review by Philip LaRose
photos by Jim Bennett
Monday night I had the great fortune to be at the WaMu Theater to see My Bloody Valentine in one of their few North American appearances this year since reuniting in 2007. Opening for MBV were Brightblack Morning Light and Kurt Heasley.
Brightblack Morning Light began their set by crafting slow, moody soundscapes on the ambient side, suggesting perhaps the darkness of the outdoors before morning light breaks. These were musical pieces rather than songs: long, slow jams and apparently wordless vocals without a definite tune but still melodic, with the drums adding a bit of that undefined “world music” quality. As their set progressed, they began to feel a little more upbeat and groovy, more of a funk/soul type of electronica, as if they’d moved indoors to a late-night club with people dancing and couples kissing at tables in shadowy corners. Although the band did not interact with the audience and were definitely laid back in contrast to the expected sonic intensity of My Bloody Valentine, they did build up energy in the room through their set and got people grooving along. One thing I noted with interest was the acoustics of the space: while there was clearly a lot of talking going on in the audience, the music covered it well without being overwhelmingly loud. I really enjoyed Brightblack Morning Light and will be looking out for more from them.
In contrast, Kurt Heasley left me puzzled and ultimately disinterested. I’ll admit to being largely unfamiliar with him and his work, but I knew that as the leader of Lilys, he was no stranger to the shoegazing genre and his presence on the bill was understandable. However, his set consisted of him sitting onstage with a 12-string acoustic guitar and singing nice, simple, midtempo folk-pop songs. This in my opinion totally dissipated the energy that Brightblack Morning Light had built up through their set. Furthermore, nothing about his performance stood out from any other random dude with a guitar playing folk songs. At another venue with a different line-up, he might have been captivating, but to me he was a totally weird choice for this show and at best ought to have been the first opening act, allowing Brightblack Morning Light’s expansive grooves to lead in to My Bloody Valentine.
Not that My Bloody Valentine really needed anyone to build up the excitement and energy in the audience before their set. The band (deliberately or not) teased the audience by delaying their entrance after the house lights came down, prompting such cheering and clapping in anticipation that I thought people would storm the stage. Finally they came out and, with strobe lights providing the visual equivalent of their distorted guitar sound, launched into the trippy guitar sways of “I Only Said” and appeased the crowd with a set drawing mostly from their two albums, Isn’t Anything and Loveless, and the EP You Made Me Realise.
Now, My Bloody Valentine have a reputation for being a very loud band, and in fact the band posted warnings about the sound levels and provided free earplugs for the show. I took a pair of plugs and wore them, but as the show progressed I felt that while the music was clearly loud, it was not notably more so than other shows I’d been to, not the loudest ever for sure. I also felt at first that what I was hearing was like listening to the album over bad speakers: although the music is supposed to be full of distortion and feedback, it’s carefully crafted to incorporate those sonic elements, and some of that was getting lost, as I thought, in the acoustics of the live setting. When they started playing “Soon,” my immediate reaction was disappointment as it sounded flat and lifeless, like I was missing a lot; then I paused, pulled out my earplugs, and discovered yes indeed I was missing a lot, as it sprang into glorious distorted life. That was when I formulated the “Shoegazer’s Dilemma”: how do you balance the desire for high levels of distortion, feedback, and volume as an integral part of the music against the necessary protection of wearing earplugs, which filter out a lot of those elements? Kevin Shields and company chose to keep the volume and the earplugs as their answer, and at that point I thought it meant they were a better studio band than live band, as so much of the nuance and craft of their music was being lost to the earplugs. Still, when “Soon” ended, even though it had been within tolerable levels for me, I figured I’d better put the earplugs back in, just in case.
And then, a couple songs later, they came to the finale, “You Made Me Realise”.
The song began innocently enough, just another one of their great tunes. At some predetermined point, they broke from playing a tune into sheer sonic apocalypse. Melody, harmony, all elements of music vanished in a sudden onslaught of overwhelming distorted-guitar noise, supported by thunderous bass and drums, at levels far beyond what had come before. This was noise to rattle your bones, noise to stop your breathing, noise to burst your heart but keep it beating nonetheless, and now I understood that their reputation for being loud was in fact understated, not exaggerated. It felt much like riding the outside of a Saturn V rocket blasting off for the moon, or standing on the rim of a volcano as the lava surges to the skies. And it went on... and on... and on, nearly twenty minutes of standing there and trying to relax, breathe deeply, and absorb a sound too big for the body. It was awesome, not in the casual sense of being really good but in the original sense of inspiring the deepest reverence, wonder, and fear. All my doubts about My Bloody Valentine as a live band were purged, as this experience could never be captured in a recording. Finally, as suddenly as they had begun, they broke back into a short melodic coda, the end of “You Made Me Realise”, still with echoes of the apocalypse, and the concert was over. It was a performance I will not soon forget, and made me all the more eager to hear the long-awaited new music from My Bloody Valentine.