It’s way past two o’clock in the morning and I’m still wide awake – my ears ringing, my neck slightly sore (the kind of soreness that will certainly lead to creaking pain tomorrow), and I’m just staring off into space, sometimes forgetting to blink. Yes, after two hours – almost completely uninterrupted – of a merciless sonic assault from stoner-legends Sleep, I am still buzzing.
The evening began pleasantly enough. After dinner I walked around Lake Merritt to Downtown Oakland and the Fox Theater. The summer sun had just set and the picturesque lights around the lake glittered on water surface. People walked home from work and it was still a very different type of Oakland – a daylight kind of Oakland.
Evening had descended completely by the time I arrived at the Fox. Once inside I ran smack into the extremely long line for merchandise. I jumped in line having no better way to kill time while the last of the opening bands played. Over half an hour later I walked away empty handed – all the Sleep shirts and patches had sold out – except in full possession of the knowledge that the stoner/metal-heads/youth of today do not know the words “excuse me” or the concept of walking around a queue. A doomed generation, no doubt…
Sleep wasted little time taking the stage, probably due to a tight cutoff schedule for a noise ordinance. As the introductory riff to Dopesmoker blasted over the suspended sound system the crowd surged forward and a plume of smoke rose from the various spliffs, joints, pipes and one-hitters among the throng…(around this time I realized it would probably be a horrible evening financially for the Fox bartenders).
Ten minutes into the song and Al Cisneros stepped up to the mic to utter the first of his monotone incantations: Drop. Out. Of life. With. Bong. In hand. The vocals came out a little muddy, but at that point everything was a bit muddy amongst the smoke-haze, the rumbling bass and churning guitar. Follow. The smoke. Toward the Riff-. Filled. Land.
An age later and Al approached the microphone again. Proceeds the Weedian – Nazareth. By this point the Weedians among the crowd had begun filing away on their own pilgrimages – to the bathrooms the back of the great hall, outside for a gasp of fresh air (no ins and outs), or simply stumbled home to pass out, too far gone to handle the assault Sleep were forcing on their fragile states.
Sleep are a pleasure to listen to on record, calming, hypnotic even – Dopesmoker and Holy Mountain carry legendary status among heavy music – but live they are pure experience, physical in every manner. The bass shudders through your innards and if you open your mouth your body will reverberate so loudly that you involuntarily sing along note for note with the bass (for someone who couldn’t stay on pitch if a gun were to my head this is akin to being possessed).
Last issue I highlighted Matt Pike’s latest High on Fire album, so its no surprise to find me gushing with his praises once again. Yet where High on Fire’s guitar work wails like a frenetic whip, his slow bluesy riffs with Sleep are a blow-torch searing through metal in slow-motion.
By the end of the two hour set about half of the crowd in the front had already dispersed. Those that had stuck around were no longer head banging, no longer swaying to beat, no longer throwing up the horn symbol or pumping their fists. They simply stood in place, entranced as if turned to stone by a sonic Medusa. Once the final song ended, Al and Matt took a final toke from their joints the drummer Chris Haikus joined them at center-stage to take a bow. Matt and Chris disappeared backstage as Al lingered on to soak up the applause, the conductor of this monstrosity. And who would hold it against the man, finally able to see the fruition of his little seedling, a seed that struggled at first (horrible label issues broke up the band in the early 90’s). Now the seed has grown into a giant stalk and you could sense a gratefulness in Al’s final moment on stage. The wild pilgrimage Sleep had begun two decades earlier has now attracted a teaming caravan of devoted disciplines.
Which leaves me here, sitting in my living room, staring at my computer screen and begging for sleep, for physical release. The rest of the crowd must be in bed by now. The sober anomaly that I have nothing to aid my path to unconsciousness, so I get up and head to the balcony. There I look at my own seedling, now a strong plant with steady roots, aglow in the moonlight. I lower my head to its leaves and take a deep breath. Ah, the sweet secret smell of Oakland, a very different Oakland.