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Nochella, April 12: Spiritualized, Vampire Weekend stun with earnest performances

Spiritualized at House of Blues (PHOTO: MIKE PREVATT)
Spiritualized at House of Blues (PHOTO: MIKE PREVATT)
Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend at The Cosmopolitan (COURTESY PHOTO: ERIK KABIK)
Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend at The Cosmopolitan (COURTESY PHOTO: ERIK KABIK)

The surest sign of a great concert — for this particular music writer, anyway — is if you're compelled to listen to that performer's music the next day. And this Saturday morning writing session has been filled with nothing but the music of Spiritualized. For even last night's two-hour space-gospel revue wasn't nearly enough. 

For a reported 350 people — and that, sadly, seems generous — the English rock band delivered church a day and a half early, Jason Pierce and his six-piece band (including two female singers) cleansing our souls before we had the weekend to dirty them. But before you groan, Spiritualized isn't concerned with judgment, religious dogma and moral blackmail. It doesn't even seem interested in whether you believe in God and Jesus — and whether Pierce and company do isn't certain (or important), either. Rather, the band zeroes in on the emotional honesty and spiritual euphoria of gospel to project the human experience with rock 'n' roll escapism, one accomplished by deftly applying the roots of 20th century American music to the cosmic, orchestral template built by Pink Floyd (and sometimes the other way around).

During 2003's "Lord Let It Rain On Me," a Sunday morning strummer if there ever was one, Pierce sings to Jesus asking not for his forgiveness, but for his return. His narrator, like so many people, seeks answers to the Big Questions, including where he's headed after this life. Do his struggles necessarily make him a bad person, one doomed to hell? And if he must be held accountable, why can't the same be said for his Lord, seemingly absent from the turmoil and suffering of mankind below Him? But Pierce doesn't sing these challenges of faith with the effrontery of a heathen. He's making the case for his humanity, and with his remarkably precise band and harmonic duo behind him, it's equally moving and empowering. 

Several other numbers from last night's setlist, including 1992's "Shine a Light" and 1986's "Walking With Jesus" — actually a song from Pierce's previous band, Spacemen 3 — possessed this dynamic, though often the lyrics were less important than the emotion that (vocally) delivered or (musically) framed them. And that's the general appeal of Spiritualized: the spirit, if not the letter, of the music. Pierce and his bandmates create sonic tapestries so rich and evocative, it's hard not to get swept up in their grandeur, regardless of the words — or the style(s) of the song. Whether it was a garage/proto-punk blast ("Electricity"), a bluesy, rollicking jam ("Take Your Time") or a gorgeous R&B ballad ("So Long You Pretty Thing"), each number — often seamlessly segued together — had the hairs on the backs of our necks standing up. Even the droning segments felt transportive, often establishing a song's mood early on or building anticipation for the inevitable climax. 

It's easy to reduce Spiritualized to druggie stereotypes, and the long, hazy, instrumental bookends to its songs (and the narcotic references occasionally in them) make that tempting. But for all Pierce's flirting with psychedelic touchstones, he's most concerned with projecting a different sort of transcendence. "Medication" sounded like a junkie's refrain, the user acknowledging his crutch's allure and soul-hallowing effects, but still hopeful for a day when he loses dependence on it. And the gravitas in his voice and the ambience in the music created a prayerful effect. During the meditative "I Think I'm In Love" — its line "think I'm a big winner, baby (probably Las Vegas)" naturally getting a big cheer — Pierce demistified the superpowers one feels while high even as he and his band seemed to musically recreate that sensation. 

Watching Pierce last night was like watching a modern bluesman, a shaman and a conductor all at once, summing up the last 100 years of music song by song. "It sounds so modern, yet it's retro and organic," said the awestruck fellow next to me, having never heard the band before. He's onto something, and so it Spiritualized. MIKE PREVATT


Over at The Cosmopolitan's Boulevard Pool, Vampire Weekend put on the best show I've seen this year. Maybe I was won over early with a promising walk-out song choice, DMX's "What's My Name," and the most incredible live drum mic work I've ever heard. But from the first song ("Cousins" from 2010's Contra) to last ("Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" from 2008's self-titled debut), it was the most earnest, comfortable, tight set of 2013.

The one obvious blunder came when singer Ezra Koenig tried to come out of a bridge too early in "A-Punk," singing the first note and then dancing it off, only to forget about the massive prop mirror hanging over his drummer, revealing him covering his face with his hands in embarrassment. Which was weirdly refreshing. Like, for an internationally renowned band to still biff a part on a song probably played at every show it has played since the song's recording five years ago, shows humanity. Especially since it was pretty much the only thing that happened that wasn't supposed to all night, and the band otherwise consistently destroyed, through the crowd-appreciated "Oxford Comma," through the sticky sweet "Diplomat's Son," and the surfy (though you could argue it's all surfy) "One (Blake's Got a New Face)." Which Koenig followed by specifically thanking the locals, who made up a majority of the night's audience (speaking of refreshing) and lost any shit it still had left.

It shouldn't go without saying that I'm lukewarm on Vampire Weekend. I think it's good fun music, but it doesn't grab me by the intenstines and make me want to commit forward-thinking verbs or anything. But the way the band presents itself and commands a stage is something even veteran road dogs could learn from. If given the option, I'd watch this show again before watching The Black Keys' New Years Eve performance. Which I didn't think I'd say before last night. It's a seriously impressive live band. MAX PLENKE