‘MBV have an impossible task ahead of them. Like an indie George Lucas they are surely aware that they will disappoint a lot of people by not curing cancer with their new album‘ – WatchingCattle checks out My Bloody Valentine‘s Asian tour warmup show at the Brixton Electric in London.
Some people just do themselves no favours. Apparently a few years ago Kevin Shields lodged a noise complaint against a noisy pub near his home in London. He claimed that the venue blasted out music far too loud, way too late and poor old Kev, or Shieldser, or whatever you want to call him, couldn’t get any sleep. Although, to be fair, it’s hard to imagine him actually hearing anything except the din of the cells in his ears slowly dying from the years of abuse they’ve taken. Whether or not his complaint was acted upon is not easy to find out, but I remember reading the story when it appeared online and thinking that he made a few valid points in his argument.
So it’s not surprising that there are free ear plugs being handed out at the show in Electric in Brixton this evening. Sheildsy and Co. want you to enjoy the show, not endure it. It’s an important issue these days I suppose – the aural equivalent of sex education back in the mid-eighties when AIDS first appeared. There are hundreds of doctors running around trying to get their usually ugly mugs (perhaps looking into the head holes of folks for years has that effect on you) in front of any camera or reporter who’ll listen to tell da yooof of today that, if you keep listening to that iPod at full whack, you will go deaf. They unfortunately seem a lot like your Ma saying “If you sit so close to the TV your eyes will go square”, when you know what she actually meant was “I can’t fucking see through your fucking mutton head”. No one is listening to the advice of these poor malformed healthcare professionals when they dish out helpful tips. Yes da yooof are still bare backing when it comes to their ears and claiming that “oh the plugs, they just ruin it”. It’s always ironic when they refer to “the buzz” because that’s what I hear most of the time now and I’m only in my 30s. I can still sleep all the way through the night without having to get up to piss 15 times but I do get woken by sudden shrill squeals from inside my head and it’s not just the banshees that tell me to bad mouth Animal Collective and Joanna Nesome as much as possible to anyone who’ll listen. No, occasionally, it’s tinnitus. Because of this I bought some professional (-ish) earplugs. I wouldn’t want to endorse any product, well not for free anyway, but the brand I use are named after a mountain range between France and Swizerland, and sounds like a brand of muesli and are very good indeed. Just saying.
Anyway, I’d love to know how Sheildso’s complaint went. I would assume that there would have been some sort of Miracle on 34th Street-style moment where the opposition carry in sacks full of complaints from 40 something year olds complaining that Kevo deafened them when they were at Uni and when is that next album out by the way? If you had gotten pregnant listening to Loveless on the day it came out, that child is probably at this show and there still isn’t a follow up. By now the auld baby maker has packed up so there’ll be no little brother for little Debbie to play with and that’s your fault too Kevin. You perfectionist bastard.
As I may have mentioned I moved to London recently because, well frankly, Dublin is fucking broke once again, there’s no jobs and yet most folks I know who don’t actually do anything for a living still manage to go to Primavera in Barcelona every year so what the fuck am I doing wrong? Working it seems. And so I took the boat and got a flat in New Cross. And now here I am heading to see the 50% Irish ex pat (or at least we’re claiming them, like Tony Cascarino) MBV in Brixton. It’s like 1991 all over again. Except there’s more chance of getting a burrito and a latte now.
Electric in Brixton is about the same size as Vicar Street in Dublin and this show is a warm up for the tour of Asia that the band are about to embark on. The tickets are of course long since sold out but thanks to the rushed nature of the organisation of the show, seemingly no one has a physical ticket, so instead you just give your name at the door and in you go, which gives the impression that you are invited here and that somehow makes me feel a little bit special. Inside the venue is rammed tight and once past the security pat down and having picked up the complimentary earplugs as a souvenir from a very smiley lad, it’s on with the the show.
