London Hammersmith Apollo (Thursday 11th October 2001)

Nathan Midgley

In or around 1851, the Victorian essayist Thomas Carlyle wrote this: 'To sit as a passive bucket and be pumped into, whether you consent or not, can in the long-run be exhilarating to no creature; how eloquent soever the flood of utterance that is descending.'

He was writing on listening to the visionary poet Coleridge, whose intellectual might was matched only by his tendency to chunter on about nothing specific for quite long periods. I'm thinking about sending it to Jason Pierce. The ex-Spaceman 3 founder and now frontman of Spiritualized has never been far from the label visionary himself; misunderstood, tortured and inspired, even his most traditional rock'n'roll moments have an otherworldly quality.

And, not unlike Coleridge, he's partial to the odd rambling diversion when performing live. Pierce, a specialist in messages from the other side, aspires to make his music a transcendental experience for both artist and audience; a feat he naturally achieves by taking enough drugs to kill an elephant, or at least get it scouting round the kitchen for a bag of dry roasted at 3am.

Sound interesting? It is.

He's also a natural at snarling out viscious, gloriously fuzzy rock songs, and the combination of that and his perma-stoned modern psychedelia adds up to one of the most unique and exciting presences in British music.

Spiritualized's latest offering Let It Come Down, written for rock band and hundred-piece orchestra, has been hailed as an intricately arranged but emotionally lucid classic, so there really ought to be no stopping this band tonight. And theoretically, they deliver.

There are some of the best moments from 1997's Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space LP; Electricity is blistering, and Cop Shoot Cop swells up so ominously when reinforced by a live horn section that it gives me the shivers.  A surprisingly small selection from the new record goes down well, and includes a dramatic rendition of Out of Sight that makes full use of the embryonic orchestra Pierce has installed on stage. The album opener On Fire sounds disappointingly woolly, but it lets the line of gospel singers that's been loitering upstage finally come into its own, beefing up the backing vocal and doing that marvellous swingy-arms thing that only real gospel singers can do. To top it off, we get a pair of Spaceman 3 tracks that display two different extremes of Pierce's songwriting; the wasted groove Take Me To The Other Side gets a rapturous response mid-set, and a touching, vulnerable version of Lord Can You Hear Me (which gets rehashed on the new record) provides the second encore.

Unfortunately, something happens between the stage and the stalls that puts all that to waste.

Specifically, this: we're in London's Hammersmith Apollo, and we're all sitting down. Not only that, but we're sitting down in a room where we can't drink or smoke.

I spend the whole show looking round for someone that's going bipedal, but the only ones that do are off to the toilet or retreating to one of Hammersmith's many classy boozers. It's as three of my four companions bail out that I start to think of Thomas Carlyle (which I know isn't very rock'n'roll, but neither are velvet cushions and seat numbers.) Here, after all, a flood of utterance being pumped into the most passive collection of buckets ever to watch a gig with opera glasses. What in God's name is going on? Is it London audiences? The last time I saw Spiritualized I was in Manchester, and the couple behind me bounced up and down so excitedly I thought they were y'know playing hardcore fans.

I suppose Pierce is partly to blame. Freed from the restraints of recorded music, he has a penchant for feedback marathons and indiscriminate, stomach-churning guitar abuse as 'terribly deficient in goal or aim' as Coleridge's excruciating monologues. And while I'm the first to argue that that kind of thing in the right hands (Sonic Youth's, for example, or the divine Yo La Tengo's) is more thrilling and reckless than a full week of technically brilliant guitar solos, it just isn't going to work in front of a sober, seated audience. It ceases to be an act of total, fuck-off abandon that we cheer and crowd the stage in response to, and becomes a piece of theatre that we just routinely applaud when the curtain falls. 

It's unfortunate, then, but everyone seems to leave slightly disappointed tonight. Later in the week, I hear someone call London's alternative station Xfm and admit to falling asleep during the following night's gig. By anyone's standards, that really shouldn't be happening. Maxi Jazz of Faithless once said that the more response he gets from an audience, the harder he works - which in turn gets his audience to step up a gear, and so on and so forth. That shared dynamic is exactly what live rock music is supposed to achieve, and the reason I'm riled is that Spiritualized played the sort of stuff that can achieve it. I can only imagine it's Pierce's experiments with more complex, orchestral music that inspired the band to play such a totally unsuitable venue; either way, the effect was to reduce their audience to mere spectators, and rock music itself to a performance piece.

Brain cells may have stirred, and a good few hearts may have moved at the softer material - but if three thousand pairs of feet stay still, Spiritualized's take on progressive rock has left something very fundamental behind.

Never simple with these bloody visionaries, is it?