Queens of the Stone Age Ignite SXSW

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QOTSA's Josh Homme / Photo by Ian Witlen
WRITTEN BY
Kevin O'Donnell

After a three-year break that found frontman Josh Homme focusing on supergroup Them Crooked Vultures, Queens of the Stone Age provided a highlight of the first night of the annual SXSW festival by revisiting their classic self-titled debut in its entirety — the 1998 album that influenced a new generation of psychedelic stoner bands like Black Angels (who opened), Black Mountain, Wolfmother, and others. Homme and Co. also delivered a blistering set of hits in the early-morning hours at La Zona Rosa on the western edge of Austin.

When Homme led his band onstage shortly after midnight, they ripped into the crunchy, fuzzed-out chords of album opener "Regular John" without saying a word -- a nice reminder that, despite the overwhelming assault of corporate logos and brand-sponsored events, SXSW is still about the music. "It's okay to let your hair down," Homme, looking '50s greaser cool with slicked back hair and a buttoned-up plaid shirt, assured the crowd.

But for the first few tunes, QOTSA sounded a little creaky -- the nuanced, virtuosic guitar work of songs like "Avon," for instance, came through the venue's sound system as muddy power chords. But Homme, playing with an entirely different band than on QOTSA's debut, including Raconteurs guitarist Dean Fertita, finally connected with his group when they hit the sludgy anthem "How to Handle a Rope -- A Lesson in the Lariat," which was beefed up by drummer Joey Castillo's impeccably tight beats. "Hispanic Impressions," which Homme referred to as his "shitty cover" of Jimi Hendrix's "Manic Depression," was equally wild and weird, with its deranged psychedelic riffage and knotty, herky-jerky time changes.

"The Bronze," a bonus track on the new reissue of the album, was wedged in the middle of the set, but Homme didn't seem to care about playing by the rules. He puffed on cigarettes throughout and often swigged from a bottle of mysterious clear liquid. "Let's just fucking dance now," he commanded before laying out the dark, swaggering grooves of "You Can't Quit Me Baby."

As it neared 2 a.m., QOTSA weren't quite ready to call it a night. They returned for a six-song encore featuring material from 2005's Lullabies to Paralyze and 2007's Era Vulgaris, showing off how much they've evolved as a band over the last 13 years.

They set the room ablaze with the fierce industrial crunch of songs like "Turnin' on the Screw" and the swaggering metal boogie of "Misfit Love," but it was the more straightforward jams like "Make It Witchu," an audience request, that really seemed to connect.

SXSW may be about showcasing up-and-coming bands, but Queens of the Stone Age proved Wednesday night that a little experience can go a long way.

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