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Review: Band of Skulls bring dark, shape-shifting rock 'n' roll to the State Theatre in St. Petersburg

9

October

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Twice in the past year, I’ve been to a music festival featuring English rock trio Band of Skulls. Both times, I missed almost most of their set due to a schedule conflict.

So it goes with Band of Skulls. They’re talented enough to be invited to major festivals, yet not famous enough that most people would skip another band just to see them. While many fans have no doubt heard their best-known song in a Ford Mustang commercial, few could probably name it (Light of the Morning), and even fewer could name the band's lead singer.

Perhaps that’s why Band of Skulls’ concert Monday at the State Theatre in St. Petersburg took place before a dismally sparse crowd of what looked like no more than 125.

Maybe the band is used to being overlooked. Something about Band of Skulls almost indicates a desire not to be noticed – the all-black outfits, the dim red stage lighting, the stringy hair and shadowy bangs, the shared lead vocals that deflect attention away from any one person (though it’s tough to come away unimpressed with Russell Marsden’s guitar skills).

The thing that commands you to stand up and take notice is, of course, the music. Like bastard love children of Jimmy Page and Josh Homme, the band dishes out bluesy rock ‘n’ roll that’s as meaty as a Poterhouse, but as carefully constructed as a rainbow roll. Whereas trios like Muse and The Joy Formidable delight in the noise they can make with their instruments, Band of Skulls take an almost minimalist approach to arena rock, making every chord pick, every snare strike, every bass pluck matter. Every note of it is felt.

Take Cold Fame, from 2009’s Baby Darling Doll Face Honey. After opening with a soulful, gospelly noodle from Marsden, drummer Matt Hayward threw down a When The Levee Breaks-caliber drumbeat, and Marsden and bassist Emma Richardson melded their voices into a single androgynous whine. Marsden strummed his guitar inches from the faces in the front row as the louds got louder and the softs got softer.

The tonal shifts continued throughout the set. Sweet Sour, the title track from Band of Skulls’ latest album, was made powerful every bit as much by Marsden’s sneaky-sinister hammer-ons as it was those sludgy, menacing whomp-whomps. Blood was so quiet in places, you could whisper over it, then so loud it’d rupture your liver. And Dull Gold Heart was a slice of scuzzy, fuzzy loudQUIETloud straight from the Siamese Dream playbook.

The good thing about all this? While the softer moments allowed you to focus on the band’s musicianship, the louder moments were energetic enough to get people dancing. Both Light of the Morning and You’re Not Pretty But You Got It Goin’ On spun on a dime from simple blues riffs to all-out punk free-for-alls. The fist-pumping Hollywood Bowl was a shape-shifting disco-blues chimera, while the sultry he-said-she-said vocals of I Know What I Am were just begging for use in a Tarantino trailer.

Aside from the occasional fit of guitar wankery, Band of Skulls aren’t very showy onstage, which might be another reason many overlooked them on Monday. It was straightforward, workmanlike, histrionic-free rock ‘n’ roll. 

Next time you see ‘em at a festival, you might want to stop and see what you’re missing.

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-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*

[Last modified: Tuesday, October 9, 2012 1:02am]

    

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