If Fu Manchu were hoping to find a few friendly faces when unveiling new material Tuesday night at the Troubadour, the stoner rock outfit was undoubtedly stoked by the warm welcome it found.
By the time the band hit the stage at 11 p.m. to kick off its U.S. tour, the club was packed and the crowd was by all indications “into it,” if otherwise meditatively subdued in their devotion.
Those in attendance, including former Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan, were clearly devotees of the Fu, nodding their heads along to the band’s low-end celebrations of surfing, skating, B-movies and ’70s culture in quiet satisfaction, murmuring lyrics to themselves.
Fu Manchu hit the stage with a comfortable swagger, visibly jam-oriented players telepathically in tune with one another. Singer/guitarist Scott Hill (dressed Jeff Spicoli-style in a colorful, striped, oversized shirt), bald bassist Brad Davis, lead guitarist Bob Balch and new drummer Scott Reeder (formerly of Smile) tore through more than 14 songs spanning their decade’s worth of rock and roll archeology.
The band launched its attack with the one-two punch of “Evil Eye”- the lead track from 1997’s The Action Is Go – and “King of the Road” from the 1999 album of the same name.
But despite the vintage sounds, the crowd may have been most blown away by the suddenly short ‘do adopted by Hill, who recently shed his appropriately straggly coiffure.
“Holy haircut!” came a cry from the back of the room early in the band’s set. By the middle point of the night, the good-natured heckling had reached a noticeable crescendo, prompting Hill to lean into the mic and quip, “Yeah, so I cut my hair…. Be into it.”
With the new look came new music, courtesy of California Crossing, which hits stores next week. The album’s title track, like most of the collection, drops much of the band’s formulaic fuzzy guitar tone in favor of cleaner sounds without sacrificing Fu Manchu’s combination of kitsch and strangely ominous heaviness.
Reeder, who recently replaced Brant Bjork and does not appear on the new album, was a definite standout, pounding his toms mercilessly beneath Davis’ studied and controlled finger-picking. Hill and Balch’s body movements were often as in tune with each other as their instruments were, with the band’s frontman swinging his axe from side to side during the handful of open-ended power chords his buddy handled alone.
Hill smilingly apologized to the crowd for a small mistake during “Weird Beard,” a barely perceptible mishap during an otherwise flawless and casual execution of a smattering of the band’s back catalog. The set also included “Hell on Wheels” and another new track, “Squash That Fly” – a song that sees Fu Manchu continuing to build their musical Frankenstein monster from the discarded body parts of Black Sabbath and less obvious influences such as ZZ Top, Devo and the Cars.
Perhaps seeking additional support, Hill and Balch brought their parents out for the gig. Judging from the kind buzz that greeted the band, they didn’t need the backup.