True citizens of the nightlife know this feeling. You walk into the club, the place is crowded with familiar faces, a band from some faraway town takes the stage, and within a few enchanted minutes, the riddle presents itself: Everyone in the room seems instantly convinced that this is the greatest rock band performing on Earth at this specific moment in time, and while it’s impossible to know for sure, it’s impossible to imagine anything better.
For roughly 60 minutes on Friday night, Royal Headache was that best thing going. They’re a five-piece from Sydney, and to say that they filter blue-eyed soul through red-eyed punk might make them seem a little too cute. On Friday at the Black Cat, they sounded tough-minded and big-hearted, with all five players locked into the punk-rock Goldilocks zone where the music felt fast (but never too fast), loud (but never too loud), melodic (but never too melodic). Just wrong enough to feel just right.
Everything revolved around the voice of Shogun, a frontman whose slender torso is apparently all lungs. And while that voice-as-nucleus approach is common for most country and R&B acts, it’s exceedingly rare in punk, where the drums usually occupy the center. On Friday night, Shogun’s soulful growling provided Royal Headache with a power source and a melodic through-line, his most intense vocalizations bursting forth perfectly in key. As for the rest of his body, it was hypnotically erratic. He flung his limbs and flexed his face throughout the set, apparently having the best and worst night of his life.
Yet throughout all of that inside-out catharsis, Shogun kept his head, pointing out deficiencies the rest of us couldn’t hear. During the wounded kiss-off of “Garbage,” his lyrics took a second-verse-same-as-the-first approach, but not out of laziness — the second time through, the irritation in his voice doubled, as though he’d been asked to repeat delicate testimony over a bad cellular connection. The song’s nuance and its volatility seemed to be working in perfect balance, but in the singer’s mind, the wires didn’t trip. When it was over, he scrunched his brow and swiveled an open palm, signaling that it coulda-shoulda gone better.
At one point he asked, “Do we have any good songs left?” — which was funny, considering every song that followed was terrific, especially the newbies. (One almost sounded like the Jam covering Barry White.) It’s also important to note that Royal Headache was doing something bold by simply playing the new stuff. Did you know that many of today’s most bloodthirsty and career-minded indie bands hesitate to perform their new material live because they don’t want it to be phone-filmed? If live footage of a new song lands on YouTube, many music outlets won’t be interested in premiering the studio version of their song on their respective sites. Surely, Royal Headache thinks this is ridiculous, and rather than bend to the icky new rules of indie-rock publicity, they decided to reward the people who actually bothered to show up. It wasn’t hard to feel that latent generosity pulsing through the room.
When it was all over, glistening sweat-heads funneled out into the sodium-vapor glow of 14th Street with Royal Headache T-shirts slung over their shoulders and Royal Headache LPs tucked under their arms, and even those who coasted right past the merch table still went home with something useful: a measuring stick for any rock band who aspires to be great. Whether they’re headlining a hockey arena or their friend’s basement, they’ll need to be this tall to ride.