On Saturday night, a British band whose last release graced the revolutionizing musical world in 1995 played the elegant Warfield in San Francisco, with just about every possible kind of person in attendance.
Gazing out over the focused, enthralled crowd that evening, we saw everything from white ponytails to dyed and spiked mohawks. There was neither a shortage of piercings, nor a shortage of Prius-driving, polo-wearing forty-somethings and hip bald men with ’50s-style wayfarers and thick clear frames. Colored clouds of smoke rose from the stage dance floor, and people throughout the crowd made witty, nostalgic comments about pot.
The band was Slowdive, and The Warfield was sold out with nearly 2400 people in attendance, the standing-room-only sections stuffed to the brim with their adoring fans. In the early ’90s, Slowdive was critically panned for their unimaginative songwriting and apathetic stage presence, being part of a genre that later became “shoegaze,” a moniker earned for its artists’ dissociation with the audience and fascination with their feet (due to frequent use of guitar pedal). Today, Slowdive, thanks to marquee record Souvlaki, are hailed as one of the most polished bands of the era. On Saturday night, they made obvious why.
Throughout an 80-minute set that incorporated fan favorites such as “Machine Gun,” “Alison,” and “When the Sun Hits,” Slowdive proved that they hadn’t lost a step after a two-decade hiatus. Each member of the band was precise on his or her instrument, rarely missing a stroke. The band had been on a massive tour this past year playing festivals such as Primavera Sound, ATP Iceland, Pitchfork, and FYF Fest, while selling out the majority of their smaller theater gatherings along the way.
Lead vocalist and guitarist Rachel Goswell remarked throughout the set “I love this band” and “Gosh, I love guitars.” Both received a scream of approval from the crowd, and for good reason. Any questions why Slowdive felt compelled to embark on this tour so far removed from their creative process were answered and we were reminded again and again throughout Slowdive’s performance that these were humble people doing what they genuinely love to do.
And the audiences loved it too. These guys really know how to put on a top-notch performance, contrary to their byname as a “shoegaze” act. They don’t run around the stage, trying to give the audience more than what their music offers because they simply don’t need to. It’s no wonder they love performing, or that their shows are dependably packed.
Yet their strongest moments as a live act were the ones that had the least to do with the records that Slowdive released in their prime. Seldom throughout the show the band melted into a blissful, and relentlessly loud, jam session that built and built until our ribcages bounced with the weighty, insistent bass line of Nick Chaplin. In these moments, the packed house would disappear, leaving only the sound of a tidal wash of guitar and drums pounding into your ears. It was sensory distortion at its greatest profundity, seemingly exposing the anguish and trouble that forced frontman Neil Halstead to write these songs in the first place.
In many ways, the lyrics of Slowdive’s work fit more appropriately with their modern selves than their energetic youths, which was both interesting and slightly disorienting, in that the band seemed to have a better understanding of time than we did. The stirring encore performance of “40 Days” was the perfect ending to the night; a band favorite, but it was the crowd who went ballistic. Rachel Goswell and co. couldn’t help but smile.
Leaving the theater it occurred to me that these adulating fans might never Slowdive again. If so, the band certainly gave a thrilling final showing. This extensive tour felt like a victory lap for these band members, who are all over 40 now, though maybe they have been inspired them to go back to the creative process, in which case we may very well be in for more Slowdive material. Maybe not.
Either way, Saturday made important memories for much of the audience at The Warfield and, in the musical world, memorability is everything.
Article by Darius Kay