Seeing on the internet that English shoegaze act Slowdive had sold out downtown Minneapolis's Fine Line Music Cafe restored my faith in humanity. Sure, the Fine Line only holds around 800 people, but the fact that a niche band that only existed for half a decade is still able to tour the U.S. in a bus and not hemorrhage hundred-dollar bills is enough to make a guy want to grow his hair into a bowl cut and spend a whole paycheck on effects pedals.
Slowdive's original run lasted for only six years, resulting in three full-lengths and five EPs between 1989 and 1995. The Creation Records group never really got their due from the capricious British music press, but time has a funny way of making the best music eventually rise to the top.
The band got back together this summer to headline a host of international music festivals that would've put them in the side tent a couple decades ago. Now they're in the middle of their first American tour in 20 years, a mostly sold-out jaunt that's earned them the rave reviews that classics Just for a Day and Souvlaki never got back in the '90s.
This assessment isn't going to be much different. The reunited five-piece rolled into Minneapolis on Halloween night (Friday) decked out as zombies, Batman, and possibly Alex from A Clockwork Orange.
The scary things about their 100-minute performance, however, had nothing to do with costumes -- singer/guitarist Neil Halstead's spine-tingling lead vocals, his female counterpart Rachel Goswell's haunting vocal harmonies, bassist Nick Chaplin's sinister low-end, guitarist Christian Savill's guitar noodling with the precision of a serial killer's knife, Simon Scott's monstrous drum hits that suggested Godzilla was next door.
The set began with the very first song that Slowdive ever released, "Slowdive" from the Slowdive EP. (That's a repetitive sentence if I've ever seen one.) The track's swirling guitar noise and distant male-female vocals set the tone for the night perfectly, demonstrating to the rapt audience that the Slowdive on the Fine Line stage would not be bested by the memory of Slowdive they'd built up in their minds in the 22 years since the band's last Minneapolis gig, an opening slot for fellow shoegaze legends Ride at First Avenue in 1992.
The opening number wasn't the only track from that first EP to get love Friday night. "Avalyn" got played right after it, just like on the record (the live arrangement combines the mostly instrumental "Avalyn I" and the completely instrumental "Avalyn II"). This gorgeous tune was a showcase for Goswell's dreamy vocals -- the "I'm here on my own" refrains were heartbreaking yet uplifting as the music soared around her.
Strangely, those two selections from Slowdive meant that the 1990 EP was featured more prominently in Friday night's set than 1991 full-length Just for a Day. "Catch the Breeze" was the only cut played from that release, which isn't remembered nearly as fondly as its follow-up, 1993's Souvlaki, and wasn't the genre-bending experimental record that 1995's Pygmalion was.
Tracks like the dream-poppy "Waves" and aggressive closer "Primal" would've sat alongside the rest of the set very nicely, but then again I don't view Just for a Day as a side-cast stepping stone between Slowdive's first three EPs and Souvlaki. (I also argue that Ride was better than My Bloody Valentine and that Going Blank Again beats Nowhere, so I don't tend to toe the company line on shoegaze matters.)Pygmalion, meanwhile, is the quintessential album for a recently reunited band to ignore in concert, but it was represented by two songs in Friday night's set. "Crazy for You" and "Blue Skied an' Clear" were both taken from this LP, whose release predated Slowdive's 1995 breakup by just a few months. Halstead pulled a Kevin Shields and made most of the record himself, attempting to completely redefine his band's sound. Scott had left the band prior to recording, and once Savill and Chaplin followed suit soon after Pygmalion came out, there was no tour to support it. Considering that the album is low on walls of guitar feedback and high on spacey, 10-minute opening tracks, it was a surprise that its songs fit in seamlessly with signature Slowdive anthems like "Alison" and "When the Sun Hits" when played live. [page]
Those two Souvlaki classics received the biggest applause of the night, and rightfully so. The latter had been the subject of several shouted requests before finally being aired late in the main set, its opening notes inspiring a few audience members to pogo up and down like European audiences do when they hear a song they like. Hey, you've got to make your foreign visitors feel at home on the holidays. Meanwhile, show highlight "When the Sun Hits" was played a couple of songs prior and featured the best graphics/light show of the night -- a slowly approaching yet foreboding sun inching toward the viewer during the quiet verses, a trip through the inside of a supernova for the explosive chorus.
On the production side, the graphics displayed behind the band and the accompanying light show were something to write home about, as well. The stage's nine high-definition screens featured sequences from the obscure (spinning helixes during "Catch the Breeze") to the literal (the clearest blue skies you've ever seen during "Blue Skied an' Clear"). I couldn't help but gaze at these wondrous visuals, but only because it was too dark to see my shoes.
The lack of Just for a Day tunes aside, Slowdive were impressive. Pristine sound. Impassioned playing. Timeless music. The kind of show that makes you fall in love with a band. It may have been Halloween Friday night, but Slowdive felt more like a Christmas present.
Critic's Bias: Slowdive play one of my favorite genres of music, recorded for one of my favorite labels and hail from my favorite musical country. You might say I'm a little biased, but even a Taylor Swift fan who still hates England because of the Revolutionary War could've appreciated this one. I was much too concerned with Aladdin and The Jungle Book in 1992 to attend the band's last area show.
The Openers: Popular Duluth band Low were an extra attraction on this Halloween bill. The slowcore veterans came out dressed as ZZ Top and packed nine songs into a 40-minute opening slot (including three from last year's The Invisible Way), all of which went over a lot better with the crowd than their one-song, 27-minute appearance at Rock the Garden 2013.
The Crowd: The costumed crowd consisted of an Uzbekistan Airways pilot and flight attendant, zebra, and plenty of people ready for Dia de los Muertos. There was also an audience member sketching Slowdive and their Halloween outfits during the show, which was a first for my eyes.
Catch the Breeze
Crazy for You
Souvlaki Space Station
Blue Skied an' Clear
When the Sun Hits
Golden Hair (Syd Barrett cover)
GIMME NOISE'S GREATEST HITS