Salvation at the Planetarium: Spiritualized @ Turner Hall, 9/9/08

Image courtesy of boing.boing.net

Words by Amy Elliott

I was fifteen when I first heard Spiritualized, and I didn’t like it. It was in the last golden days of Napster, without which I never would have awakened from the coma of commercial radio. And it was on the recommendation of the coolest kid I knew, who was Canadian, and had suggested that I check out Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space after I had wagged my tail at him about my deep Napster-nurtured love for Stephen Malkmus. I downloaded a few tracks, but they were way beyond me, and I would forthwith think of them as ‘that spacey band’ and ‘Canadians like it’…

…until last night, when I found myself at Turner Hall with three or so listens to the haunting Songs in A&E under my belt. I like Songs in A&E, maybe a lot, definitely enough to warrant seeing the band live. But I was wrongly expecting a relaxed, sit-down sort of live music experience, not unlike listening to a really great record in the bathtub, perhaps under the influence of some sort of downer. Yes, I was ready to spend the evening crouched over a little cabaret table, awash in the heavy sound of spacey British rock, thinking big thoughts. I was not prepared.

Opener Grand Ole Party kicked out a terrific set of no-nonsense, three-piece garage rock, their female drummer/vocalist wailing songs about nasty habits and heavy drinking in an endearing shake. They were clean and angular, with surf riffs and soft male harmonies, and a pleasure to watch; they roused the Detroit garage I was raised on and made it roar in my heart.

While the roadies set up for the main event, I thought about what, exactly, ‘space-rock’ was supposed to mean, and what kind of ‘space’, precisely, we’re talking about — is this Hubble telescope, Mars-mission space, or something more esoteric? The imagined other worlds of ’50s and ’60s pop culture, illustrated in bold strokes and cheeky colors in filmstrips, cartoons and comic books? Is it the space we use as a euphemism for the unknowable future, or the unplumbed depths of the universe? Or space as in the opposite of time — the space we inhabit?  Was this a night at the planetarium or a dive into the darkness of human consciousness? Was it a coincidence that I was seeing them the night before the activation of the CERN Large Hadron Collider? Or was it just fucking rock and roll, man?

The fog spilled over the stage and the hot lights backlit everyone on it:  the gospel singers in ethereal white, Jason Pierce in shades, facing stage right, not the audience, with skinny affect, and the band blustered into a creepy, blistering rendition of “Amazing Grace”. It was like the Second Coming — on the moon.

Pierce’s near-death experience in 2005 undeniably informed his latest album, and strains of pathos, reckoning, resignation and ultimately, salvation all layer upon each other with deafening strength and intensity. But there was more to their performance than the column of white light at the end of the tunnel (in fact, in a recent interview with Pierce in The Onion, [he mentioned] the sojourn of the soul). I couldn’t stop thinking about alien abductions, and how Spiritualized would craft the perfect soundtrack, right down to the desert/rusty car sounds of an abandoned road in Arizona where such an encounter would obviously occur.

Many of the incongruities of the recordings were smoothed out by the band’s bulldozer of sound, blah songs took on soaring heights and sweet surprises abounded, like the jubilant burst into the chorus of “Fools Rush In” at the climatic moment of “Ladies and Gentlemen, We are Floating in Space” and the pretty hum, almost undetectable, of a whistling tube spun by the drummer during “Death Take Your Fiddle” — easily the eeriest, most shatteringly gorgeous song of the performance. The gospel singers were captivating and lent a joyous warmth to the performance, and when they took up tambourines during “Lay Back in the Sun”, it was as if they were calling out the dogs — it was from that moment that the concert spiraled into an escalating, thunderous litany, songs toppling into each other, each moment louder and more charged, until all that was left was a chaos of noise. This was the Spiritualized that had turned me off ten years ago, and now, I was basking in it.

‘Revelatory’ is a word I overuse a lot when I’m talking about music that really hits me where it hurts, but for this performance I can’t think of a more appropriate adjective. I stood up for the whole show and let the noise take over. It was more like jumping off a building than toeing into a tub of hot water, but what truths are ever revealed when the most chaos you’re facing is a bath?
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