Few bands can reasonably be labelled as at the peak of their powers twenty years into their career. Of the old vanguard of rock legends, almost all were either significantly diminished or outright finished by the twenty year mark; and yet, somehow, Queens Of The Stone Age remain as vital now as they have ever been. Filing into the cavernous London O2 Arena, it’s easy to gauge the band’s enormous popularity before they even set foot on the stage. Between seemingly infinite queues to get into the venue and a packed auditorium of equally never-ending rows of seats (all thoroughly packed by the time the group take the stage), plus the huge standing area (equally crowded), there is no denying that – at least commercially – Queens Of The Stone Age have never been bigger.
Tonight’s show offers relatively few surprises for diehard fans – the setlist is short on deepcuts and essentially plays out as a greatest hits selection peppered with a generous helping of numbers from their most recent long player, ‘Villains’. While it’s fair to say the inclusion of a few possible surprises wouldn’t have gone amiss (certain of QOTSA’s records – particularly their eponymous debut and 2005’s ‘Lullabies To Paralyze’ – feel a little under-represented tonight), to suggest that a lack of the unexpected marred the show would be to do a massive disservice to one of the most energetic, impactful and joyous live bands currently working.
Crowd-pleasing singalongs come thick and fast; even the most reserved of attendees seemed to let themselves go during the ecstatic salvo of the ubiquitous hits ‘No One Knows’ and ‘Go With The Flow’. Whilst some may argue that overexposure has perhaps lessened the impact of the group’s biggest handful of hits, in the live context they set the crowd alight like no other songs tonight and definitely constitute some of the highlights of the evening for sheer energy alone. Tonight’s show is a prime example of what an impact the crowd can have on a live music experience; towards the front, the audience is a happy, sweaty mess of big smiles and gleefully bad dancing. Although a part of the group’s longevity comes from their depth and multifaceted approach, the most crowd-pleasing aspect of their sound is certainly their dance-floor appeal – and that’s the aspect of their art that’s most accentuated tonight.
Even relatively straight-up rockers such as early inclusion ‘Monsters In The Parasol’ or the hell-raising ‘Sick, Sick, Sick’ manage to emanate a sense of danceable cool and suave strut as much as they also invite head-banging and hoarse shout-alongs. It’s this triumvirate of melody, rhythm and heaviness that is key to the enduring appeal of the band, and it’s perhaps even more obvious in the context of live performance than it is on album. Not only is this resolutely individual approach at the core of QOTSA’s records but it’s perhaps the biggest factor in making the band a riotously fun live act. Frontman Josh Homme recently referred to his group as “the escape, the party that you can go to after you watch the news all day” – and that rings very true during tonight’s performance.
Queens Of The Stone Age are not a band intent on delivering politicised sermons or creating us-and-them divisions. They are, instead, a band which operates on a far more freeing ethos of being in-the-moment and expressing yourself as an individual. Indeed, the evening’s only verbal statement of intent comes when Homme encourages the audience to let their hair down (metaphorically and, for some, literally), put their phones away and get down to the groove. In an age where seemingly every group ties their colours to the mast through social media and the every thought and whim of a previously respect-worthy artist is aired like dirty laundry, the Queens Of The Stone Age do-as-thou-wilt attitude is deeply refreshing and hugely enjoyable.
In attitude, their live show is equivalent to a sign saying “Rule 1: there are no rules” and sonically the band live up to that epitaph with a set that keenly reminds anyone who’d forgotten just why Queens remain originals – a band frequently imitated but never matched. While it is true that tonight’s gig does focus by and large on the group’s bigger hits and largely leaves their most resolutely unique (and experimental) material on the shelf, even the crowd-pleasing hits are far stranger than those of most groups. ‘Smooth Sailing’ may be a deranged sleaze-funk opus wherein Homme declares “I blow my load over the status quo”, but it still ranks amongst the most famous of the band’s recent output and for good reason; it’s ecstatic. Even the goliath mega-hit that is ‘No One Knows’ is a damn strange song for one that’s managed to hit 70,000,000 listens on Spotify; it is, after all, essentially demonic polka-rock with lyrics so open-ended that there are seemingly endless potential interpretations. Such is the band’s skill at making the cult accessible without diminishing its cool, however, that twenty years into their career QOTSA have found their way into the O2 Arena on the back of songs as relatively bizarre as those.
Tonight’s performance is superb. Queens Of The Stone Age are a band in very fine form and ‘Villains’ is a strong effort from the group. So strong, in fact, that its best moments – ‘Domesticated Animals’, ‘Feet Don’t Fail Me’ and ‘The Evil Has Landed’ – all rank amongst the most outstanding moments of tonight’s set, despite the power of the group’s older material. At one point early on in the show, Homme tells the audience “I know we’re in the O2 but we came to dance and bring you close”. Given the heady atmosphere and big smiles found throughout the crowd by the time the band close the evening with the torrential outpour of the bombastic ‘Song For The Dead’, it’s hard not to feel that they accomplished their mission with flying colours.