BLOG - HOCKEY & HEAVY METAL
February 17, 2014 • 09:16 PM
WHO NEEDS DRUGS AND ALCOHOL WHEN YOU’VE GOT SPIRITUALIZED?
While the title of this blog is hockey & heavy metal, the latter is just one of the many forms of music I like. If I were to name two unifying characteristics, I’d say the things that link all my favorite music are great songs and powerful delivery. And this past weekend I got my clock cleaned by the best live concert I’ve seen in at least a couple years, so much so that it deserves its own entry. Gather ‘round and hear my tale, for it is a good one.
Spiritualized, as a quick primer, are an English band who rose to prominence in the 1990s alongside Radiohead, Oasis, Blur and the like. They make big, expansive, spaced out rock records, and the album they’re best known for is 1997’s “Ladies And Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space”, which landed the coveted Album Of The Year award from London’s NME magazine, a notoriously picky, elitist and bitchy bunch. The album is a 70-minute journey out into who-knows-where and back, and as a new release it also won over rock fans, indie fans, and not a few folks from the then-currently-exploding rave scene.
The album is dense and has many layers, and if you really wanted to pull it off live as it was truly intended to be heard, you’d need about 30 people onstage to do it. Well, that’s exactly what Spiritualized did. The actual band consists of 7 members, but backing them up was a full orchestra and choir, the latter resplendent in white robes. And oh, man, did they pick the right place to do this - the 1,600-capacity Theatre At Ace, which is the newly-reopened venue formerly known as the United Artists Theatre on Broadway Avenue in downtown Los Angeles. It was built in 1927 in Spanish Gothic style, was modeled after Segovia Cathedral in Spain, and is one of those places that make your jaw drop before you’re even 20 feet into the lobby.
With a performance such as this one, sometimes right up front in the band’s face isn’t actually the place to be. And since we had a choice, we chose the front of the balcony, where we could fully appreciate the lights and the overall scope of the production, but could also peer down onto the musicians and see actual fingers and hands surfing across fretboards and keyboards. The venue pulled a time-honored trick and started dimming the lights every couple of minutes from the time we walked in at 8:45 PM, so after doing this for 45 minutes pretty much everyone was in their seats when the house lights really did go down at 9:30. And by that time something was going on that happens very infrequently - a really, really thick vibe had set in. You could just feel the anticipation, you could feel people just digging the venue, and you could feel that something really special was about to happen. The fact that more than a few people in the room may have had some, um, extra help getting to a happy place probably added to the overall vibe. These moments are rare and felt was so good to feel it again.
There was a polite round of applause when the curtain rose and the band took their places, and then aside from a couple of woos there was this wonderful moment of silent anticipation that was broken by the familiar sound of a woman’s voice declaring, “Ladies And Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space.” And for the next 90 minutes, we very much were.
What really stood out for me was that the recorded album, while it definitely hangs together as an extremely cohesive piece of music, has an overall sound feel to it that correctly places it in the late-90s era that it came from. But a funny thing happened when the digital was deemphasized and the analog and the human was amped up: the music became timeless, at least as far as rock ‘n’ roll goes. If I’d been plopped down at this show knowing nothing about the band or what year we were in, aside from a couple of pieces of newer equipment, this was easily a show that could have occurred in the late 60s. This set could have easily taken place at the Monterey Pop Festival in between The Who and Jimi Hendrix, and if it had it would have been just as legendary. Spiritualized leader James Pearce might have been thinking along those lines as well, as he chose to wear an MC5 t-shirt onstage.
The music swirled, flowed and darted in and out like schools of fish in one of those underwater National Geographic shows, with the Hammond organ used to absolutely stunning effect on about half the songs in the show. Three guitars created enormous walls of sound when they were needed, and harmonica played a lead role at well-chosen intervals. The bassist’s lines were also nimble, and he frequently faced away from the crowd to lock in on the groove and and watch the drummer, who also got in a few memorable flourishes of his own. And because of the orchestra and choir, the band was able stretched several songs out and emphasized passages that were less prominent in the original mix, so much so that at times the musical background stood shoulder to shoulder with the foreground. It was overwhelming and there was something to fill every eye and every ear so matter who or what you watched or where you concentrated your listening. The lighting was simple but powerful. But amongst all this, there was restraint and moderation - horns and strings are contained on the original recording and were more heavily used tonight, but there was never a time when there was too much of it. The full choir was the true “secret” weapon, though - they occasionally emphasized previously subtler vocal passages and added true color and strength throughout. Probably the most masterful use of them, though, was when they began chanting during the loud, chaotic peak of the 20-minute closing meltdown “Cop Shoot Cop”. While all other instruments were screaming, the chorus asserted themselves just before the maelstrom petered out, and the voices gently guided the crowd’s return from space back to earth. It was an absolutely beautiful finish, and the entire set was an incredible, cohesive journey that every band tries for but few actually pull off.
In the immediate afterglow of the show, I wondered if they had focused on certain passages and “corrected” things that might have been done differently if the band were recording the album now. I had the chance to ask in the dressing room after the show - Mr. Pierce was a but few feet away deep into a conversation with a friend, his Ray-Bans now off. Ultimately, I decided not to approach him and fid because y’know, sometimes it’s better to leave a little bit mystery there. At that moment when I could have found out, I decided I didn’t want to know. It’s better to leave it on a night like tonight and find out some other time.
The evening carried on with a hangout on the Ace Hotel’s rooftop bar, in the company of friends, managers, furniture magnates, pop stars, rock royalty, and yeah, of course there were the requisite posers, hanger-ons and scenesters. (“It’s like New York’s Soho House, but more crowded.”) And then 2:00 a.m. arrived, and the folks were chased out of the massive hot tub, as the downtown view beckoned and seduced and stirred conversations that no one wanted to have end. The night was an incredible mix of London, Los Angeles, and a massive dose of the primal energy that only comes from extraordinary nights of live music.
Aside from Spiritualized, this rather unforgettable evening co-starred Ashley Walters (who kindly provided the photos accompanying this post), Esme Bianco, Dave Bianchi and Steve Bianchi.