I've only just recovered enough from last night's My Bloody Valentine show to write about it in any coherent way.
I've been a fan since 1990, never got to see them before. Hasn't been an MBV show in New York City for more than 15 years. Didn't quite know what to expect, except that I heard I'd be needing these:
I came prepared. Though they did also give them out for free at the show, which was a definite omen.
I learned last night that you don't so much enjoy a My Bloody Valentine show as endure it. It's a full frontal assault on all of your senses. Like their albums, I don't think most people could even take it. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.
The doors opened at 7PM, and I found out just before the show that there would be two opening bands: Le Volume Courbe and Wounded Knees. Never heard of either of them before, so my wife and I did what all the cool kids in New York do these days when they've got time to kill:
We went to Pinkberry. Interesting side note: a lot of people think this place is Japanese, because it's cleanly designed and fresh looking and has green tea frozen yogurt. But it's not Japanese. It's Korean.
Anyway, back on track. Walking around a bit gave us time to check out the back of Roseland. This was one of My Bloody Valentine's semi trucks - they had two of these, plus an ambulance(!), plus a couple of other smaller trucks:
Sorry about the picture quality. I know that was MBV's truck because it says so in the window. Clearly, this is a band to be reckoned with. No expense spared for a group that hasn't released an album in 17 years and has never cracked the top 100!
One thing you have to understand about Roseland is that it's a ballroom, not a concert hall. It's fucking enormous, and it has its eccentricities. This is not my first show there - I've seen the Cocteau Twins twice, Siouxsie and the Banshees once (front row!), and I'm sure I'm forgetting some. I've learned where I have to stand to make up for the horrible room acoustics (hint: they mix for the middle of the room).
But no matter how many times you've been there, you can never account for the fact that they've got a single employee working the merchandise table at a sold-out show:
Waited in that line for more than 30 fucking minutes. And they were sold out of the shirt that I wanted by the time I got up there - before the show even started! (Yes, I still got there before Le Volume Courbe went on.)
The opening bands were okay, but not really my thing. Wounded Knees were just annoying - their sound check went on forever, and then they kept doing more of them in between songs. Everybody just wanted them to get the fuck on with it. That's rock and roll, man - you sound like shit but you just keep playing anyway. The highlight of their set, though, which was sort of given away by the fact that he set up his own equipment beforehand, was Dinosaur Jr. frontman J. Mascis doing a "surprise" jam session with the band:
Never let anybody tell you that a Jazzmaster isn't a lead guitar. Wimps.
MBV finally went on at around 10PM. Here's the official set list, as transcribed from this photo:
1. I Only Said
2. When You Sleep
3. You Never Should
4. When You Wake
6. Come In Alone
7. Only Shallow
9. Nothing Much to Lose
10. To Here Knows When
13. Feed Me With Your Kiss
14. You Made Me Realise
As you can see from the photo linked above, they entertained the idea of playing "Sueisfine" and "Blown a Wish" as well, but my brain was honestly too scrambled at the time to remember whether or not they actually did.
The first thing I noticed was that this was like being in a time warp, and in a good way. There was nothing nostalgic about this; this was not a "reunion". This was not a throwback to some bygone era. This was not a cash-in on previous goodwill. This was an indie rock band in earnest, and everything they did was just like it was 17 years ago. From the t-shirts they were selling to the song selection to their stage manners to their light show to the fact that they sold out two shows in a row at New York City's biggest non-arena concert venue. Not every band could pull this off, but MBV were ahead of their time in 1991 and they are still ahead of their time now. The world hasn't caught up to them yet.
The second thing I noticed was that it was loud. In the middle of the room at Roseland, you get the full force of both the Marshall stacks on stage and the PA system. And they had clearly maxed out both. Yes, I used my ear plugs. I'm not a suicidal idiot. I feel sorry for anyone who didn't. People, let me make this clear to you: there is no shame in wearing ear plugs at an MBV show. You're not a pussy if you do it. As the signs all over the place at the venue plainly state, MBV themselves recommend it. And almost everybody heeds that advice.
