A few years ago, back when there was a functioning music industry and A&R departments were still signing promising bands, it would have been easy to predict Sweethead's future success. Formed by Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen, the quartet already have a bit of a built-in fan base, and they write madly compelling hard-rock songs that are more melodically twisted and lyrically intriguing than most metal and stoner-rock outfits.
On top of that, Sweethead is fronted by the previously unknown Serrina Sims, a striking blonde beauty who prowls the stage with plenty of old-time movie-star charisma.
Their self-titled debut CD (on The End Records) is one of this year's best all-around rock albums, with Van Leeuwen's heavy, doomy riffs contrasted by Sims' incandescent glam-rock vocals, and the L.A. band just started a high-profile tour of the West Coast. Things looked promising Wednesday night, with the dance floor packed with kids during fellow locals Nico Vega's middle-billed set.
Nico Vega were getting a good response from their fans, as singer Aja Volkman ran around the stage in her bare feet, climbed onto the P.A., raised her arms triumphantly and leaped all over the place. Drummer Dan Epand's solidly powerful beats seemed to egg on Volkman (and the crowd) even further, while guitarist Rich Koehler tried to provide a melodic underpinning to all of that chaotic energy.
Nico Vega certainly had a lot of spirit and considerable potential, but their still-evolving alterna-rock songs didn't really stand out to me. You couldn't tell that to their fans, though, who enthusiastically sang along with Volkman and waved their arms at her every command. I looked up and saw Sweethead's Leeuwen standing in the window of the dressing room upstairs, staring down proudly as Volkman gyrated around the stage.
However, about half of the crowd drifted away before the start of headliners' show, perhaps because it was late on a weeknight. Undeterred, Sweethead stalked onto the stage, wrapped up in clouds of smoke and shadows, and began with a thunderous assault that was even fuller than Nico Vega's stormy sound. Mark Lanegan sideman Eddie Nappi (bass) and Norm Block (drums) lowered the boom with some impressively monstrous rhythms, and newest member Eden Galindo (ex-Motorcycle Boy) switched from guitar to keyboards to add more coloring.
“This sinkhole's gone international,” Sims sang enigmatically as Van Leeuwen churned up exhilarating pure-punk chords behind her. The song sounded as foreboding, shadowy and bottomless as a real sinkhole, but Sims seemed a little distracted. The P.A. belched with two rumbling, explosive shudders — not part of the group's attack — and her microphone went dead early in the set. When it came back on, Sims stomped her feet in frustration and complained that she felt “tethered” and “chained” to the faulty microphone stand. After a roadie gave her a cordless mike, she appeared rejuvenated and was back in charge, marching restlessly back and forth across the stage in her perilously steep dark-purple high heels.
Before long, the newly liberated Sim — decked out in short, tight black sequined dress with flecks of glitter running down the flesh-colored stockings of her long legs — was stepping down into the crowd on the floor and dancing with strangers. Later, she fearlessly climbed the narrow catwalk that connected the stage and the balcony, as her band, dressed stylishly in formal black suits and ties, plowed through mesmerizing anthems like “Turned Our Backs.”
One of the set's highlights was an apocalyptic rendition of “The Great Disruptors,” as Galindo tapped out a simple but mesmerizing pattern on keyboards, while Sims hissed urgently about malevolent right-wing vampires. Sweethead, who are named after a song by David Bowie, closed the show in fine fashion with a punchy, punky and thoroughly rousing remake of the Thin White Duke's “Boys Keep Swinging.” By now, the remaining crowd was delirious, but the band didn't return for an encore, perhaps because their amps' feedback was fusing together into an unholy roar that drowned out any applause.
Who knows where Sweethead will end up during these uncertain times in the music business, but a band with this much attitude, intelligence, raw power and inherent sexual appeal certainly bears close watching.