Queens of the Stone Age
w/ Phantogram, The Armed
Ascend Amphitheater; Nashville, TN
August 19, 2023
Review by Philip Obenschain. Photos by Hannah Laney.
It’s been nearly a decade since legendary rockers Queens of the Stone Age last played Nashville, then in support of their fan-favorite 2013 album …Like Clockwork. And though they did release another record, 2017’s Villains, and tour in the interim, it’s the band’s recent return to hard-hitting, stoner and alt rock form, In Times New Roman…, which finally brought them back to Music City, concluding the first North American leg of their The End Is Nero tour over the weekend at Ascend Amphitheater, along with Phantogram and The Armed. A group who’ve long been near the top of our wishlist for an overdue Nashville return, we’d been looking forward to this performance all summer, and QOTSA did not disappoint, delivering a night of unbridled, magnetic rock and roll, elevated by the strongest lineup of members they’ve ever had. Read on for our review, plus lots of photos from the show!
Running a little late, I arrived at Ascend (for like the fifth time this month; quite an impressive summer slate this year) just as openers The Armed were finishing. I’ve seen the group a few times before over the years, and they always put on an incredibly fun, high energy, punk-spirted show, and based on the bit I heard, this set seemed no different, cranking up the fun for the evening to follow. The venue was already packed as I took my seat, and the vibe of the crowd was as expected for a Queens of the Stone Age show- lots of beards, elder millennial and Gen X rocker types, band t-shirts, and more beer in hand than I’ve seen at any recent show. I tried to recall when I last saw Phantogram live, as the band set up to go on next, and realized that it might’ve been a decade ago at Bonnaroo (their last Nashville show, which I missed, was in 2016- still quite awhile ago).
Launching into a lean and frenetic performance, Phantogram- a duo of Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter, backed live by a drummer and multi-instrumentalist, managed to play songs from all four of their albums, and even a new track called “I’m Still Yours.” Their sound is much more electronic and even hip hop inspired than QOTSA, but with plenty of underlying rock and roll bite (Barthel rocked a Queens t-shirt, and shouted out the band’s influence on Phantogram). I remembered their live show being really fun, engaging, and propulsive, and years later, that still holds true. Their songs are vibey, hard-hitting, and often dance primed, which, coupled with Barthel’s hypnotic stage presence and powerful vocals makes them such a phenomenal show. It seemed liked a good bit of the crowd wasn’t so familiar with their music, but there were definitely some diehards in my section singing and dancing along throughout.
Just based on the stage setup alone (one of the most elaborate lighting rigs I’ve ever seen at Ascend), I could tell Queens of the Stone Age were going to be epic, and as they promptly took the stage at 9, launching into the single that helped them bring into the mainstream two decades ago, “No One Knows,” they had the crowd captivated from the jump. I mentioned that the band last played Nashville 10 years ago, but I wasn’t actually at that show- it’s been over 15 years since I last saw them live, and so much has changed since- a lot of their lineup, the expansiveness of their sound, and, more broadly, the state of rock and roll at large. With their latest record, In Times New Roman…, QOTSA largely strip away the dance rock and experimental vibes of recent efforts, calling back instead to the hard-hitting, no-frills, stoner and alt rock sound of their earlier days. It’s some of their heaviest work to date, and is, undoubtedly, informed by the personal and health struggled faced by frontman Josh Homme in the years since the group’s last album. Though they only played four tracks from that new LP, its influence seemed to loom large on the whole set, with cuts from their self-titled 2000 sophomore LP, and 2002 breakout Songs for the Deaf pairing especially nicely.
While QOTSA didn’t break out until the 2000s, they’ve always felt more akin to the quintessentially Gen X alt rock acts of the ’90s, like Foo Fighters (featuring one-time Queens drummer Dave Grohl) or Nine Inch Nails, and Homme still perfectly embodies that sex, drugs, rock and roll, and good vibes spirit and larger than life frontman essence (both figuratively and literally; he’s a very tall dude). Throughout the night, he encouraged the crowd to let loose, celebrate the weekend, dance, and get lost in the music, and though plenty of the songs were bitingly heavy (in like a sludgy alternative way; not a metal way), as mentioned, he seemed to have the most fun and be in the highest spirits at the moments where they were really finding a groove, both in the lighter tunes and in the pocket of the rest. Though this incarnation of the band have been together for a decade now (and it shows in how much they click musically), I think all but guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen joined after I last saw QOTSA live, so it was cool to see Dean Fertita, who I’ve only seen with The Dead Weather, as part of the group he’s more famously known for, as well as drummer Jon Theodore, who I know from his days in The Mars Volta, and who’s an absolute beast behind the kit, even when the songs require him to show more restraint (he got his moment to shine in an impressive, end of night drum solo though).
I always forget just how much room there is to vibe in Queens of the Stone Age’s music, and I was surprised to realize that their more than 90-minute set was only 16 songs. They hypnotized with groovier cuts like “I Sat By the Ocean,” “The Way You Used to Do,” and “Make It Wit Chu,” found electrifying and propulsive rock and roll spirit with the likes of “The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret,” the jam-heavy “Paper Machete,” and “Little Sister,” and dazzled with everything in between, sticking mostly to fan-favorites and electing loud sing-alongs, devil horns, and tipped beers as they never let the momentum waver. As I anticipated before they even took the stage, their production and lights were absolutely stunning, creating a sort of pyramid and prism of LEDs, spotlights, and fog, which alternated between bathing them in moody swaths of singular colors, flashing like a nightclub, and shimmering to whatever configuring their (clearly quite talented) lightning techs could dream of. Whatever struggles Homme has had to overcome in life as of late seemed to melt away on stage, and he seemed like he not only wanted, but needed that outlet and that connection and that vessel of expression, performing with more passion and earnestness and emotional depth than ever before. And by the end, with “Go with the Flow” and “A Song for the Dead,” it felt like a cathartic release, both for band and fans after an epic, dynamic, and magnetic couple of hours.
In a moment of rock and roll where newer acts seem only to thrive with a genre-bridging penchant for pop or musical subversion, or by being incredibly niche (which, no shade, would describe plenty of artists I love), it’s refreshing to see a band from an era when heavy, alt rock music still flourished in the mainstream, who’ve kept the spirit alive and continued making great albums all these years, who’ve remained popular enough to be legendary but never too huge to be sustainable, who still sound as fantastic (or even, perhaps, better) than ever, play to a sold out crowd after a decade away from Nashville. This performance reminded me why I loved QOTSA so much in the first place, and I hope it won’t be as long until I get the experience their transcendent, one of a kind live show again!
No One Knows
The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret
My God Is the Sun
If I Had a Tail
I Sat by the Ocean
The Way You Used to Do
Time & Place
Better Living Through Chemistry
Make It Wit Chu
Go With the Flow
A Song for the Dead