all photos: Stephanie Breijo; all words: Philip Runco
The last time I saw Spiritualized at the 9:30 Club, I found myself situated near a group of hard-drinking, fist-pumping middle-aged dudes, a veritable collection of Bros II Men. Judging by the tenacity of their headbanging and a general sense of enthusiasm, these five or six gentlemen were all clearly loving everything Jason Pierce was letting loose that night, but one in particular had unique way of showing it.
This guy – we’ll call him Brent – couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Or, at least, he was highly skeptical. As the evening progressed and Spiritualized’s epic blend of space-pysch-gospel rock played out, Brent would turn to one of his friends, point at the stage, scrunch his face in disbelief, and shake his head, as if the sound coming from the speakers was paining him with confusion. ”What is going on right now? Is this band for real?” Brent seemed to be suggesting.
But eventually this gesture was inadequate to display the enormity of his emotion, and after going through the routine of pointing and facial contortions, Brent would start dismissively waving his hand at the stage, answering his own question: “Get out of here, Jason Pierce – you can’t be serious.” It got the point where he go through all of this, and then in feigned exasperation, he would storm out of the concert’s main hall, waving his hand at the band, unable to even look at it. Translation: “This guy is too good. Fuck him: I’m out of here!” Fifteen seconds later, Brent would come running back through the club’s door and resume rocking out. This elaborate pantomime played out easily a half dozen times.
Now, obviously, Brent’s behavior was utterly ridiculous, and something I both strongly condemn and encourage, but my point is this: even if we don’t point at Jason Pierce in bewilderment and go barging out of the venue en masse, there’s probably a little bit of Brent in all of us during a Spiritualized performance. While the band has perhaps been a little too willing to produce variations on the same theme – musically and lyrically – for the past decade, there’s still something profoundly powerful and moving about what Spiritualized can unleash when it’s firing on all cylinders, when its peans to drugs and love and Jesus are coming to a head.
The line-up Pierce brought with him to the 9:30 Club on Thursday was svelte, at least by Spiritualized’s standards: an extra guitarist, along with a bassist, drummer, keyboardist, and two arm-swinging female back-up singers. The lean make of the band – that is to say, the lack of any strings or brass – meant Pierce steered clear of his more heavily orchestrated material, including the most lush moments of Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating in Space and pretty much all of Let it Come Down‘s the massive grandeur. (Spiritualized’s departure from a major label and the failure of American audiences to reciprocate the love he receives on the other side of the pond means we’re probably not getting full-blown treatment of those songs over here any time soon.)
Instead, the band treated the audience to early, spacier Spiritualized (“Born Never Asked”, “Electric Mainline”) and a healthy serving of the garage-tilting Amazing Grace (“Rated X”, “Oh Baby”, “She Kissed Me (It Felt Like a Hit)”, “Lord Let it Rain on Me”), a reflection that perhaps Pierce doesn’t share the popular assessment that the 2003 album is the weakest in his repertoire. (For what it’s worth, 2008′s Songs in A&E – an album at times limp and schmaltzy, even for Pierce – holds that distinction in my book, with Let It Come Down grossly underrated in comparison.)
Orchestra or not, Spiritualized is more than capable of erecting a glorious wall of sound. Its barnburners built patiently, the band gradually introducing elements into the fold, until each member seemed to be striking its notes at the same time, and from something seemingly uncomplicated, making something divine. Songs from the recently released Sweet Heart, Sweet Lights in particular seemed to capture this dynamic interplay. If there’s one thing that distinguishes the LP from it’s similarly toned predecessors, it’s the kinetic verve that songs like “Headin’ for the Top”, “Mary”, “Hey Jane” and “I Am What I Am” display, both live and on record. These songs breathed and took on life in a way that Songs in A&E‘s never did, and overflow with noise without feeling bloated in the way that Let it Come Down could. (To repeat: I still love that record front-to-back, despite whatever faults it has.) I think it’s the highest compliment I can give when I say I wanted nothing more to have my face pressed against the venue’s speakers in these moments, soaking the waves of reverbed guitar and organ and each “ooh” and “ahh.”
The band was sure to properly visit its 1998 masterpiece, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. The closing one-two of scorching “Come Together” and strung-out, twenty-minute epic “Cop Shoot Cop” is still impossible to beat, thirteen years on. But it was the album’s vulnerable title track that may have been given the night’s highlight: The song was given the full-blown, epic treatment you’d hope for, strobe lights blasting, rhythm section punched up, and original Elvis lyrics reintroduced back amongst Pierce’s. (The band also performed “Stay With Me”, which – along with “Rated X” – is the kind of languid, palate cleanser that works better on record than live.)
For someone whose attitude has always seemed to mirror the take-it-or-leave-it sentiment of “I Am What I Am” (there would be zero interaction with the crowd, as is protocol), Pierce actually trotted a surprising number of visual tricks for his audience. Notably, it made good use of the white cloth hung behind it for projections of documentary footage and otherwise heady illustrations. Not having been under the influence of any narcotics or psychedelics, I can’t fully assess their intended effect, but it was certainly a nice gesture.
It’s too bad the Red Chili Peppers were in town this same night: The introduction of further stimulation would have blown Brent’s mind.