Santa Ana, Ca
We made our way into the pit of The Observatory ten minutes before Black Lips were set to start. Scanning the mostly empty room, my photographer asked, “What kind of music are they?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer. The simplest categorization was punk, the broadest indie rock. While they’ve coined their music as “flower punk,” I’m not sure that cap still fits the breadth of their sonic headspace. The Atlanta outfit has certain surf-rock sensibilities, a fascination with sun-baked Nuggets melodies, and the odd tendency towards warped Americana; they process folky strums and doo-wop bops through a spirited filter of scuzz and sick humor, with every chord coming out soaked in sweat and smoke. If I was pressed for the most accurate and succinct categorization of their music, I’d go with swamp rock.
I answered him with, “Punk.”
Ten minutes past their call time and the stage remained empty, but the crowd had gradually filled the room. A few heads poked out from the back curtain, and soon a roadie was dispatched to place three beers at each amplifier. A few more minutes, a few more peeks around the curtain, and the house music faded to silence. With a wall of smoke and a surge of the crowd, Black Lips took the stage.
To get us all in the mood after a few tune-ups, they soared into “Sea of Blasphemy” from their breakthrough record, Let It Bloom. Despite being on the scene for over 15 years, guitarist/singer, Cole Alexander; bassist/singer, Jared Swilley; drummer/singer Joe Bradley; and guitarist, Jack Hines captured all of the raw energy and excitable charisma of an up-and-coming act with their breezy chemistry and high-energy shenanigans. That youthful spirit came seasoned with polish developed across stages and in studios, but the more sophisticated additions never outweighed the ramshackle momentum of the band at their fiery peak.
With a saxophonist joining the group for cuts from their last two albums, Underneath the Rainbow  and Arabia Mountain , Black Lips played like the bizarro Cap’n Geech & the Shrimp Shack Shooters: all of the hallmarks of a beach boardwalk band, twisted inside out through a demented funhouse mirror. Clad in a black leather cap and jacket, the saxophonist looked like he time-jumped from a sixties biker band– and he fit right in.
Intent on inciting the same level of chaos in the crowd as in their choruses, band members threw toilet paper rolls into the audience; first sailing over the pit, then looping over the light rig, where two long strands remained for the rest of their set. Their banter was primarily fast-paced absurdities and and faux-aggressive exclamations: shouting, “OC!;” drawling, “Hey ya’ll;” following up a jam with, “Now we’re cooking with gas;” denying a song request by insisting, “We’ll play it when I choose,” and denying another request with, “Don’t tell me what to do.”
For their part, the crowd responded to the calls for chaos admirably, if not always successfully. An early attempt at a mosh pit consisted of one college-age guy shoving everyone in his vicinity until a vengeful girl decked him on his next pass. By the time the band took a slow stomp through the swamp of “O Katrina!,” the entire pit had converted into a churning herd of flannel-collared, floppy haired combatants, conjuring the image of a mushroom-fueled shoving contest rather than the intended mosh. Already towards the back, I was pressed further by desperate outliers attempting extraction from the rumble, and soon enough my little corner of the pit was overflowing with civilians and bordered by watchful elbows; I tried my best to continue my status as the Switzerland of the show.
Adding even more confusion to the mix, crowd surfers began appearing from all sides. Eventually, the surfers became so bold as to step onstage and sneak a few lyrics in on Swilley’s mic, plant a kiss on his cheek, or generally bask in the spotlight. After one ravenous fan tried to rope Alexander into a headlock for a kiss, security took to the stage and immediately flung back every oncoming reveler. Near me, one kid portrayed the definition of insanity with six subsequent shoves before he relented.
Rather than become distracted by the enveloping antics, Black Lips embraced the madness and continued their rock and roll reverie. Revving up to full power as they returned to material from Let It Bloom, they baffled the audience with the swirling psychedelia and extended pauses of “Hippie, Hippie, Hoorah,” roared the crowd to its boiling point with “Not a Problem,” and lulled everyone to swaying ease with the group singalong “Dirty Hands. ” Although Alexander, Swilley, and Bradley shined with their turns on lead, they brought it all home when they howled together.
To call the guys sloppy would be an understatement, but they have a fundamental tightness beneath all the manic energy and ramshackle instrumentation. They know exactly what they’re doing, how to rile up the masses and dish out track after track of searing swamp rock. If you’re deciding on America’s best bar band, Black Lips would have to be right at the top of the list, along with The Hold Steady and, maybe, The Men, depending on the ambiance that you’re after; the vibe that the Lips provide would be the perfect chaser for tall boys of domestic beer, shots of well whiskey, and at least two types of smoke.
They wrapped up the show with their biggest hit to date, “Bad Kids” from 2007’s Bad Good Not Evil. It predictably fired up the crowd into one last frenzy, and when the wheels finally fell off the blazing wagon, the room erupted. As the audience trailed off towards smoke breaks, restrooms, and the parking lot, Alexander delivered a sermon rendered inaudible by the crowd’s chatter and haphazard feedback. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t decipher the content; I could feel the spirit.
On my way back home, I was pulled over for rolling like a Wallflower; the cop issued me a warning and left me to drive it home with one headlight.