Queens of Stone Age turned Albany’s regal Palace Theater into a dirty, sweaty, grinding desert fuck shack on Sunday night. With the strum of his electric guitar, the swaggering leader of QOTSA, Josh Homme, transformed the orderly audience into a wild pack of love-drunk hop heads. The seating chart at the ornate Palace went out the window, spliffs were lit up, many a make-out session began, articles of clothing were tossed and much ale was consumed.
“How you doing, kid?” Homme inquired of the crowd like a cowboy version of Humphrey Bogart. Without waiting for a response, he replied that the audience “might not be cut out” for what was coming next. One song in, Homme and co. had already dropped their first hit, “No One Knows,” like they were throwing change to a dozing vagrant. It became clear what he was talking about: No one was getting out unscathed. There was heavy shit ahead.
“Don’t worry, we’re gonna have fun tonight,” Homme assured the crowd. “I promise.”
And it was a promise he kept in spades. QOTSA were on Sunday night like I have never seen them on before. And I’ve seen the band many times over many iterations—from early in the Rated R/Songs for the Deaf days when Homme’s swaggering sex-salesman routine was balanced by the deep bass grooves of Nick Oliveri and his death-metal screams, along with the heartbreaking moan of vocalist Mark Lanegan, to the Lullabies to Paralyze days when Homme rid himself of Oliveri and focused on his poppier, less-raucous vision of desert rock.
There are things I miss about the early incarnation of QOTSA and the feeling that these methed-out cactus drinkers were going to run me down and steal my soul but there is no question that the current iteration of the band is leaps-and-bounds ahead of anything the band have been in the past. Guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen of Failure and Perfect Circle played right-hand man to Homme with his Fender Jazzmaster splashing out furious accents. Van Leeuwen broke out a double-neck Jazzmaster as well as a table-steel guitar. Drummer Jon Theodore of Mars Volta and One Day as a Lion gave the band back the insane stomp and propulsion they boasted in the early days and then some. And keyboardist Dean Fertita, who you might also know for his work with Jack White, the Dead Weather and the Raconteurs, jumped from organ to Moog to piano, giving the band a texture and depth I frankly could never have imagined.
The songs came in movements. The show opening “Keep Your Eyes Peeled” had a crunchy squawk that settled in over the theater. Later, as the group stormed through their speedier numbers like “I’m Designer” off of Era Vulgaris, the songs came spikier, like punk delivered by a thrash band on speed. A number of newer tracks, like “Fair Weather Friends” and “The Vampyre of Time and Memory,” added a sense of grandeur to the whole affair with Eno-style electronics swarming over the crowd, the bands’ generator backdrop pulsing lights like an angry Hal. The air filled with reefer and Homme crooned like a bar-fighting Ziggy Stardust. That glam drama morphed into a glam swagger ala T.Rex and Bowie’s “Cracked Actor” when Homme turned on the salty swagger for tracks like “If I Had a Tail,” “Smooth Sailing,” and “Monster in The Parasol.”
“Great little town you got here,” Homme remarked. “It’s like the set of The Walking Dead. But I like it. I like it.” The crowd seemed less insulted than happy that Homme had actually bothered to look at Albany. The mood mellowed out with a swelling sense of American soul when the band dipped into tunes normally sung by Lanegan. “Live Till You Die “ and “Hangin’ Tree” came accompanied by a great, warm ache that swelled with every flourish from Van Leeuwen’s guitar.
The band exited the stage briefly but returned quickly as the crowd were still cheering, stomping and clapping, primed for the big finish. Homme delivered: “This is how we always say goodnight.”
What followed felt like it could have turned a lesser venue into timber and ash. The penetrating feedback from Homme and Van Leeuwen’s guitars sent a shudder through the crowd as it escalated and intensified. The rumble of Michael Shuman’s bass sent butterflies shooting through my stomach, and finally Theodore’s kick drum stuttered my heart as the band set about taking anything the crowd had left to give with “Song for the Dead.”
It was like a lost god descending on a disbelieving tribe, a spaceship landing in Central Park, like rock & roll incarnate. Louder than they had been all night, the amps seemed to shift the entire theater. The band’s harmonizing “oh oh oh” was haunting and electric. When Theodore delivered the coup de gras, a head-spinning drum solo, the crowd had been annihilated but the band weren’t done. They wanted everything they could get and they got it.