Last Night: Wolfmother at the Fox Theater

Categories: Last Night
wolfmother  small.jpg

November 23, 2009
Fox Theater

Better Than: Anyone had reason to expect, given the band's acrimonious breakup a little more than a year ago.

What a long, strangely self-destructive path Wolfmother has traveled since releasing its eponymous debut album three years ago. Back then, the Australian trio confounded critics who dismissed it as little more than a passable facsimile of its most transparent influences - Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull and Deep Purple. Others proved far more accepting, and the album went five times platinum worldwide.

Yet the band that took the stage Monday night at Oakland's beautifully refurbished Fox Theatre was not the Wolfmother that fans embraced in 2006. Yes, lead guitarist and singer Andrew Stockdale's nasal wail remains, as does his thick mop of curly hair. (Imagine a less groomed-for-TV Justin Guarini or a more human-looking Carrot Top.) Gone, however, are bassist Chris Ross and drummer Myles Heskett, who left the band citing personal and musical differences in August 2008.

The rest is well-documented history: Stockdale pulled an Axl, keeping the trio's now-famous name and replacing his former bandmates with a new cast of supporting players - bassist Ian Peres, rhythm guitarist Aidan Nemeth, and drummer Dave Atkins. The change could have transformed the band's sound dramatically, but as Wolfmother's sophomore effort, Cosmic Egg, has proved, this is an act unapologetically set in its retro-minded ways. The band's lively showing at the Fox reaffirmed that.

If anything, the quartet that jogged on stage shortly after 9 p.m. boasted a fuller, heavier sound than the original band. As they barreled through a frantic rendition of "Dimension," the fist-pumping opener from the first Wolfmother full-length, the theater's floorboards resounded accordingly. No one seemed to mind that "California Queen," from Cosmic Egg, came off as a thinly veiled reworking of Sabbath's "Iron Man," or that the band's signature hit, "Woman," still sounds like the best song Zeppelin never wrote. Stockdale and his backups thrashed about the stage with abandon, and their audience needed no invitation to follow suit.

Even Wolfmother's staunchest critics would be hard-pressed to question the irrepressible intensity of the group's live performances. At its best, the band unleashes a ferocious sonic assault, steeped in bludgeoning riffs and free-form psychedelic explorations, with the kind of hooks that propelled Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and Sabbath's Tony Iommi to stardom. At worst, Stockdale's jams can seem aimlessly self-indulgent, but last night he kept those to a minimum.

Wolfmother currently seems more formidable in person than in the studio. That's not to say Cosmic Egg is a step backward - it's a perfectly acceptable follow-up - but it lacks the raw power and euphoric bursts of inspiration that made Wolfmother the hit that it was. Yet as the band closed its 90-minute set with an electrifying run-through of "Joker and the Thief," the organ-driven epic Stockdale wrote in response to Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," there was no denying that the band's stage show can still bring down the house.

Critic's Notebook

Personal Bias:
Discouraged by the dissolution of the band's original lineup, I feared the worst heading into the Fox. My misgivings were laid to rest roughly two minutes into the main event.

Random Detail: Cosmic Egg was named for a yoga pose, practiced by Stockdale, which resembles the fetal position. He describes the pose, and the phrase, as an apt metaphor for Wolfmother's rebirth after the departures of Ross and Heskett.

By the Way: Stockdale, 33, had never played an electric guitar prior to co-founding Wolfmother with his former bandmates in 2000.
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