Those who don't are not acting in their own self interests. Or even rationally, for that matter.
Even with ear plugs, they were freakin' loud. I thought they sounded pretty good, though - I've heard from some others who didn't, but I hear that about every Roseland show. I really think it just depends on where you are in there. The place is like a giant cave; it's got all sorts of nooks and crannies, a ridiculously high ceiling, and a cavernous, echo-prone space between the front of the stage (where the PA is) and the back near the bar. But they sounded good to me standing near the middle; the guitars sounded full and musical (and distinct - Bilinda sounded clearly different than Kevin), the mix sounded right. Their vocals are supposed to be low in the mix - that's the point!
I'm gonna give you a couple examples of how loud they were. Ok, this was one of the quietest songs they did, "To Here Knows When" (also one of my favorites). Listen to the audio on this video - that's not really the way it sounded, that's static from the microphone in my wife's camera being overloaded:
I've recorded with that camera at other shows and never had that problem.
At the end of the show they did a long-ass literal "wall of sound" - nothing but a continuously building feedback assault. I'd heard they do this but I still wasn't ready for it. At a certain point, I began to quite literally fear for my life. I know from reading other reports that I was not the only one to feel this way. When you start feeling stuff moving around inside you from the sound waves violently pushing through your body, it's natural to get a little concerned. When the floor starts to shake as if in an earthquake, it's natural to wonder if the ceiling - and all the heavy speakers and rigging attached to it - is doing the same thing.
The sonic blast gradually built in intensity and it never stopped building in intensity. I wondered when somebody was going to switch it off out of a sense of mercy - surely this couldn't be allowed! I'm confident it was the loudest thing ever in the history of the Roseland Ballroom. It was like some sort of sadistic scientific experiment.
You want to hear something funny? Just try to make anything at all out here:
It only ended when Debbie Googe's amp blew. Seriously - they were apparently loud even for them!
By the way, did I mention they were loud?
Kevin walked over to Debbie and Colm to see what happened and apparently figure out if anything could be done, as Bilinda continued chugging away on her own. Kevin rejoined her eventually and they went on for about 2 more minutes before ending the show apparently a bit earlier than planned. And thankfully so! I don't think I could have taken much more.
Don't misunderstand! I loved it. It was an experience. Seeing an MBV show is like watching a David Lynch film. It's a direct challenge to what you should expect from a rock concert. It is not entertainment; it is something else, and I don't know quite what. Art yes, that's a given - it's still mostly music, and great music. But something even beyond that. There are interesting things in the world beyond art.
If I was disappointed in anything, it's that they left off a couple of my favorite songs - "Loomer", for one, and "Sometimes". Oh well.
I have to mention their guitars too, being a guitar geek watching a band of guitar geeks. I've said before that MBV is who turned me on to Fender Jazzmasters, and that Bilinda Butcher's candy apple red Jazzmaster specifically is what convinced me to buy my own in that color (I'll get around to replacing the pickguard one of these days). Well, she doesn't seem to have that one anymore, unfortunately, but she's got some other sweet little things, like these custom Mustangs in red sparkle and white sparkle (both with Jazzmaster tremolo units, and one with a hollow body!). I'm also a big fan of her Charvel Surfcaster. (She played plenty of Jags and Jazzmasters too, switching almost every song.) Kevin played nothing but Jaguars and Jazzmasters, in various colors and styles. At one point he wielded a purple sparkle model - obviously "a" J. Mascis signature model, but possibly even "the" J. Mascis custom shop guitar owned by the man himself.
Pro Tip: most of the links in the paragraph above go to flickr photo sets from various recent MBV shows. Check out the whole set if you want, not just the individual photos.
Another thing that sucks about Roseland is that it takes about 25 minutes to get out.
I've heard that Kevin's got his head in a place now where he really thinks they're finally going to finish their "new" album, which has technically been in the works for 16 years now. This band never actually broke up. Like I said, it's not a reunion, just their first tour in a long time. So maybe they'll finally get in the studio and get some work done. After this show - which felt like picking up right where they left off - I've got reason to hope.