Friday, May 4, 2012

Show review: Spiritualized at Metro, 5/3

By Andrew Hertzberg

Jason Pierce (
Like the greatest novels, Spiritualized lead man Jason Pierce is full of nuance. Lyrics that resolve heroin addiction with religious contemplation, and influences that range from free jazz and psychedelia to gospel and girl-group. It’s hard not to look for symbolism in everything. Why his backing band wore black, while Pierce and his backup singers wore white, for example (is there a cleansing power in singing?). His albums take years to make, partly due to his attention to detail, partly because he’s recently been stricken with illness. 2008’s Songs in A&E came after a bout with pneumonia, and read any interview with him this year and he’ll mention chemotherapy and joking about how making music under pain meds isn’t as great as making music under fun drugs.

But playing live is a different story. After suffering through these illnesses and meticulously recording an album for a couple years, Pierce finally gets to let loose on stage. He doesn’t have to worry about making a permanent fixture, just something beautiful in the right now.

The set at Metro Thursday varied widely, reaching back all the way even to a few tracks off 1995’s Pure Phase. But it started off with "Hey Jane," the nine-minute lead single off the recently released Sweet Heart, Sweet Light. It starts off as a classic rock and roll song until it dissolves into cacophonous chaos, only to be resurrected again. A screen behind the band projected scattered images of traffic, adding to the fast-paced knock to the head that track is. On "Lay Back in the Sun," Pierce sings “I’ve got a fire in me,’ which throughout his career has been a consistent and damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t type of imagery. "Rated X" slowed things down a bit, with Pierce switching to a microphone that cuts the low frequencies, which makes it sound like he’s broadcasting from outer space.

While most of the attention was placed on Pierce, his backing band definitely kept up with him. Guitarist Doggen (Tony Foster) handled the ear-splitting wah-stomped solos and Kevin Bales’ drumming was subtle and subdued, but always appropriate to the nature of the song. While on their albums we get saxophones, string quartets, harmonicas and full choirs, the five-piece band with two backing singers offered just as much live and helpfully showcased some of the more understated sounds that get lost on the recordings.

Most songs started off with a sustained organ chord, but at this point in Pierce's career, that’s enough for diehards to know which song it’s going to be. The biggest highlights of the night came about three quarters through the set. An extended outro of "Electric Mainline" was an intense and grandiose buildup, trancelike in its repetitive structure. This was followed by "Ladies and Gentlemen We’re Floating in Space" off of the 1997 album of the same name. While the recorded version has about four Jasons singing on it, the female backing singers added a new perspective and was a much better solution instead of copping out to a loop pedal. And when Pierce sang  “All I want in life’s a little bit of love to take the pain away,” it still sounds as heart-broken and despairing as when he wrote it 15 years ago.

Kaleidoscope projections backed "Stay With Me," with Coxon’s slide guitar battling Jason’s 16th note wall-of-sound spree; and then you noticed the gospel sounds of the backup singers and how blissful it seemed for such dark content. "So Long You Pretty Thing" was like a "Pale Blue Eyes" on a Lester Bangs amount of psychotropics, backed by patterned imagery. "Come Together" ended the set on an ominous, riveting, and energetic note, extending the song with a double tempo outro that fell into cacophony--Pierce at his most intense of the evening. He kept his sunglasses the whole night (those strobes could get pretty blinding), needed what looked like lyric sheets at times and offered the least amount of crowd interaction possible: a couple “thank yous” to close the night.

While the show was inspiring, it wasn’t without a few bugs. There were some guitar hookup problems early on and the keyboardist looked frustrated that the sound guy got too enveloped (understandably) with Pierce and wouldn’t add more to his monitors. And while there were definitely people in the crowd that were fixated on J. Spaceman the entire night, quite a few in the crowd were more content to talk their friends' ears off at the height of their vocal capacity, even when Pierce was in his quietest and most contemplative moments. Sorry to get all old-man curmudgeony, but keep it down, bros!

"Electricity" was a fitting way to start the encore, considering all of it lingering in the air outside the Metro the entire evening. But it was a 15-minute "Cop Shoot Cop" to close the whole thing that was the most brilliant. The biggest crowd response from any lyrics came from the first few lines: "Jesus Christ, died for nothin' I suppose." From the bluesy verse (Cop) to a noise jam from all of the band members (Shoot), only to come down into another bluesy verse (Cop) that seemed all the more desperate after the intensity and euphoria of the Shoot. The backup singers' harmonies were like a reluctant acceptance that it was time to come down, but the song was a perfect bookend to the night along with the opening "Hey Jane." For all of his illnesses and setbacks, the two hour, 17-year spanning setlist showed that at this point, Pierce can bounce back from anything.

Hey Jane
Lord Let It Rain on Me
Headin’ for the Top Now
She Kissed Me (It Felt Like a Hit)
Lay Back in the Sun
Oh Baby
Rated X
I Am What I Am
Born Never Asked
Electric Mainline
Ladies and Gentlemen We’re Floating in Space
Stay With Me
So Long You Pretty Thing
Come Together
Cop Shoot Cop

Weren't there? Or were and want to relive it? Check out this Spotify playlist of the set.

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