The Roman Emperor Nero is known as a brute. He murdered his mother, with whom he shared a bed, exiled his first wife and then had her wrists slit, and also killed his second wife by kicking her in the stomach when she was pregnant. Nero set Rome on fire, after which, to the disgust of the people, he had a golden temple built in his own honor in the capital.
Photography Mick de Jong
At least those are the stories we know. However, in a 2021 New Yorker piece, we can read that much of this history seems to consist of Roman gossip. According to journalist Rebecca Mead, Nero is primarily the victim of a merciless, vulgar smear campaign. For example, he wouldn’t even have been in Rome when the place burned.
The End Is Nero is the name of the tour of Queens Of The Stone Age, in honor of the last, very strong album In Times New Roman... Could this Nero be a reference to the fifth emperor of the Roman Empire? And could frontman Josh Homme, who sings very openly on the album about his divorce from Brody Dalle, have read the piece in the New Yorker and perhaps identified with Nero?
It just might be possible. The red giant from Palm Desert, California was accused of abuse by his ex and, despite having joint custody, she was no longer allowed to see his children. The drama was widely reported in the media. He had set Rome on fire, she shouted. A smear campaign, he says.
There are more similarities between Homme and Nero as we know him from the juicy stories, as it turned out on Saturday evening in a packed Ziggo Dome. In Queens Of The Stone Age the tall frontman can now express all his Roman traits. For example, the show starts off mercilessly. No slow build-up of tension, no foreplay, but it was immediately set on fire by the pounding oldie Regular John to follow up with a sizzling No One Knows. The crazy guitar solo in the end reminds me of the Breaking Badscene in which Walter White’s Nazi mercenaries commit a series of prison murders. Lightning fast and exciting.
In a dirty look Smooth Sailing Homme then wanders across the stage like a drunken ruler – he wishes us ‘fucking bon voyage’, with a gay hand gesture – to turn to pleading My God Is The Sun to submit to an invisible sun god. We now know that the singer had lung cancer. Then you have to kneel before a higher power. A few thousand people in front of the stage are now kneeling before Emperor Homme.
After 27 years of making music, a split is now starting to emerge in the oeuvre of the Americans. This split is related to the band name. On the one hand, Queens Of The Stone Age’s killer riffs, pounding drums and choruses are short and powerful, like Fred Flintstone’s cry for Wilma. Beech numbers like Sick Sick Sick represent the harshness of the Stone Age.
But on the other hand, here we are Queens. During the day Emotional Sickness Homme croons like a schoolgirl that he had to let his sweetheart go because he no longer cared about him. In a Taylor Swift-esque moment, he cheers the audience up to sing along to the sweet chorus. While we spend most of the evening staring at red tones, the light show suddenly alternates between soft pink, baby blue and white.
Coincidentally, or perhaps not, those are the colors of the transgender flag. We suddenly see a completely different band before us. Because tonight it was just a little too long Make It White Chu sounds like a Nero-like sinister seduction song (first you come fuck me, then I’ll slit your throat), there’s Emotional Sickness actually genuinely sensitive.
In short, there is a lot of variation in music in 2023. Little Sister is loud and smooth and is thrown into the audience with straight faces and without frills. In I Sat By The Ocean the most beautiful element is the grand chorus, which is sang along loudly by the audience. During the dance rock-meets-rockabilly vibes of The Way You Used To Do all feet leave the floor from the first note. And then there is Homme’s wordless, melodious musing Time & Place, a more subtle highlight. This unparalleled grooving song seems to be inspired by the music on Cubist Bluesthe half-forgotten masterpiece by Alan Vega, Alex Chilton and Ben Vaughn.
Queens Of Stone Age is no longer consistent in its style, but especially in its playing. Jon Theodore’s sticks bounce wonderfully over his drum kit, Troy Van Leeuwen’s virtuoso slide guitar additions sound like clockwork. And Homme not only looks more solid than ever before, but also sounds like it. A now-ist, that’s what he calls himself in a recent interview in OOR. And that’s how he comes across tonight; as someone who lives in the moment and tries to give everything of himself in every moment.
The nods to Nero and the Roman Empire return in the encore, with Made To Parade as a highlight. Live, Homme and his mates provide this great track with even more fierce guitar excesses than we are used to from studio work. During the pounding finale, we see how Nero’s army marches, while the emperor himself is given grapes somewhere on a satin sheet by an enslaved farmer’s daughter. ‘If I followed you, I’d be lost too, that can never be!’ Homme explains his absence from this massacre with a hip sway but a shrug of the shoulders.
Nero eventually died a sad death, or so the story goes. He was labeled an arch enemy by the Roman Senate, fled with help to an abandoned country house, had a grave dug for himself there and was even too lazy and cowardly to commit suicide. He also ultimately delegates his self-chosen death to someone else. In that respect, the brave Josh Homme could have chosen a better muse. Queens Of The Stone Age reigns with strength, but also with vulnerability. Veni, vidi, vici, one of Nero’s predecessors would have claimed after an evening like this.
Seen: October 4, 2023 in Ziggo Dome, Amsterdam
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