Spiritualized: Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space at the Vivid Sydney festival

Vivid Sydney is this city’s annual festival of “light, music and ideas”. I can agree with the first two, at least, as I was down at the Opera House last night. There are coloured, moving projections of light all around Circular Quay. Lit installations and warm glows are everywhere you look down there at the moment. It’s very pretty, very cool.

Inside an Opera House covered in huge, moving patterns of luminescence, though, was the music I’d come to see: Spiritualized. The UK cosmic-rock act led by J Spaceman is one of my favourite bands anyway, so I’d have gone to see them (for the fourth time) in any case. But last night – and repeated again tonight – they were playing the entirety of their perfect 1997 album,Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space.

Not only was there a six-piece rock band that took the stage, there was also a 9-person choir and a substantial orchestra behind. If you know Ladies And Gentlemen… you know those are essential to reproducing it live.

The Spaceman was in sitting-down mode tonight. I was in the third row, right next to him. God, he’s thin and pale. His ever-present sunglasses kept him from us. Not that he looked out into the audience anyway: he always faces across the stage when he sits like that. He looked weak and shaky, a vulnerable man in a white T-shirt, separate from the black-garbed band, almost like he’d rather slip back with the ivory-robed choir.

With no prelude, the album began. If you know Spiritualized, you know their drug-hymns, their space-rock noise-dirges to love. This album is a perfect combination of sounds about love, in fact: love that makes you weak, and drugs that you love that make you weak, all wrapped up in the sounds of gospel and choirs, but that eventually must descend into sonic chaos. On this album, Spiritualized were Punk Floyd.

The reproduction on-stage was perfect. There’s zero antics. Apart from frequent strobing lights, it was all sonic waves, song after song of loss, crashing over us. J’s voice was as plaintive and mournful as on the albums. Every throbbing bass note, muted trumpet blare, choir keen, and guitar scream was delivered as it is when you’re listening to Ladies And Gentlemen… on your own, in the dark of your bedroom, with headphones.

“Come Together”, “I Think I’m In Love”, and “Cop Shoot Cop” (all seventeen minutes of it) were amazing highlights. J got up to say thanks at the end, as did the assembled Opera House. They came back for just one more, Let It Come Down‘s “Out Of Sight”, which was equally powerful. I’m glad they didn’t overdo it, and – apart from that one encore song – let the album stand on its own.

I’ve seen many of these songs performed before. But seeing them all performed together, in order, in the dying format that is the album, was pretty powerful. Pretty vivid.

“And I’m alive with no one but myself to blame”

Let me tell you about the gig I saw last night: Spiritualized.

Opening act was called the Sian Alice Group. They were cool in a post-rock repeat-the-groove rock-trance kind of way. Pretty heavy with some light touches from the singer. They switched up instruments a lot; I like that.

I was glad to see Spiritualized again. I’ve caught Jason Pierce’s band twice before: once at the Brixton Academy in very intense band mode, and once at the Forum in a more reserved semi-acoustic mode (Pierce sat for the entire performance). He’s since come close to death but is touring to support a new album released next week called Songs in A&E, written in the wake of his lengthy hospitalisation.

The band was back to intense mode, but was more visceral than before.

Part of that was because they were playing at Koko. The Camden nightclub is much smaller than either of the previous venues in which I’d seen the band, and smaller is always better. Still, there were quite a few people on stage: Pierce singing and wailing on his guitar, a guitarist, bass player, drummer, keyboardist, and four excellent backup singers for most of the songs. There were no strings this time.

The first song started quietly but Pierce launched into an audio guitar assault before it was halfway through. This is what Spiritualized is all about: gentle gospel-country tunes that build tension through repetition, then crescendo into a wall of painful, wailing rock that eventually explodes into release and redemption. It is the new blues. It’s working through addiction in the language of faithfulness.

Song after song came at us like this: the rhythms repeat, Pierce’s guitar morphs into a screaming thing, and the soul singers in the back are like angels on top of it all. These songs are manipulative, all the more so because they sound like they’re coming from someone who’s still learning how to hang on.

There were a couple of new songs, including “Soul On Fire”, that sounded very much of a kind with his past work. But there were more old ones than I expected. I didn’t make note of everything they played but I recall hearing “Shine A Light”, “Take Good Care of It”, “Walking With Jesus”, “Angel Sigh”, “Lord Let it Rain On Me”, “She Kissed Me (It Felt Like a Hit)”, the Spacemen 3 track “Take Me To The Other Side”, and one of my favourites, “Come Together”, to finish us off. The encore was a huge “I Think I’m In Love” and a truly epic “Lord Can You Hear Me”.

Pierce remains an introverted performer: he faced across the stage the whole time, never looking at us, sometimes looking heavenwards, never moving his feet, only starting to move a bit and shout in the last few songs. But throughout he taunted fierce noises from his guitar in order to thrash out a violent, clashing catharsis for each song. He only acknowledged the audience at the very end: he finally looked out at us, smiled, clapped a bit, and said thanks twice.

It’s a weird sort of healing you get from this music. Pierce seems to be expressing personal pain when he plays live, much more than the shared experience you can talk yourself into when listening to it on CD. This perception might have been heightened when Pierce lost his trademark defensive sunglasses at about the third song (they seemed to break). It seemed, last night, like Jason was confessing. I’m glad that Spiritualized are back, and I’m glad I got to hear his confession.

Image from jasonspaceman under Creative Commons license