The Melvins closed out 2020 with their own very Melvins take on the live stream concert, playing a chunky six-song set with psychedelic visuals, growling sludge and some very extended banter that dove deep into their origins and the best way to prepare ribs.
After a 20-minute “set” of opener Void Manes, which was more a soundscape against black and white video than a performance, people saw Buzz Osborne in a cartoonish skeleton smock and current bassist and Redd Kross founder Steven McDonald (wearing a fitted red and black patterned suit) taking a stroll to the 7-Eleven for a six pack of beer. At a glance, people would think it was Halloween. But this is the Melvins, whose deep catalogue has consistently captured the haunting dread of legions of demon dogs commanded by a Luciferian warlord, so the skeleton and slick-devil suit were more business attire than costume. After the purchase, people followed the two back to Dale Crover, who was waiting in the cab of a truck parked absurdly far away. They climbed into the bed and lay out of sight as Crover drove them off into the distance. And we’re off to the races.
Cut to a tight shot of the three piece launching into stoner rocker “Edgar the Elephant” from 2017’s A Walk with Love and Death. The video effect, which looked like an intense digital version of the colored oil projections that characterized OG psychedelic concerts, nearly swallowed the band entirely thanks to the bluescreen threshold running rampant. The sound was rich but would be ideal on a loudspeaker system that could at least pretend to be what people would feel at an actual Melvins’ live show. But this version compensated for it.
As promised, the stream came with interviews, but specifically band members interviewing each other. Each member got some time on camera as the other two asked questions. Crover got it first, when he casually mentioned that he’d bought some St. Louis-style ribs and had his own questions for the other two about preparation. For anyone who’s been in a band or spent time around a band, it’s no surprise that food is a hot topic that draws strong opinions, which makes sense given the time that must be spent deciding what to eat before a show and on the road. But the food talk was just the entry point for wildly speculative departures, in this case being whether it’s good or bad to have a paper asshole (it’s bad). Which in turn lead to Crover sharing a story about the first time he saw the Melvins in 1983, one year before he himself joined, which was at the same Elk’s Club where his parents met.
Song number two took viewers all the way back to 1991’s Bullhead album, the restless “Anaconda,” which saw McDonald’s frantic bass runs spanning the fretboard, often taking the lead as Osborne provided the rich dark backdrop. This continued through the set, which closed with “Evil New War God” (2010), in which he used a chorus effect on the high notes to create the illusion of a wiggling lead guitar wedging into Osborne’s chunk. For McDonald’s interview, the instrument itself launched an illuminating story about when Redd Kross toured in support of a very early Bangles in the early ’80s. At a generously paid gig in Tucson, Redd Kross was paid not to play after the promoters heard their soundcheck, which resulted in McDonald getting wasted instead and leaving his bass at the club, where it was then stolen. The story gets really strange when he finds it at an LA guitar shop years later and sues the owner to get it back. He didn’t win, exactly, but was able to buy it back for what the owner originally paid for it.
The joy of the Melvins’ music is that, however raw, loud and growly it gets, it is generated by these charming small town punks who really love music and want everyone to love it as much as they do. Osborne’s passion is entrancing. He said during his interview that it animates him more than anything. As much as he loves art, a painting can’t get him going in the morning like “Search and Destroy” can. And he wants everyone who loves music to be able to play it. When talking about being a self-taught guitarist, he advocated that everyone should be taught open E tuning right away to cut through the early intimidation. “You can play ‘Louie, Louie’ right now…People say open E and open D tuning are cheating, but cheating on what?”
He went on to talk about how, for a time, he was hung up on rules, and once he got out of that idea, this weight was lifted, and it shows. The third song, “Hooch,” from 1993’s Houdini—their major label debut—took a Jabberwocky approach to lyricism with something like scat with a chucking syncopated riff that was somehow both dumb and cathartic. Revisit any of the band’s nearly 30 albums, and again and again, you don’t really hear rules being broken, you hear the absence of rules. Osborne isn’t brazenly ignoring them, he is, in his own words, taking a “Neanderthal” approach. It is more pre-rules than post, and that’s an important distinction. It makes the development and delivery more elemental, more primal, and less intellectual—which can bog down more pretentious artistic forays into “critique” and “deconstruction” that, however compelling, risk losing sight of the core impulse that eventually found those rules in the first place.
The stream itself was no different: six songs and an equivalent amount of time spent on bantering “interviews” (not to mention the long continuous shot of the most mundane band activity one can imagine: grabbing some beer at the nearest stop-and-go). As much as the pandemic threatens all we’ve come to rely on in terms of venues and music outlets, Osborne offers solace: “People will figure out rock clubs. Nothing gets stopped. People work harder. Go to an Elks Club…out in the country, whatever.”
Play six songs over the course of an hour, discuss whether coleslaw or mac ‘n’ cheese is the best side for ribs (it’s coleslaw: mac ‘n’ cheese is too heavy for ribs) and do it again. Melvins TV Volume 2 couldn’t come soon enough.