Into the Pit: 134: Mazzy Star – Live at Shepherds Bush – 03-June 2012

The gig the night before this was a late addition to the roster, so this, in some respects, was the gig that was the planned beginning of a long summer of shows. Ten gigs between 03-June and 22-July, before I get a break in the run-up to Infest. Like last year, I’m going to have issues picking the best shows from the multitude I’ve already seen, never mind what is to come.

Anyway, this show was yet another where I finally got the chance to see a band I missed in the nineties, but before that I had the chance to check out two much more modern, up-and-coming artists who were both very, very different.

The haunting tones of Qawwali legend Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan were the backing music that introduced Rick Tomlinson, and intriguingly enough it was not far off a seamless transition into his own material. This was the kind of support artist that demanded the attention of a crowd, despite there being no vocals, and just one man on stage playing. This was a trumpet to begin with, before he moved to acoustic guitar – but this wasn’t just a thin sound. It was backed with unusual electronic effects, and a fair bit of distortion and other effects on the guitar, which resulted in a psychedelic, folksy sound that stretched on, and it was easy to get lost in the sound. Ok, so not exactly something I’d listen to every day, but the set was pretty enthralling. And for once, it was nice to see most of the crowd actually pay attention rather than talking through the whole damned thing – but don’t get me started on people who had their phones in the air for the whole sodding show.

Following that were a band that I really should have come across previously, but hadn’t: Unison. One of the leading French proponents of the genre known as “Witch House”, I was curious to see how they would fit in with a band like Mazzy Star. And the surprising answer was: astoundingly well.

One of the weird things about witch house or whatever you want to call it, is how many boundaries it appears to be crossing. That may be because a lot of the artists within this loose genre are bringing all kinds of things to the table. In this case, Unison are as much shoegaze as anything else. Onstage, their thunderous electronic backing is fronted by two guitarists, and a then Melanie Moran – a slight vocalist who uses her voice less to enunciate words as to provide ethereal melodies. Those guitars add a wall of sound, a la My Bloody Valentine, while her voice and style is not unlike School of Seven Bells vocalist Alejandra Deheza.

But the outcome isn’t so much sensual as malevolent. Opener Blood Blood Blood opens with a near-demonic sample of children singing Ring a Ring o’ Roses, before the beats bludgeon the door down. Nothing quite that dark was unleashed again, but template remained, with the beats remaining punishingly heavy throughout, and Melanie’s melodic vocals proving the counterpoint.

Half-an-hour was enough to sell the band to me, and the album (I prefer to buy CDs where possible) has been duly ordered.

Despite Unison being as good as they were, I don’t think there was ever any doubt that they would be able to upstage Mazzy Star, but it was a closer call than I might have expected.

Unlike so many reunions of late, there has already been new material prior to gigs this summer – in fact, two new songs were released about a year ago, coming out of nowhere as not a lot had been heard from the band for a long, long time. Hope Sandoval had of course had her solo work, and the odd guest appearance, but that was it. And the new songs didn’t change the template, indeed it could be said that the time inbetween hadn’t really happened in the world of Mazzy Star.

Before any new material was revealed here, however, various old favourites were played first, and even in that there were surprises. Like a heavy reliance on material from debut She Hangs Brightly, an album that I must confess was always below the other, later albums in preference for me. But the songs here had a new lease of life, and a reminder also that their reputation as purveyors of bluesy, very quiet torch music wasn’t always correct.

This was made especially clear during Ghost Highway, where thundering drumbeats rumbled through the song – and perhaps were the one moment where the sound balance nearly drowned out Hope Sandoval entirely. Aside from that, though, it was clear that the passage of time appears not to have affected her at all. Her voice is still crystal clear, with her sensual, laconic vocals drifting gracefully over slow, precise blues. And, it has to be said, she still looks as impossibly beautiful as ever. Well, as much as we could see of her – dwarfed by the enormous, high stage and the projections that covered the whole back wall, there wasn’t a great deal of light for much of the show.

Mazzy Star setlist:
Blue Flower
Ghost Highway
Still Cold
She Hangs Brightly
Look on down From The Bridge
Fade Into You
Lay Myself Down
Flyin’ Low

I’ve Been Let Down
So Tonight That I Might See

But then, a bright, daylit environment was never really the place where Mazzy Star made sense. It was always in the dark, late nights, particularly winter ones, perhaps, when the band were most at home, and seemed most appropriate. And those feelings came flooding back with the airing of the delicate Disappear, and the oh-so-slightly bitter Still Cold, the latter being one of the few songs where there is not beauty and/or resignation at the heart, but a flicker of anger.

Their one minor hit, Fade Into You, was of course played, to whoops of delight from the whole room, but what this set did hammer home was just how much more that the band had – and still have – than this. Certain moments saw David Roback going all psych-freakout on his guitar, and all of a sudden, the legions of Spiritualized t-shirts being worn in the room made sense. Two singers that approach the twin subjects of love and loss from very different angles, and ended up with a similar level of devotion, perhaps, from their fans – without ever really growing their fanbase beyond that, mainly as neither had any apparent desire for fame.

There were a couple of new songs in amongst the old, too, which dovetailed in well, but I have to say they weren’t highlights. Two of the finest moments of the whole set were to be found in the encore – the acoustic, harmonica-assisted I’ve Been Let Down, before the night closed with an epic, spaced-out So Tonight That I Might See, the one song in their back-catalogue that shows off the Doors influence more than any other.

Pretty much, what I saw last night was what I expected from Mazzy Star – aside from a perhaps unexpected bias in the song choices that meant their most popular album barely got a look-in, with only two songs. I was kinda hoping for Mary of Silence, but it wasn’t to be. Even so, for a band that have been quiet for so long, this was an impressive show. And I’ll be hoping for more new material, and more gigs, in the future.

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