Nov 3, 2014

Concert Review: Slowdive & Low (October 31, 2014, Minneapolis, MN)

All I can think is that I’ve waited two decades for this moment… and it is everything I could’ve hoped for.

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It’s actually happening… I’m watching Slowdive in concert and they’re launching into the climax of “Catch The Breeze,” a song that I first heard in the spring of 1995 and subsequently blissed out to countless times that following summer whilst lying on my floor. All I can think is that I’ve waited two decades for this moment… and it is everything I could’ve hoped for.

Anyone who has spent any time reading Opus will know that I’m a huge Slowdive fan. I’ve been one ever since I first read about them in Brendon Macaraeg’s Dreampop webzine and tracked down a used cassette copy of Just For A Day. That album changed my life and made me a lifelong devotee of all music swirly and shoegaze-y — even moreso than Loveless. Sadly, the band had broken up earlier that year after releasing Pygmalion. And to add insult to injury, I found out that they’d played in Omaha (of all places) in 1992, as an opening act for Ride.

So when Slowdive announced earlier this year that they were getting back together, I had hope that after two decades, I might finally get to see what is arguably my favorite band of all time. And learning that they’d be touring with Low… well, that was just further proof that the stars were aligning, fate was smiling down, etc.

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Which brings me back to Neil Halstead, Rachel Goswell, Simon Scott, Christian Savill, and Nick Chaplin on that stage in front of me, launching into the climax of “Catch The Breeze,” and subsequently sending Minneapolis’ Fine Line Music Cafe into low-earth orbit… for a few minutes at least.

I was prepared to be blissed out — this is Slowdive, after all — but I wasn’t prepared to be knocked down, assailed, and have my eardrums pummeled to within an inch of their lives. I knew I was in for a wall of noise, but I wasn’t expecting wave after wave after wave of pure, unrelenting sound. Simply put, their albums had lulled me into a sense of false security, leaving me ill-prepared for how intense and aggressive Slowdive could be on stage. This was most evident during their performances of material from Pygmalion.

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Slowdive’s last album, as beautiful as it is, has a distant, chilly feel to it more akin to, say, Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, Volume 2. But live, “Crazy for You” was a monster of a track thanks to Scott and Chaplin; Slowdive’s rhythm section drove the song, making the live version as exhilarating as the album version is hypnotic and trance-inducing.

Indeed, Scott may very well be Slowdive’s secret weapon on-stage. On the albums, the band’s layers of effects-laden guitar get most of the spotlight along with Halstead and Goswell’s harmonies. But live, Scott is mayhem. At several points during the show (e.g., “She Calls,” “Golden Hair”), his drumming became unhinged in a way that pushed the songs in new directions. (This was especially true on “Golden Hair,” which is normally a pretty solemn song.) It reminded me of seeing Sigur Rós live, where Orri Páll Dýrason’s drumming takes on an urgent, primal aspect in contrast to Jón Þór Birgisson’s ethereal guitar and voice. I also appreciated the little flourishes that Scott added to “Souvlaki Space Station,” which echoed and enhanced the song’s dubby roots.

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As for those aforementioned Halstead/Goswell harmonies, which provide so much of Slowdive’s emotional heft, they were in fine form. But again, in surprising ways. I was most struck by their harmonies during “Blue Skied an’ Clear,” at those moments when the building wall of noise and feedback would suddenly fall away and make room for the vocals.

Given that we’re talking about one of the great shoegaze bands, stage presence was largely non-existent — which was as it it should’ve been. But the band seemed to enjoy themselves, confident and relaxed in their ability to conjure up again the magic in twenty-year-old songs. This even showed in their costumes — this being a Halloween show — from Chaplin’s Peter Murphy-inspired goth look to Goswell’s frizzed out hair and corpse paint to Scott’s Clockwork Orange outlook.

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It’d actually been over a decade since I’d last seen Low, so tonight’s show was a double blessing: not only did it represent a chance to see a favorite band that I’d never seen before, but it also represented a chance to get reacquainted with a longtime fave and hear them with some fresh ears.

The trio — which came on stage dressed as ZZ Top, right down to the fuzzy guitars — played mostly newer material. While it was a bit disappointing to not hear some of the Low “classics” like “Words” or “Over the Oean” (I think the oldest song they played was “Laser Beam” from 2001’s Things We Lost in the Fire), I appreciated the chance to get caught up to speed on their newer material.

As was the case with Slowdive, I was unprepared for just how intense and aggressive Low was going to be; this was certainly the loudest Low performance I’ve ever been to (and that includes the one time I saw them perform “Do You Know How to Waltz?”). Their performance of “On My Own” was especially blistering, and so much fuller and heavier than the album version. Or, as I put it on Twitter:

One thing that hadn’t changed since the earlier Low concerts I’d been to was the band’s vocal prowess. Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s harmonies hadn’t aged a bit in the passing decade, and were still a thing of absolute beauty. Parker’s voice was particularly gorgeous on “Laser Beam”; the weariness, warmth, and intimacy in her voice was almost eerie at times, so effortlessly was it all achieved and delivered.

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This will sound sappy, but it’s true nonetheless: In the end, as Slowdive left the crowd reeling from the final notes of “40 Days,” I could only say “Thank you.” It’s not often that you get to have a wish fulfilled after two decades. And considering the outpouring of love and good will, and the apparent success of the band’s tour to date, I have hope that I won’t need to wait another two decades before I can potentially see them again, maybe this time with some new material lovingly destroying my ears along with the old favorites.

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