I parked behind what used to be Boston’s legendary punk venue The Rat and made my way over a bridge across the Masspike, which cuts right through the city, and down a street behind Fenway Park to the House of Blues. It was Sunday night. The evening prior, I’d been in Pennsylvania watching All Them Witches, King Buffalo and King Dead (review here) win hearts and minds at The Living Room in Stroudsburg. I was beat from the drive, but this was Sleep, and some things you just don’t miss when you’re lucky enough to get the chance to see them.
House of Blues. Big. Corporate, but clearly run by professionals. Mezzanine tickets cost more, I think. The privilege of standing further away at a premium. Uh huh. I walked in and over to the crowded merch area — even Sleep‘s t-shirts seemed to cause a mosh pit to break out — and found Arik Roper selling vinyl, pillowcases, posters, etc. He seemed to be busy all night, and for good reason. Sleep‘s new single, “The Clarity” (review here), had just gotten a 12″ release, and legitimately it was sweet looking. Then, poof, it was gone.
Run down though I was — and, if I’m honest, still am — I’d have had a hard time pretending not to be excited for this show. Anytime Sleep comes around, it’s a special occasion, something to be celebrated, and the support slot being filled by a one-off Earthless Meets Heavy Blanket jam only added to the appeal, the influential San Diego trio — it seems fair to think of them at this point as a nexus for the current crop of heavy psych bands coming out of that area — teaming up with J. Mascis (Heavy Blanket, Witch, Dinosaur Jr.) for what if I’m not mistaken was the first time since their performance at Roadburn 2012 (Sleep also played that year), a staggering landmark of jammed heavy recently issued as the Earthless Meets Heavy Blanket, In a Dutch Haze vinyl and CD (review here). As far as nights go, I knew this was going to be a good one.
There was no grand introduction as Earthless – guitarist Isaiah Mitchell (also Golden Void), bassist Mike Egington and drummer Mario Rubalcaba – took the stage, no “Guess who this is!” posturing. They rolled in, turned on their amps, Rubalcaba took his seat behind the drums, in front of the riser that Sleep‘s Jason Roeder would soon occupy, and slammed into 45 minutes of straight jamming. The interplay between Mitchell and Mascis, who shared a side of the stage, was unbelievable, and as Egington and Rubalcaba locked a foundation down early, the guitarists set about tripping out solos and effects washes and riffs that would carry through for the entirety of the cosmic exploration. Whatever you might’ve called the piece — “In a Fenway Haze?” — it moved up and down and sideways, was molten in its changes and overwhelming in its sprawl.
The thing to do was to lose yourself in it. That’s harder in a live space — at least sober — than when listening to a record, but if anyone was ever going to take you on a ride, it was these cats. And they did. Even the big rock finish of the set was about five minutes long, everything huge, swirling and terrifying in both cohesion and scale. I dug it, I dug it, I dug it, and I’m willing to bet six new bands formed in the crowd while Earthless Meets Heavy Blanket played. All the better. Sleep would be on a different rip when they came out, but were no less glorious, the kings of stoner riffing riding high both on the new single and on the promise of an inaugural Australian tour to come, and a couple more shows on this run as well. Bassist/vocalist Al Cisneros (also Om), guitarist Matt Pike (also High on Fire) and Roeder (also Neurosis) came out after a short break, and it was plain from the start of opener “Sonic Titan” that everyone was having a really good time on stage.
I think back to the first time I saw Sleep, four years ago in Brooklyn. They killed. God damn were they loud. But watching them play, you could see the differences in how they handled themselves on stage. Cisneros came across like he might’ve with Om, a very contemplative, subdued presence. Pike, in contrast, was battle-axe brazen, everything one might expect from watching a High on Fire gig. As the two founding members of the band with Roeder between them, the split in personality was evident, right there to be seen. At House of Blues, it was just the opposite. Not only in how Cisneros and Pike interacted, but in their individual presences and in how solid the three-piece was with Roeder, Sleep weren’t so much a reunion act whose members went on to find success in other bands. That disparity was nonexistent. They were a vital trio, reveling in their classic material — Sleep’s Holy Mountain featured heavily with “From Beyond” and “Holy Mountain” early and “Aquarian” and “Dragonaut” after delving into “Dopesmoker” — but more than ever that I’ve seen them, very obviously ready to move forward as well.
Perhaps that was most evident in Cisneros‘ performance. He toyed with the rhythm of his vocal delivery for “Dopesmoker” and elsewhere — the clarion lines “Drop out of life with bong in hand/Follow the smoke toward the riff-filled land” marked by a sustained, almost growling “drop” — and when the stoner caravan of “From Beyond” arrived, it did so with delighted emphasis on “stoner.” Predictably, at some point late in the set, someone tossed a joint on stage, and Pike, who had an electric cigarette on standby, gave it over to Cisneros, who lit up and earned a round of applause for it. He was far from the only one in the room.
“Dragonaut” got the biggest response of the night, which one would expect, but for me, seeing them play “The Clarity” complete with the sampled, compressed intro of its central riff, was a particular highlight, and the appeal of watching Sleep perform their first new recorded material in over a decade’s time wasn’t lost on the crowd either. They closed out with a wash of noise and riffs in “Antarcticans Thawed” and “Cultivator,” as if to further emphasize the vitality and relevance of their project and its ongoing nature. By then, House of Blues was a place of worship, and anywhere Sleep wanted to go, the place was ready to follow. Their utter command of their sound, the joy and chemistry they conveyed in delivering it, and the sheer volume with which they did were remarkable. Even before they were done I found myself asking what could’ve been better, any sense of impartiality I might posture having been reduced to a pummeled mush of fanboy glee.
Feedback carried over after they were done, but those who hadn’t left still showed appreciation after the amps were turned off — pretty sure that was Stoneburner‘s Damon Kelly I saw tech’ing, and if so, I wonder if he was in charge of the endearingly fake setlist at the front of the stage with some choice Montrose song titles like “Rock the Nation” and “Clown Woman” — and there was a short cry for one more song before the house lights came up. Soon enough, it was time to mill out and back across that highway-spanning bridge to the car, the bounce of “Dragonaut” still holding sway on my consciousness, though, admittedly, that seems to be a permanent condition.
More pics after the jump. Thanks for reading.