I’m fashionably late and hungover to fuck so I’ve missed the support band, just like a real music journalist. I feel more prickish by the second, which is great. At 9 o’clock MBV arrive to huge applause. They wander on and the applause dies down to hushed reverie. It’s at this moment that I make an odd realisation: Some people don’t do themselves any favours.
You see, the first time I saw MBV was a few years ago at the Electric Picnic in Laois. They were absolutely brilliant and were helped, in no small part, by the fact that the audience at the show were on day 3 of a 3-day bender and, in as much as expectations were high, so too was the level of drunken rowdiness. Here tonight in Brixton the audience assembles in expectation of what is similar to silent and completely internalised religious fervour. Imagine a load of monks waiting to see Jesus. Absolute silence reigns for a good minute or two before anyone in the band speaks or even makes any audible instrumental sound and as a result the silence itself is heightened. I begin to think – as I did during a similar experience during the reformed Slint show in Vicar Street a while back that, unless the band come off the stage and touch our heads, instantly curing our ailments, and unless the roof of the venue splits open and angels fly down anointing each and every one of us with pure spiritual bliss, then nothing will live up to the audiences’ collective expectations placed on the shoulders’ of the four people in front of them.
When the silence is finally shattered it’s by the equivalent of MBV carting out the holy fucking grail. As the cinema projections display what looks like a psychedelic eye across the large stage the sound is at first unfamiliar and then so unfamiliar that it becomes apparent that yes it’s uniquely unfamiliar, yes it’s something I haven’t heard before, yes It’s a new MBV tune. It’s a thing that some members of the crowd have been waiting for, for over 20 years. The sound rumbles through the venue like it’s the onset of the religious rapture that some people here may be expecting. Loud enough to be felt as much as heard, this is all part of the show, part of the myth and the ethereal pomp. It’s at this moment however, that the band return to human form as technology fails them. If they were going to grow wings at any stage they might have wished that they did it now, so they could make a quick getaway.
The sound inside the venue is awful. The drums and bass sound as though they are being funnelled through layer after layer of cotton wool and candy floss and other such inferior earthly interruptions. There is a guitar in there somewhere but it’s barely discernable amid the low frequency thuds and mumbles. What’s more, Bilinda Butchers vocals are nowhere to be heard. She’s standing addressing a mic as though she is singing alright but not a syllable reaches its target audience. A keyboard hook arrives and this is audible and very simple, reminiscent of a mid tempo Yo La Tengo tune it plods nicely along but, without the vocals to carry it, the song seems like a very flat instrumental – inoffensive and slightly twee. It is of course on Youtube so you can judge it for yourself. What’s not on Youtube is that it’s made all the more apparent that this is not what had been intended by the fact that after a few minutes Kevin Sheilds waves his arms towards Colm Ó Cíosóig in a “cut it” gesture and the song simply stops.
Of course this is met with wild applause. This is what you’d expect something as rare as new MBV material to be met with. Like the shock and awe of seeing a dodo appear after long assumptions and statements of its extinction, however, like seeing a dodo it’s hard not to think “is that it?”. Some people do themselves no favours. Tonight it’s the sound engineer manning the mixing desk. I can only assume a band that brings around a screen and a projector and a wall of amps also comes with its own sound engineer. Tonight he’ll play the villain letting the team down. Or perhaps it’s just the curse of the opening night. Or perhaps he doesn’t particularly like Bilinda and so not one note she sings or plays for the first five or so songs is audible. There are also sudden weird peaks of muffled low frequency noise or sharp pings of feedback.
I know you’re thinking “Weird noises? At a MBV show, surely not?” But ironic as it sounds these sudden peaks and squalls are not part of the plan. There are technical issues from the get go and after this first song one of the Sheilds’ many amp heads is replaced and again the venue is thrust into another lengthy deafening silence. Behind me a mate points out that “this is nearly as bad as your fucking band”, and it really is. So they’re human after all. By now the reverie is an albatross hanging around the show’s neck and finally some punter can take no more and shouts “when is the new album out?”. There is hushed laughter which is cut short by Sheilds answering “two or three days”. A few seconds later he revises this to “three days” – cue more hushed laughter and an assumption that that number may grow exponentially given time.
