You might expect a Slowdive gig in 2017, three years on from reforming, to be a fairly nostalgic affair.
A chance for a bunch of former-indie kids to enjoy and reminisce over a genre that had a depressingly brief, music press-created (and sacrificed) moment of glory in the early-1990s.
That’s the problem with bands getting back together after a – in Slowdive’s case, 19-year – hiatus: a sense that it’s a bunch of once fairly successful musicians reuniting to make some money and give the 40-somethings in their old fanbase an evening to lose themselves in.
A case in point: underneath a picture that I posted on Instagram, following the band’s show in London this week, a school friend noted with reasonable fairness: “It’s 1991 all over again!”
Whilst it may seem unkind, Slowdive are not treading the same path as their peers from the same era, Lush – another of the bands that rose to semi-prominence during the so-called (and disparaging) “shoegaze” scene who reformed and played, coincidentally, at the same London venue in May 2016.
The Slowdive reunion in 2014 saw them play a sizeable tour, culminating in two nights at the Forum in London. I saw one of them and, rather unnervingly, thought I was listening to a different band to the one I’d first seen 23 years before, such is the impact of the passage of time on an ability to remember how good the band were.
Clearly, something happened on that tour and during the handful of (mostly) festival gigs that they played in 2015 and 2016 – perhaps the bond of being back together as a band, obviously, but perhaps a realisation that their “sound” had a lot more life in it.
Fast forward a year and Slowdive are showcasing the fruits of that switch from being “a band that reformed” to one that is diving back into their undoubted talent as one of the most innovative guitar bands to emerge over the course of the last two decades.
This is not hyperbole – the release of their latest album, the brilliant Slowdive, earlier this year and a steady stream of gigs throughout the summer has put them at the top of the creative tree in 2017.
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There is perhaps no better venue in London for the modern Slowdive than the Roundhouse. The acoustics are superb for their wall of sound and low-key vocals, plus it just has an amazing ability – perhaps due to its design – of ensuring a gig feels more like an event (there’s a subtle difference).
From the chorus pedal-heavy chimes of Neil Halstead’s guitar on the opening song, Slomo, which echo beautifully around the iconic former steam engine shed, to the sheer intensity of the soaring Catch The Breeze – it’s obvious that their multi-layered sound is perfectly placed in goldfish bowl-like building.
The crowd is clearly not solely made up of the ex-indie kid variety either – there are plenty of fans in their 20s and, interestingly, hardly any of the inevitable shouts for the older numbers between songs.
In fact, the fifth song of the night, Star Roving (the first track aired from the newest album), is greeted with perhaps one the biggest cheers of the night.
It becomes clear that Slowdive’s new material is as popular as their tracks from the early-1990s – a combination of songs from the early EPs and the still massively underrated Souvlaki album of 1993, plus Blue Skied An’ Clear from the pre-break-up long-player, Pygmalion.
So why does it now all seem to work so wonderfully for Slowdive?
There is a combination of factors in play:
The new songs are different beasts to their older counterparts – broader, intricate, mature, yet they still retain that something which gives them the Slowdive sound.
The stunning No Longer Making Time will become a classic Slowdive song over time, with its trio of guitars feeling like they’re on the verge of going at odds with one another, before slamming back into complete harmony.
It’s a technique that has served Slowdive well over the years (Alison, 40 Days and When The Sun Hits are other examples), driven in part by Halstead and fellow guitarist Christian Savill’s ability to squeeze unusual sounds and textures out of their instruments.
Yet what makes Slowdive such an impressive live act is how the catalogue over time has now become more than just a glorious, 90-minute slab of shimmering effects pedals and dreamy vocals.
Sugar For The Pill is perhaps the most contemporary sounding song they’ve ever made and the beautiful, ode to love that is Dagger is not the kind of song that would usually find itself as the penultimate number of the evening.
Nor is there any pretentiousness about a Slowdive performance. They are mesmerising to watch (the visuals and light show combine to stunning effect with the music they create), but hold the attention of the audience with the sum of their parts and sound, rather than Halstead or fellow vocalist Rachel Goswell having to front for the rest of the band.
Nick Chaplin is perhaps the most energetic of the four band members out front, swinging his bass low like Simon Gallup of The Cure (although, disappointingly, he’s not wearing his Depeche Mode Walking In My Shoes t-shirt this evening 🙂 ).
In total contrast, Savill lurks in the shadows, giving nothing away as to how he makes his guitar sing and soar in such a devastatingly sonic way, whilst Simon Scott is a gem of an extremely accomplished and creative drummer.
This team of talented individuals are doing something that few bands in 2017 are doing – creating new music that inspires another generation of fans, and also paying homage to their back catalogue in a way that reminds everyone how important they actually were back then, but were almost criminally ignored by the critics once their faces didn’t fit the scene of the moment.
Somewhat ironically, the internet has ensured that the traditional music press (especially in the UK) no longer holds sway over the hearts and minds of music fans to the extent that it did in Slowdive’s formative years, yet the band’s fan-recorded live material shared on YouTube does not do them any justice at all.
Those clips give nothing away as the power and intensity of the Slowdive live experience. They have to be heard and seen, in a venue like the Roundhouse, to be believed.
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Funnily enough, nostalgia comes not from the band but a reminder of the bygone age from two members of the audience.
Slowdive appeared on British music TV show The Beat in 1991, performing Catch The Breeze at the Marquee Club in London.
For some reason (those artistic types eh) the director chose to highlight two indie kids as they, err, got to know one another as the band played in front of them.
Twenty-six years later, as the Syd Barrett cover Golden Hair reaches a crescendo (the final song of the main set), a couple nearby are clearly moved enough by the barrage of noise in front of them to (hopefully) unintentionally remake this moment. Bless ’em…
NOTE: More gig reviews here