Slowdive
The Vic Theatre ; Chicago, IL

There are few opportunities for new cultural experiences today, but seeing Slowdive two days before they release their first album in 22 years is something; or, as a colleague of mine would say, it’s not nothing. 2017 is the year that Dave Chappelle, Blade Runner, Twin Peaks, and Luke Skywalker casually waltz back into our lives, and, as with any of these cultural phenomena, it’s worth asking why Slowdive, too, has come back to us at the turn of the tide.

After a long odyssey in which I break up with the woman I had originally bought my second ticket for, and another woman flakes out on joining me for the show, I invite my friend Nate to go with me. These events, tempered by my knowledge of another ex having gotten married the past weekend, frame my experience of seeing Slowdive, whose music is scientifically constituted for extreme feelings of passion, loss, and despair. We meet up at my favorite bar in Chicago (s/o Local Option) and discuss the feasibility and limitations of certain Socialist Party campaign tactics. We have three heavy beers each and take a Lyft up to The Vic.

Indie band Japanese Breakfast play first. A purple fog permeates the room, and the setting feels monochromatic, but in a good way. The band is dressed in dark tones, and all three guitarists have what appear to be white Stratocasters, though I will later find, when the lights change, that at least two of them are probably sea-foam green. Lead guitarist Michelle Zauner plays precisely and airily, offering smart riffs and a satisfying voice, which sounds sort of like Neko Case. The drummer plays on a transparent orange set. It is not my favorite music, but it is the right kind of music to open a Slowdive show.

Japanese Breakfast stop and I talk to Nate about Slowdive. I tell him My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive are the two major protagonists of shoegaze, and that, contrary to most, I prefer Slowdive. The stage crew is putting out guitars and I remark that one of Rachel Goswell’s guitars — a semi-hollow body — looks awesome, but that I don’t know what it is. The nice man next to me wonders the same thing and looks it up on his phone. He tells me it is a Custom 77. I want one. It goes dark and Slowdive comes out.

They enter to a Brian Eno track (I think) and then they start playing “Slomo” from their new album. It sounds good. We are in a reverie of guitars and fog, which is exactly what I had wanted, but they also are playing it safe. It is great, but not yet explosive. The second song is “Catch the Breeze” and the coda is where they really come alive: tsunamis of distortion crash up against each other amid blinding strobe lights and a backdrop of what seems to be 90s computer screensavers. Nate would later tell me one of the images was literally a screensaver from his high school-era Toshiba laptop. The music is loud as fuck. Slowdive are back, but what does it mean?

The band seem to be in their element. The mustachioed Neil Halstead moodily proffers riff after riff, maintaining an air of stoic mystery. His playing is precise and enormous, his picked melodies often swelling to apocalyptic intensity, especially in new track “Star Roving” and classic jam “When The Sun Hits.” Goswell is the perfect counterpart, breezily strumming the guitar and shaking her tambourine with a smile. She is masterful in every sense, and cool and beautiful. I would do anything to drink a beer with her and talk about guitars. I would probably give her my social security number if she asked. Christian Savill conquers his Jazzmaster with an elegant calmness, while Nick Chaplin anchors the swells on bass, underscoring the instrument’s necessity precisely in the places that its impact would, in almost any other band, be subsumed into the wall of sound. The mix is excellent.

The last song before the encore is a cover of “Golden Hair,” from Syd Barrett’s 1970 album The Madcap Laughs. There is a beautiful eeriness to Goswell’s delivery of the song’s 16 lines of text, and when she finishes, she glides off the stage, leaving the four men to play a marvelous outtro that lasts for around 10 minutes. The performance grasps the spirit of the band: their dignity, angst and tempestuousness; their magnificence. This isn’t high art, however, and it’s not avant-garde — it’s just a tremendous, shimmering grandeur to get lost in for 90 minutes. That’s enough for me, and it seems to be enough for Nate and some others at the show.

This kind of music, especially in a live setting, is challenging. It tasks one with presence, forcing listeners to reconcile their mind with their physical being. It is hard on the ears and eyes, but if one is able to be still enough — quiet enough, open enough — it is a profound experience. There is a lot of anxiety in the crowd. People are pushing past me, dropping beers, and talking. Slowdive’s music is pensive, dreamy, and occasionally harsh, but it also is athletic and draining. Not everyone in the crowd is able to commit completely, but those that do are blown away.

The next morning I will download a bootleg of their show from March 29 at London’s The Garage. I will listen to it while writing most of this review and drinking a $6 coffee served to me in a Dr. Seuss cup, and I will halfway pretend that the recording is from the show I saw. Then, I will meet up with TMT colleague Pat Beane over a breakfast burrito to talk about Tinder, sunbathing, Jersey Shore, union organizing, and, of course, Slowdive. After breakfast, Reckless Records will not sell me the vinyl of the new album because it doesn’t come out for one more day. Sometimes you don’t get what you want and things are sad. Other times, you have great fun with your friends. Life is short. Go to shows, eat burritos, find love, lose love, give your mind and body up to the noise. It is never too loud.

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