As the gig continues the band continue fighting against sound problems it becomes increasingly clear that Sheilds is not happy at all. Several times he simply ignores the convention of actually playing his guitar, even during crucial moments such as hooks in I Only Said, choosing instead to tinker with settings on his various blocks of equipment and shout instructions to a baffled tech at the stage’s edge. It’s an almost comical pastiche of his reputation as an absolute aural perfectionist. He continually has the appearance of a man concerning himself with the smallest details and nuances, while the rest of us are all lost in the maelstrom. It’s not until an acoustic guitar (of all things) appears for a brilliant rendition of Cigarrette In Your Bed that the sound issues begin to dissipate though even then the vocals remain unintentionally elusive and utterly buried.
This is not a good night for MBV by any manner or means. The sound issues would of course be a huge problem for any band, but for MBV it’s almost a killer. But then some people just don’t do themselves any favours. The sound of Loveless is as much a part of the indefinable and mythical quality of the band, as any of the actual songs on Loveless. In recreating this in a live venue something will always change – some things improve but a lot is lost and what’s left in terms of structure and scope are actually quite simplistic and minimal songs and, as a result, inevitably some of these fall a little flat. Even that first time when I saw MBV live I felt that the songs they played off Isn’t Anything or their EPs sounded better and more immediately satisfying because their structures and dynamics rely on performance rather than sheer sound. That night the band were on form and the sound was a lot better but the slight gripe remained.
Tonight, however, the fact that this is an off night is then compounded when during To Here Knows When they stop at around the 75% completed mark and an obviously disgruntled Sheilds demands that they begin again from the top – much to the chagrin of the guitar techs. To be fair, from this point on, the whole show improves massively. At the second attempt the song soars and loops and engulfs us as it is designed to and it’s the first moment, aside from Cigarette in Your Bed, which really finds the mark. And as they run through the swooping hypnotic grooves of Slow, a blissed out Soon and rush towards the end with a controlled and perfectly raging rendition of Feed Me With Your Kiss I was reminded that this is a great band after all. The finale comes with You Made Me Realise which as usual is an epic – even though the band, who by this stage are visually disappointed with the night’s work and possibly a little rusty, decide to cut the notorious Holocaust Section to a manageable but not totally satisfying three minutes or so. Behind me a young lad dances to this as though he were Technoviking and all round there are huge smiles and a feeling of collective awe as that riff returns to herald the end. But even in this there are technical issues – Sheilds guitar cuts out for a second at a crucial moment and the venue’s PA seems to pack in for a about twenty seconds during the assault of noise leaving us with only the stage sound which is still disgracefully loud but not at all encompassing. And then they leave. And as they do so there is more rapturous and now finally fully deserved applause.
MBV have an impossible task ahead of them. Like an indie George Lucas they are surely aware that they will disappoint a lot of people by not curing cancer with their new album. Tonight was a microcosm for what happens when expectation rises to fever pitch. They walked on stage as gods and left as mere humans. Mere humans, however, that are part of a truly great, truly original and unique band. You get the feeling though that this is enough for them. In an interview recently about the new album Sheilds said simply “people think it’s stranger than Loveless but I don’t.” He might soon be saying something equally glib about the expectation surrounding it. It won’t cure cancer and on tonight’s evidence a certain sound engineer may have been on the end of an ear bashing, but, there are signs that MBV might be about to release a good album and play some good shows. I suppose that’s all you are supposed to expect. On the other hand last time they released an album Ireland had a decent football team and was about to go through years of economic growth so maybe I can call my family in two or three days and tell them to put the kettle on.
Oh and if you are unemployed MBV play at Primavera this year so you can catch them there while I’m at work.