Words by Joe Gilbertson
Writing about Baroness in 2016 and addressing only their performance and their music – as enticing as that sounds – would leave something of an elephant in the room. The last time the band were travelling to play at Southampton’s Engine Rooms on their 2012 tour in support of their then brand-new opus Yellow & Green, they were halted when their bus fell from a viaduct near Bath.
The damage was, for a while, quite palpable: the band’s former drummer and bassist both left following the accident. Frontman and visual artist John Dyer Baizley spent nine months in a wheelchair, for a while uncertain if he’d ever be able to play guitar again due to severe injuries to his arm. Although this story has been re-told in nearly every article written about the band over the last three years, it becomes impossible to ignore when their struggle is so brilliantly and intricately worked into a record like their newest release, Purple.
So when Baroness grace the stage tonight, it’s already a momentous occasion that could easily be turned into a weak metaphor for triumph over adversity. When they start playing, however, it becomes something more than that. Opening with with the thunderous, driving riff of ‘Morningstar’, and working through their entire new album over the course of the night alongside plenty of cuts from their remarkable back catalogue, the band do not let up for a second. The intensity of Baizley’s performance is incredible to behold as he bellows every word with such power that at first the beautiful harmonies he’s striking with lead guitarist and backing vocalist Peter Adams are not so apparent. Instead they seem to creep in slowly around the cacophonous onslaught, before bursting to life as the first of Adam’s many triumphant guitar solos takes the lead. Baizley’s lyrics match the delivery, as he spits lines as dark and visceral as they are deeply personal – “dry your tears my darling / there’s a pistol-whipped look in your eyes / the captain was gentle / he left you alive” – which only seem to double in strength when the story behind them are considered.
Baroness have a lot more in their armoury than simply balls-to-the-wall riffs. The dark, tense near-ballad of ‘If I Had To Wake Up (Would You Stop The Rain?)’ and the almost mythical epic of ‘Chlorine & Wine’ from Purple, and a whole host of more atmospheric rock inspired tracks from Yellow & Green add more colour and variety to the set than the vast majority of hard rock bands could manage when drawing on a whole career’s worth of songs. The setlist has two curious omissions: both ‘Take My Bones Away’ and ‘March To The Sea’, the biggest hits from Yellow and arguably their whole discography are left out. As powerful as the band’s encore of ‘Isak’ and ‘The Sweetest Curse’ from Red Album and Blue Record respectively is, the set ends feeling like it was missing what should’ve been it’s biggest climax.
Another less apparent impact of their crash is the fact that Baroness are about two years behind where they should be. If they had managed to play here three and a half years ago, they would surely be booked into a much bigger venue, with a much larger audience, rather than returning to claim the gig that was taken from them. However, this is a band who play every note like their fucking lives depend on it, and no shadow of past misfortune is enough to dampen the band’s vibrant, relentless brilliance. Baroness are one of the greatest rock bands in the world today, and no bus crash can come close to changing that.