Saturday, August 17, 2013

My Bloody Valentine / New Fumes - Live 2013.08.16

Another amazing band came to my new hometown!? Austin is amazing.

Artist: My Bloody Valentine
Venue: Austin Music Hall
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: August 16, 2013
Opening Act: New Fumes

Setlist:
01. I Only Said
02. When You Sleep
03. New You
04. You Never Should
05. Honey Power
06. Cigarette in Your Bed
07. Only Tomorrow
08. Come in Alone
09. Only Shallow
10. Thorn
11. Nothing Much to Lose
12. Who Sees You
13. To Here Knows When
14. Wonder 2
15. Soon
16. Feed Me with Your Kiss
17. You Made Me Realise

Review:
You may recall that this is not my first time seeing MBV. I saw them last in 2008, shortly after they'd reunited (or returned from hiatus, depending on whom you ask), and while I enjoyed the show, I was admittedly disappointed by the prominent use of samples, the somewhat limited sonic palette, and most of all, the lack of new material. This show, however, did a good job of making up for those shortcomings.

First, I should say a word about the opener. New Fumes, apparently from Dallas, is a one-man band mostly featuring guitar, psychedelic visuals, psychedelic laptop-driven soundscapes, and a very strange head garment. Most of his performance was one extended piece, presumably segueing from one composition to another, or at least from one segment to another. This was followed by a few shorter works, similar in tone and vision. Since most of his performance seemed pre-recorded, or at least mostly pre-arranged, it wasn't exactly the most engaging show, but I kind of liked the strangeness of his act, and the music was fairly interesting. It was very spacey, very full, and reasonably appropriate for setting the stage for MBV. His few vocals were entirely undecipherable, which was also in line with the MBV aesthetic, although kind of annoying if that wasn't actually intentional.

When MBV did hit the stage, I was immediately surprised to see a fifth person on stage: a woman hiding in the corner, mostly playing the keyboard hooks at the high end of the spectrum in songs like the opener, "I Only Said", and the trancey "Soon". On other songs, she performed rhythm guitar duties that may have otherwise been performed by Bilinda Butcher, who often merely held her guitar without hitting a note while singing. There were also songs where both played rhythm parts under Kevin Shields' lead parts.

This keyboardist enabled the band to eschew samples for most songs, except for a few bits on songs like "To Here Knows When". Considering that those parts probably cannot be played by anything except a sequencer or computer (something Shields has acknowledged in interviews), I consider that an acceptable compromise. The jungle drums of "Wonder 2" were another of these few sampled parts, which allowed drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig to come to the front of the stage and grab a guitar. I had no idea he could even play the instrument!

"Wonder 2" was certainly not a song I expected the band to perform live, but it actually worked better than I would have guessed. The other new songs performed, "New You", "Only Tomorrow", and "Who Sees You", were all somewhat more conventional songs for the band, and thus less of a surprise per se, but it was still a delight just to see the band play these new songs. With no new material debuted from the band since 1991, this is a big deal. These songs may not represent a great leap forwards for the band, but they are great songs, and their percussion arrangements and vocals melodies do appear just a bit more richly developed and complex than their older material.

My Bloody Valentine were once deemed "shoegazers" because they were part of a semi-related group of bands noted for staring at their feet and hardly moving during performances. This still holds true for the two vocalist/guitarists of the group, Butcher and Shields. Colm and bassist Debbie Googe, however, are much more active, and they are often the more interesting musicians to watch. Part of the excitement of seeing the band live is simply that they carry a lot more energy when they perform together on a stage. I realize that this is a cliché, but it certainly holds true here. I would contend that their studio output is more beautiful, that it has more depth, and that it shows more color and range, but their studio work is also mostly performed solely by Shields and it does tend to be precise, measured, and careful. Live, the band is more collaborative, but also looser, rougher, and more active. Googe, being the only band member to actually move around the stage, draws attention to her parts even when they are buried in the mix. Often, her parts are fuzzier or fuller than in the studio recordings, and it's quite fun to see her throttle her instrument at full speed. Colm represents the biggest difference from the recordings. Famously, most of his parts on Loveless were sampled and sequenced as a result of a hand injury, and even though you'd hardly know if you weren't told, the drums on that album are a bit less dynamic that they might otherwise be. Live, he actually plays fills and infuses more power into the percussion. It's quite a thrill.

In some ways, the band's live performances are almost more trancey or spacey than their recordings, because the vocals are mixed so low as to be completely indecipherable. This is a common statement regarding their studio recordings, but live, it's nigh impossible to even discern syllables. The guitars blend well, but they are rougher and less finely polished, so their distortion fills up the mid-range. The vocal parts exist in a realm just above that, but because they may as well be wordless, they serve as another instrument, on par with the keyboard parts. At times, they were difficult to distinguish without specifically observing the musicians.

MBV have always (at least since the 90s) closed their sets with "You Made Me Realise", which usually lasts much longer than the studio counterpart, because the band extends the noisy drone section into something usually called the "holocaust" by fans. Last time I saw them, that section lasted 23 minutes. This time it was just six, which was somewhat more practical. The band just plays one chord for that duration, so it can get a bit tedious, but it is an intense physical sensation to be a part of. At any rate, six minutes was long enough to lose yourself in it, but not so long that you wondered when the hell they were going to snap out of it. I still don't know how they decide when to break back into the verse. It seems like it just happens, as if the preceding six or 23 minutes didn't just happen.

So anyway, the performances were great, there were few flaws to be found, and their sound is simply amazing. This was the show I was hoping to see in 2008.

Scores:
New Fumes: B-
My Bloody Valentine: A-

P.S. I'd probably give their new album, m b v, a B+. If the weirdness of tracks like "Is This and Yes" and "Nothing Is" wasn't so distracting, it would be higher.