Live Review: My Bloody Valentine’s SF show feels like something beamed in from another decade
Swirling guitars… cooing vocals… that all-engulfing wall of noise. It's difficult to describe My Bloody Valentine's sound without veering into borderline erotica, and understandably so; in the guitar rock landscape, few bands make music that's so tactile and exhilarating.
For many of its devoted fans, the band's seminal 1991 LP, Loveless, is inextricably tethered to private moments of introspection and sexuality. Its delicate balance between loud and quiet, menace and seduction, resulted in a sense of emotional ambiguity, allowing the listener to project their own perspectives and yearnings onto those immaculate pop songs.
Fresh off the heels of this year's long-awaited Loveless followup, simply titled mbv, My Bloody Valentine stopped by SF this past Friday for its first Bay Area appearance since 2008, on its first tour in support of new material since the early '90s.
By the looks of the crowd, the band's overwhelming paralysis was in full force. As wary as I am of audiences too "cool" or self-conscious to dance at live shows, this crowd's stillness felt wholly appropriate. The band's output rarely feels conducive to dancing, or jamming out; it’s music to surrender to, and My Bloody Valentine had the crowd in the palm of its hand.
Given My Bloody Valentine's inconsistent production sound, from the tinny Jesus-and-Mary-Chaininess of Isn't Anything (1988), to the fuller, more tactile Loveless, to the thuddy brawn of mbv, one of the highlights of last Friday night's show was hearing a career-spanning set of songs, all delivered with similar depth and richness. It was quite the thrill to hear older material, like "Feed Me With Your Kiss," and "Only Shallow," delivered with the generous low-end of MBV circa 2013.
As new songs like "only tomorrow" and "who sees you" suggest, the band's dynamics have grown more boomy and forceful, yet alternately, groovier and more relaxed. Much of the credit goes to the rhythm section of Deb Googe and Colm Ó Cíosóig, who plucked and smacked their instruments ferociously, providing much of the backbone that defines My Bloody Valentine's second wave. It all makes sense, considering Googe's muscular bass-lines on this year's excellent Primal Scream LP, More Light, and Ó Cíosóig's recent move to the Bay Area, and subsequent role as drummer for his wife Hope Sandoval's post-Mazzy Star project, the Warm Inventions.
Otherwise, it seems things haven't changed much, and thankfully so. Ever the recluse, bandleader Kevin Shields stood calmly on stage left, away from the spotlights, equipped with some heavy-duty Marshall stacks, and an arsenal of guitars and pedals. Abusing the whammy bars on his Fender Jaguars and Jazzmasters, Shields delivered beautifully on the queasy tremolo of his signature "glide guitar" technique. Alternately, Bilinda Butcher occupied center stage, supplying the soft-as-snow vocals that contrast so harmoniously with Shields' outpouring of sound and feeling.
"Honey Power," "Come In Alone," and "Soon," were wonderfully performed, delivering especially well on the loud/quiet, sweet/snarly binaries of My Bloody Valentine's sound, and those hugely dense progressions that create an itch with one chord, and scratch it with the next. There's a reason why the band's influence has gone so far beyond rock music, into electronic and industrial realms; the live renditions of these songs were a masterclass in My Bloody Valentine's ability to warp genre boundaries with standard rock instrumentation.
Seeing "Cigarette In Your Bed" performed live was a treat, as it allowed Shields to bust out the acoustic guitar for once, while "new you" offered a glimpse of My Bloody Valentine in full-on pop mode. "wonder 2," the band's experiment with Jungle music, was suffocating in its blend of reverb-soaked drum'n'bass beats and jet-engine guitars, while "You Never Should" offered the same claustrophobia in a rock setting. Perhaps most impressively, though, was the noisy, chaotic "holocaust section" of the band's infamous closer, "You Made Me Realize." What started out as a cacophony of guitars, bass, and drums, slowly hypnotized the listener, gradually resembling a monolithic, industrial roar, like cruising the Transbay Tube with the windows down.
My Bloody Valentine is one of the last great rock bands of the album era, and as such, every gesture at Friday night's show was a big one: from handing out free earplugs at the door, to the giant Marshall stacks onstage, to the band's decision to book the overly big/beige/bloated Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. Much like mbv's total disconnection from the modern musical landscape, the band's live show felt like a concert-going experience beamed in from another decade.
The audience, consisting of everyone from metalheads, to ravers, to garden-variety hipsters, might've been a bit perplexing, but made total sense, given My Bloody Valentine's inability to fit comfortably into any one scene. Given its dense, borderline-electronic chords, abrasive guitar squalls, and overriding sense of calm, the band's sound offers practically any subcategory of listener something to cling onto, providing a gateway to new musical realms.
For those skeptical about My Bloody Valentine's ability to recapture the singular wonder of Loveless after a two-decade hiatus, mbv was a wonderful surprise, in its insistence on picking up right where the band's first era left off. Last weekend's show felt like an extension of this "new" strategy, with the band's four members commanding the stage as if the past 22 years never happened. Countless groups have tried their hand at pushing the shoegaze genre forward in the post-Loveless wake, but as Shields and Co. resoundingly proved on Friday night, My Bloody Valentine remains the undefeated champion of "swirling guitars."