The Screaming Trees made their way out of the shadows and back into the spotlight Friday night for the second show of a two-night stay at Los Angeles' Viper Room, Johnny Depp's notorious nightclub on Sunset Strip. Playing their first live shows in more than a year and a half, the Trees were anxious to kick it out, and it showed -- playing two new songs and a heap of old favorites in their hour-and-a-half set.
"Anita Gray" and "Revelator" were both introduced to the enthusiastic crowd as "new" songs recorded for a four-song demo meant in part to help the band secure a new record deal. Sounding like vintage Screaming Trees material, the new songs pulled from the psychedelia and punk influences that have defined the band's sound since drummer Barrett Martin joined in 1991. "Anita Gray" lashed back and forth between Gary Lee Conner's driving guitar wails and brother/bassist Van Conner's thumping chord progressions until a full-on metal assault began led by Martin's bombastic cadence. In contrast, "Revelator" started out slow, crooning the audience into submission, until the chorus when singer Mark Lanegan's pained vocals turned up the intensity.
Buttressed by the Conners and held steadfast to the center of the stage, Mark Lanegan gripped one hand on the microphone stand, closed his eyes and delivered his rote lines with ballistic precision. With his once-long blond hair cropped, reddish sideburns and a slim goatee, Lanegan look older and more serious than in past years. His stance on the stage resembles Jim Morrison's gusty bravado, distantly looking off somewhere in the back of the room while spilling his emotional guts on the floor. He seldom seemed to even notice the audience members, much less interact with them, but his resonant, throaty vocals were spellbinding.
Juxtaposed against Lanegan's sturdy presence, the Conner brothers whirled around the stage like twin tsunamis, raising their guitars to the crowd and playing every bit the part of rock & roll heroes. Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Josh Homme, who tours with the Trees also appears on the new demo, which is produced by Toby Wright (Alice in Chains). Homme's guitar licks on songs like "Halo of Ashes" and "Ivy" rounded out the band's thick melange of distortion.
Conspicuously absent, yet begged for by the attentive crowd (some of whom flew in from as far away as Florida) was the Tree's breakthrough alterna-radio hit "I Nearly Lost You," which appeared on 1992's Singles
If you weren't inside the comfy confines of the club by 10:30, you didn't get in. Outside, a line of fans circled around the block -- most hoping for just a listen from an open window or a cracked door. Tickets were hard to come by, reserved for VIP's, A&R executives, the press and members of the Trees' fan club who came from Seattle, New York and all parts of the country to catch a glimpse of the reclusive grunge pioneers. At the end of the night, Van Conner and Lanegan stood around in the parking lot for a few minutes, fielding questions from fans. Asked by an eager fan what was next on the singer's list of priorities, a scratchy-voiced, barely audible Lanegan quipped, "a tracheotomy."
Then jumping into the seat of his gold Seventies-model Chevy Monte Carlo, Lanegan rolled off the lot with a wave of his hand and both back tires smoking, peeling down the Sunset Strip.
And you thought rock & roll was dead.
Written by J. TAYLOE EMERY for RollingStone.com News