not for everyone, a performer who loves dissonance and weird tangents like an art-rocker with too much time on his hands. But his experiments put his successes in context, an artist with a range that just keeps widening. And if Monday was any indication, he has figured out how to blend all those facets into a voracious two-hour concert.

“Gimme some more,” Homme demanded on the opening “You Think I Ain’t Worth a Dollar, but I Feel like a Millionaire,” a bit tongue-in-cheek, a bit like a back-alley mugging. It typified Homme’s approach as an erstwhile California desert kid, a guy whose hardest rock sounds like a souped-up boogie van flooring it on a highway in the wide open West. “Avon” embodied that approach with its lean, linear pulse.

“No One Knows” pummeled, but with a hint of swing, and Homme’s unhurried voice gave it all an almost jazzy feel. The roomy dynamics of “My God is the Sun” provided the quintet plenty of space to demonstrate its elastic feel for time, its adventurous feel for harmonics, its underrated sensuality.

The band can punch the speedometer like the single-minded thrill addict of “Feel Good Hit of the Summer,” but then just as suddenly swerve when it finds a worthwhile diversion. There was the punch-drunk groove of “Smooth Sailing,” a brontosaurus feeling the funk. “If I Had a Tail” ambled along, deceptively mellow while Homme sang behind a cynic’s sneer about digging “expensive holes to bury things.” And how to explain “Make It Wit Chu,” in which this sun-baked hard-rock band transformed itself into a sexy Philly soul vocal group, with airy, high-pitched vocals and a rhythm that mirrored a swaying hammock on a sultry afternoon? Homme’s lyrical guitar solo started in a low-key space, barely there, and kept building in intensity, density, purpose.

Homme sprinkled the set with giant hooks, the kind of choruses that stick even when they’re stripped down to a couple of guitars and voices – as was the case with “In My Head.” And he has a knack for dark humor, especially on “I’m Designer” and its outsider refusal to buy in. “You made me an offer that I can refuse,” the singer smirked.

In a sense, these were all extensions of Homme’s past – his early days in the desert band Kyuss two decades ago and his transition into Queens of the Stone Age in the late ‘90s. But now at 40, a father, husband, and survivor – he nearly died during seemingly routine surgery a few years ago -- he’s brought a deeper, more vulnerable perspective to the music.

Amid the bumps and bruises of Queens’ assault, he stepped back for “… Like Clockwork” and “I Sat by the Ocean.” After a thundering close to the main set, Homme returned for “The Vampyre of Time and Memory,” dramatic in its understatement, its almost amateurish simplicity. Homme isn’t nearly as accomplished behind the piano as he is with a guitar, but the sparse chords he found on the keyboard amplified the solitary mood.

“I’m all alone in this crowd,” he sang, and the near-capacity audience stayed silent as if to make the illusion real.

greg@gregkot.com

CHICAGO

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