My Bloody Valentine and Spectrum
Concourse Exhibition Center, San Francisco, CA
September 30, 2008
Fortuitously, i finished reading the Creation Records Story just a week before the long awaited return of My Bloody Valentine to San Francisco, a scant 16 years after supporting the seminal Loveless at Slims. Although i had heard rumors of this before, the book recounted Kevin Shields's desire to "punish" audiences at his shows, cranking amplifier volume to destructive levels and making Phil Spector's wall of sound a physical reality. Loveless was recorded in no less than 19 different studios, with the audiophile Shields endlessly searching for a space with the perfect acoustics to transfer his masterpiece to tape. So despite (or perhaps because of) my boundless appreciation for MBV, i considered not going to this show because it was being held at the Concourse. Kevin Shields wouldn't have even have walked in this joint if he were considering using it to record. Basically a long narrow tunnel, the venue neither carries sound well nor offers patrons any reasonable spots to watch the performance. Some apologists put forth the theory that the sheer noise of My Bloody Valentine would overcome the lousy acoustics, but i was more worried the venue would turn the beautiful din to mud. Or my ears to mush, whichever came first.
As we entered the venue, ushers were distributing earplugs, ostensibly limiting their liability in advance of the inevitable hearing damage lawsuits. I knew the opener Spectrum as Pete Kember, aka Sonic Boom, one of the founding members of My Bloody Valentine peers Spacemen 3. I considered his later Spectrum material as too experimental for my tastes, but was pleasantly surprised when walking in i heard the soft strains of the Spacemen's "Transparent Radiation". The set included several other psychedelic classics, and was definitely worthy of an early appearance at the show. In the intermission between the opener and the main draw, i ran into a number of old friends from the good old shoegazing days, among them several people who may have been the one who introduced me to Loveless. I secured my earplugs and awaited the dimming of the lights and the aural onslaught. It came soon enough, with the band launching into personal favorite "I Only Said". Gary, Veronica, and i tried walking up to the front, reaching a spot only 20 feet from the stage (unfortunately in a "no standing" walkway), before retreating to the relative spaciousness of the back. While slightly muddy, the sonic inventiveness and noise craft came through well enough. I found myself spellbound as i watched Kevin Shields weave the tremolo, distortion, and reverb into otherworldly symphonies, ones that have transported me to other places since i became transfixed with the band in college. "To Here Knows When", a song that Creation Records kingpin Alan McGee returned to Shields after listening to it because he claimed the tape was warped, was especially resonant, as was the hypnotic "Soon". For some reason the aggressive cacophony of "Only Shallow" didn't translate well, although whether that was because of a missing instrumental piece or the faulty Concourse acoustics, i don't know. I found the volume slightly loud even with the earplugs in, and although i was curious to experience the full force of the performance sans protection, i feared for my hearing the next day, the next week, or next year so the plugs stayed in. As is a trademark of their shows, the climax of the performance came with 20 minutes of feedback punctuating "You Made Me Realise". This portion of the show can only be described as coming face to face with a jet engine. It was so loud, i felt like the the dude in the armchair in those old Maxell ads. That characterization is valid for the entire show, making me happily retract my snarky jabs at Shields and his 16 year reclusion. Welcome back.