Queens of the Stone Age Brought Confrontation and Community to Winnipeg

Canada Life Centre, April 5

With the Struts

Photo: Mike Thiessen

BY Matthew TeklemariamPublished Apr 8, 2024

What can I say about the Queens of the Stone Age that an army of stoned obsessives haven't? As a long-time flirt with the Seattle alt-rock act, the prodding of long-haired friends and the pop-art intentions of the subversive "Feel Good Hit of the Summer" and Era Vulgaris first lured me in. The music ensnared, but my aversion to quote-unquote stoner rock always kept me just bold enough to make eyes across the room.

But duty calls, and in my month-long, headfirst dive into their discography, I was enlightened. The Queens are a special act for a few reasons, but most predominately a combination of their shrewdness and versatility. They reside somewhere adjacent to rock-bottom, in darkened corners where the only light is the stars of desert skies, but that certainly doesn't limit their sound. At times they brush with rock band burlesque, the strain of highfalutin faux bombast that has made Muse an object of increasing ridicule. However, let it be known that they are always cleverer than you think them to be, and cleverer than you, too.

Their "desert rock" label is basically their own, and it's apt; arid, desolate, sometimes delirious, always inimitable. They veer from humid grunge to funk rock to Weird Western Tale with the drop of a hi-hat. They're eclectic headcases, and their more spritely work on latest album In Times New Roman… made the prospect of live performance irresistible.

No more stalling; the show must go on! After British glam jammers the Struts, anyway. Their set was punctual and lively — all you can really ask of an opening act. Frontman Luke Spiller sported waistcoat and tie á la Gerard Way, the rest clad in Spinal Tap leathers and cutoffs. They retooled their gaudy glam rock with some fury to numb the eardrums for the onslaught to follow, and their anthemic hit "Could Have Been Me" roused a crowd still trickling in.

Taking stock of demographics in the concourse, it was apparent right away that the Queens are for all. Yes, the stalwarts are easily identified, clad in exclusive merchandise and with an aversion to eye contact, but the diversity was impressive. Young children, late-stage boomers, punks, preps, partiers. I liken it to the Queens' restless, syncretic nature, but realistically, Winnipeggers take any and all excuses to party.


The main event finally slinked on stage in the dark, but the crowd denied them the illusion of stealth. They started unceremoniously for royalty, wasting no time by jumping into Songs for the Deaf hit "No One Knows." With finely honed instrumental chops, the track sounded just like the studio recording, with the added effect of bass drum throbbing in the chest harder than your heartbeat. The red lighting gave them the illusion of a molten core, the residual heat exciting the burgeoning mosh pit near the front.

The rest of Led Zeppelin's proverbial ocean took a bit more time to warm up, but the Queens' verve was undeniably infectious even for casual admirers. It wasn't exactly music for a do-si-do, but everybody moved a little something-something in time with the oft-changing rhythms.

After the equally exciting "Sick, Sick, Sick" and newer cut "Paper Machete," Homme formally addressed the crowd.

"I know when someone is wearing sunglasses, they're tripping out of their fucking mind right now," Homme said, singling out a special concertgoer, God help him. He went on to make mention of this three more times throughout the show. A lot of the interaction felt perfunctory, and Homme toed the line between rockstar brash and impropriety, stopping "Make It wit Chu" mid-growl to point out that it sounded "rapey." Later, he singled out another unlucky audience member with "your tits are fucking amazing, thank you." Easy, Jim Morrison, your daughter might hear that.

Physically, the Queens were mostly static. Why is it that the rhythm sections at these kinds of shows are most animated? Bassist Michael Shuman often abandoned his post amidst the triumvirate of fretboards up front to confer with drummer Jon Theodore. While the music never waned in intensity, something was lost in the translation between studio and stage. The eclectic nuances of some of their tracks were buried, clean breaks muddled by a ringing in the ear. By the 10th track, their mid-career exploration began to wear thin, and the head-bobbing became laboured and drowsy. Even the mosh pit's energy was stymied by flailing attempts at crowd-surfing and overeager security.

On their albums, QOTSA are experts at lulling you into a false sense of security (strum-strum-shriek-strum-strum), before yanking you back to life with some inspired change of mode, new riff or crazy whim. Have they lost the plot? I saw in the eyes of my neighbours that the effects of the Friday workday, often deferred until dazed Saturday mornings, had begun to weigh on the crowd consciousness. A die-hard decried their version of "I Sat by the Ocean": "Man, that was so fucking boring." I muttered under my breath, "Nicotine, Valium, Vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy and alcohol…"

MVP Theodore struggled for breath, glistening with sweat and savouring the 40-second respite as Homme lit his umpteenth cigarette of the night and dragged deeply. After a rallying cry ("Let's fucking dance a bit!") and a flick of the butt, a nervy stagehand rushed to collect the smoke, but Shuman held him off. This is rock n' roll, after all.

Remember when I said they're cleverer than you are? I'm no exception. In the third act, they made their resurgence.

Homme was wise, the sage of shred singularly attuned to all psychic energies. Sensing the lull, he called everyone "drunk assholes" before engaging in some playful demagoguery and launching into "Straight Jacket Fitting." After a brisk and buoyant "Little Sister" with some honest-to-goodness, distinctive axemanship from Troy Van Leeuwen, they promptly left. We all knew what was coming, and when they returned, they earned their keep.


In an impossibly spirited encore, the Queens of the Stone Age re-emerged with a third wind. On "Time & Place," Homme's guitar grew lip, snarling and biting with some tapping for exhibitory flair. It was the kind of random act of spontaneity that occurs during late night exhaustive episodes. "God Is in the Radio" became literal, the divinity anchored by Theodore's pummelling of the kit. It was the closest they got to a glorious climax during the whole affair, and by golly, it was good.

Finally, they got meditative. A scarlet shroud of fog enshrouded Van Leeuwen; head down, he was riding the pedalboard for some deliberate picking. The rest joined in in the delicate requiem for "Song for the Dead," pushing beyond the outer limits, everyone contributing to the dizzying swirl that got louder and louder. Someone in the mosh pit threw $14 of suds in the air, and it diffused evenly over the Petri dish of delinquency. The wall of sound advanced, growing greater and greater until the crescendo couldn't hold any longer…and then, silence. In an arena, I usually leave with head hanging low from the anti-thrill of sports, but tonight I felt stronger than I did coming in. It took a while to fall asleep that night.

Post-performance, I got to the floor for a picture of a set list, and it smelled. There were empty containers of nicotine pouches, half-eaten slices of pizza, a baseball hat, somebody's bra and enough discarded beer to keep André the Giant plastered for a week. As security shepherded the crowd out and away while staff swept up all the sin left behind, one distressed fan lingered.

"My hat! Someone threw it in the middle of the set, I need it back."

I asked him what it looked like, and he described a wide-brimmed, black bucket hat. A friend attempted to console him.

"We'll come back tomorrow and check the lost & found."

A security guard chuckled. "It's not gonna be lost or found. That shit is gone."

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