Sonically, Russian Circles, Eagles of Death Metal and Mastodon share little with one another. But Monday night at the Fillmore Auditorium, the three bands found common ground with a crowd of earnest, hungry music fans who greeted all three acts with enthusiasm.
Chicago's Russian Circles, the least well-known of the performers, opened with the strongest set. While compared to other instrumental acts like Red Sparowes and Explosions in the Sky, Russian Circles set themselves apart by composing abstract, dense and challenging pieces. As a three-piece, the burden of re-creating the group's recorded sound live relies heavily on guitarist Mike Sullivan, who loops riffs through amps and pedals, creating texture, dynamics and volume generally reserved for bands with double Russian Circles' members. Playing songs largely from 2016's Guidance, Russian Circles played a tight and cohesive set, thanks in large part to the rhythm section – drummer Dave Turncrantz and bassist Brian Cook. Turncrantz, who always hits hard and accurately, sealed his reputation as one of the most talented and unique drummers playing heavy music.
Up next was the California-based Eagles of Death Metal. While it is not uncommon for the group to be joined by Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme on drums, on this night, the drum throne was occupied by a new musician, who plays with the Bronx, Jorma Vik. While Vik doesn't carry with him the same star quality as Homme, regarding skill, Vik is a massive step up. The group was joined for its opening song, "I Only Want You," by Mastodon guitarist Brent Hinds, who showed his uncharacteristically giddy side, grinning and sidling up to Eagles frontman Jesse Hughes, who himself pranced around the stage in suspenders and red Doc Martens.
The band, the subject of a recent HBO documentary, Eagles of Death Metal: Nos Amis (Our Friends), about the musicians' presence during the 2015 Bataclan massacre in Paris, did not perform like a band weighed down by memories of catastrophe. While it's true that only Hughes and guitarist Dave Catching were on stage during the attacks, the band embraced its Denver performance with abandon and fervor, playing songs from all over its four-album catalogue. After the attacks, some of Hughes's comments were considered divisive and polarizing, but on this night, he and his band were warm and inviting, allowing audience members to put aside personal and political differences and be transformed by the healing power of rock and roll.
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Compared to the night's headliner, Mastodon, Eagles of Death Metal seemed a little kitschy and cute, but to be fair, it's hard for any band not to appear that way next to the Atlanta-based behemoths.
Mastodon, comprising drummer/vocalist Brann Dailor, guitarist Bill Kelliher and bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders, is one of the largest and most musically complex bands playing heavy music today. There is perhaps no band that does a better job creating a mystical mood. The outfit walked on stage to the sound of chimes before ripping into "Sultan's Curse" off its latest, Emperor of Sand. Even if you weren't familiar with the band's work, those titles alone should be enough to pique your interest.
While Mastodon's members possess traits that make them compelling, it is Dailor that is the group's true hero. Combining elements of metal, prog and jazz, he informs much of what makes the outfit so dynamic. He also handles vocal duties these days, which is key, particularly after Hinds struggled with his stage volume through the first part of his set.
It has been fifteen years since Mastodon released its first album, 2002's Remission. While the lineup is the same, so much about the band's sound has changed. Some purists decry the group's new direction and bemoan that it is not as heavy as it once was. On this night, though, Mastodon's evolution as a band was certainly a strong point, with the musicians playing various types of songs from all over their career and proving, as a live band, that they are engaging and always worth revisiting.