Signs were that Josh Homme hadn’t put the hard yards of rehearsal in. “There’s no setlist,” he admitted at one point, then: “Here’s a song I wrote 30 minutes ago.” Bum notes were hit, guitar parts were fluffed, wincing expressions crossed Homme’s face. Whoops!
Homme, leader of Californian rock band Queens of the Stone Age, was appearing at the Royal Festival Hall as part of this year’s Meltdown festival. It was billed as a solo acoustic gig, although in the event it was neither very solo nor very acoustic. There was a scrappy, freewheeling air to proceedings, which in the hands of a less charismatic and confident performer might have proved fatal.
It opened with Homme at a chair with an acoustic guitar and a bottle of red wine. The first song was a counterintuitive choice: “Long Slow Goodbye”, the drone-rock finale from the 2005 Queens of the Stone Age album Lullabies to Paralyze. Homme’s strumming was rudimentary but his singing was powerful, a muscular, swooping voice redolent of birds of prey and the big open vistas of his Californian desert background.
His band and their 1990s predecessors Kyuss have their roots in stoner rock, the hard rock/metal offshoot in which slow grinding grooves and looming riffs conspire to create the not-so-mellow sense of the sky about to come crashing down. The style isn’t particularly conducive to the stripped-down requirements of the unplugged acoustic gig; so while the solo section of Homme’s “solo” show was notable for the debut of the newly written song – a claustrophobic number with the provisional title “Villains of Circumstance” – it really got going with the arrival of his bandmate Troy Van Leeuwen.
“Mosquito Song”, from QOTSA’s 2002 masterpiece Songs for the Deaf, was a Led Zeppelin folk-rock homage with Van Leeuwen played rolling acoustic guitar melodies and Homme on electric guitar vamping a neat solo to replace the ornate orchestrations of the recorded version. The pair were joined by ex-Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan for two tracks, a majestically glowering rendition of Lanegan’s song “100 Days” and a tensely gripping run through the Lanegan/QOTSA collaboration “Hanging Tree”.
Other QOTSA songs followed – “The Vampyre of Time and Memory”, played at the piano, and an agitated “Kalopsia” – alongside a cover of Marty Wilde’s 1959 rock and roll hit “Bad Boy”, sung with louche relish by Homme. Instead of the reverential hush you get at unplugged shows, the atmosphere was raucous, Homme delivering witty put-downs to hecklers in between swigs of wine. It was a curio of an evening, ramshackle, entertaining, a one-off.
Ludovic Hunter-Tilney was named Arts Reviewer of the Year at this year’s London Press Club awards