"Anybody got a knife?" Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme asked the nearly sold out crowd at the Budweiser Stage two songs into their Saturday night (September 9) set. "I didn't come here to play with your fucking balls."
He wasn't kidding. The long-running rock band — touring in support of their seventh studio album, Villains — meant business at their first Toronto show in four years, and errant beach balls would not be tolerated. A roadie appeared in the wings wielding a switchblade, and seconds later the blow-up toy was deflated.
Queens of the Stone Age have become incredibly precise since their hard-partying days. Seventeen years ago, experiencing their live sets felt like getting hit by a sledgehammer thanks to downtuned riffs and pummeling percussion; these days, it's more like they're swinging a ball-peen hammer. A lot of that has to do with their lineup, a studio-slick cocktail of throbbing bass (Michael Schuman), guitar god virtuosity (Homme and longtime member Troy Van Leeuwen), '70s synthscapes (Dean Fertita) and tight drumming (newcomer Jon Theodore).
It's a recipe that helped revitalize the band, especially on their most recent album. At the time of its announcement, longtime fans were skeptical about Homme's partnership with onetime Bruno Mars producer Mark Ronson, fearing that the band were going soft. But by embracing their catchy side they've accomplished two things: first, they're easier to dance to live; second (and perhaps more important and surprising), the new songs can slice their way to the back of a crowd, no matter how dense and deep.
Usually, the band's sludgy sonics would sound muddy, especially in a venue as large (and notorious for its acoustics) as the Budweiser Stage, but new tracks like set opener "Feet Don't Fail Me," "The Evil Has Landed," "Domesticated Animals," and even older, high-frequency ones like "Turnin' On the Screw" and "Smooth Sailing" (which practically laid out the blueprint for QOTSA's transition in 2017), cut through the chaos.
Of course, the band's older material (especially tracks like "Avon," "No One Knows" and "The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret") got some of the biggest responses. Yet something seemed to be missing as the night wore on.
The band relied heavily on their three most recent albums, and with good reason (no one aside from Homme and Van Leeuwen were around for the first four), dipping occasionally into the past (mid-career hits "Little Sister" and "Go With the Flow" both made appearances). But it all felt a little too easy.
Queens of the Stone Age haven't been this stable in years, but by becoming better versions of themselves they've lost a bit of the danger, mystery and precariousness that made them such dynamos in the first place.
A little over halfway through the night, Homme stopped to tell the crowd that they were playing to the biggest North American audience of their career. Good on them, it's a well-deserved success. But the further fans get from the stage, the harder it is to remember what made this band — frequently cited as one of the last great rock acts — so great to begin with.
Before bowing out, the Queens ripped through renditions of Songs for the Deaf scorchers "You Think I Ain't Worth a Dollar, But I Feel Like a Millionaire" and "Song for the Dead." They were welcome additions, but reinforced, at least for a few hardcore fans — two of whom could be heard quietly griping, as they made their way back to city's main artery amidst a mostly ecstatic crowd — that last night's show will be remembered as much for what Queens of the Stone Age didn't play as what they did.