I’ve seen the light
As regards Spiritualized, I mean.
But first their support act, local luminaries Six By Seven.
Me and Six By Seven go back a long way. We first encountered each other in May 1999 at the Ballroom in Nottingham, where they were supporting Fugazi. Since then there have been numerous rendezvous, including a thrilling gig in celebration of the Social’s first birthday in 2000 and a fabulous performance at the Leeds Festival in 2002.
There was the very frosty interview at the Boat Club in October 1999, when for a while it looked like giant frontman Chris Olley was about to make mincemeat out of myself and my partner-in-crime (or at least partner-in-self-indulgent-student-journalism) Olav following an ill-advised line of questioning.
There was the drunken night in The Rig in June 2000, when a pilled-up Chris tried to pull one of my friends while another spent half an hour trying to get keyboardist James Flower to hum the theme tune from ‘Murder She Wrote’ with him (incidentally, the latter friend, already very much the worse for wear, went home at the end of the night, drank the best part of a bottle of gin and climbed into a fridge – but that’s another story…).
There have been sightings of various band members at an assortment of gigs in the city, including …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead and The Flaming Lips, plus the surprise pleasure of being served in shops by James on several occasions – first in Waterstones and then in Fopp.
Theirs has been a turbulent history. Having started off as a five-piece, they’re now down to three – Chris, James and drummer Chris Davis. Guitarist Sam Hempton left some time ago (and is in the crowd tonight), but this is the first time I’ve seen them without bassist Paul Douglas. How would they cope without that throbbing propulsive bass which is practically their trademark? Even more to the point, how would they cope with being dropped by their label Mantra after three critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful records?
Well, the answer is by concentrating on new material in which the keyboards are more prominent, and by playing only a handful of older tracks for which the lack of bassline isn’t obvious (‘I.O.U. Love’, ‘So Close’, ‘European Me’). The new tracks aired tonight, including recent Fierce Panda single ‘Bochum (Light Up My Life)’, don’t have the pissed-off snarl and bite of their second and third albums (The Closer You Get and The Way I Feel Today), nor are they a return to the mesmeric prog-indie of their debut, The Things We Make. Instead, they’re pushing in a direction they’ve only hinted at occasionally before, all spiralling keyboards and looped grooves and thumping drums. One sounds like them laying claim to ‘Pounding’ by Doves and making it their own.
If I’ve got any reservations, it’s only because a bassist gives them more strings to their collective bow, and because music like this conjures up the idea of loads of people packing the stage – certainly, splendid as it is, gargantuan debut single ‘European Me’, which closes the set, might have benefited from sheer weight of numbers. On this evidence, then, the new slimmed-down Six By Seven aren’t trimmed of fat, leaner and hungrier, but a little bit more lightweight, a bit of their muscle wasted away.
Great to see them back, though - they’re still a damn fine band, and I can only hope that their forthcoming LP Down Here On The Ground finally secures them some serious recognition. If I’m sick of writing about “Nottingham’s best-kept secret”, then I’m sure they’re even more sick of hearing it.
So, anyway. The light. I’ve seen it. And it’s damn well nearly blinding me - literally and metaphorically speaking. At one point I’m convinced the insane strobing effects must be scorching my retina beyond repair – but I just can’t avert my eyes from the Rock City stage.
Until fairly recently I thought Spiritualized were decent but consistently overrated. Then I got a copy of Amazing Grace which, despite the schizophrenic and jarring ordering of the tracks, was just beginning to sink its claws into me. And now – this. First of all, everything, absolutely EVERYTHING taken from Amazing Grace and played tonight sounds incredible, far superior to the recorded counterparts. They basically have two types of song: smacked-up garage rock bruisers that feel like an alleyway brawl with The Stooges and The Rolling Stones – opener ‘Electricity’, ‘She Kissed Me (It Felt Like A Hit)’, ‘Never Goin’ Back’, ‘Come Together’, ‘Cheapster’, ‘This Little Life Of Mine’ – and heavy-lidded space-gospel songs which build to a suffocating and overwhelming intensity before eventually relenting, sedated and spent, and which sound like divine salvation even when they’re about damnation – ‘Hold On’, ‘Lord, Let It Rain On Me’, ‘Oh Baby’, ‘Let It Flow’. Both types shine a harsh and unforgiving light on the likes of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, who suddenly look like shallow posturing charlatans.
True, it wouldn’t be hard to parody a Spiritualized song – just chuck in a few lyrical references to God, Jesus, needles and veins (oh, hang on, we’re back to BRMC again…) – but there’s a blackened and charred wit lurking in and behind many of the couplets which diverts the songs away from a gloomy slide into maudlin self-pity, and a fascinating interweaving of the light and the dark, the sacred and the profane, in everything they do. Jason Pierce isn’t interested in fads but in a sort of timelessness. His songs have a tremendously rich sense of musical history, a vintage quality that seems neither forced nor contrived. A quietly authoritative band leader, he conducts his musicians on stage (six besides himself – all together, in terms of sheer physical presence, they look like Six By Seven should do, by rights), facing them rather than the early-thirty-something parka-clad congregation.
The mammoth and majestic set ends with a pure fucking noise freakout and all-out strobe assault that’s like Mogwai and The Velvet Underground self-combusting together on stage. It’s January, my first gig of the new year, and already it’s a serious contender for top spot come the end-of-year lists. Amazing. And graceful. The bar has been set obscenely high.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am currently floating in space.