The last time I saw Spiritualized was back in 2002 at the Beacon Theater. It was all laser-guided starbursts, seizure strobe lights and hypno feedback. Not to mention a healthy pillowing of rock-fog throughout; basically full on space madness. It was fantastic fun, and the ex-Spacemen 3 singer Jason Pierce seemed to revel in the psych-lunacy of it all. Well, a lot has happened to Pierce since then, namely that the guy pretty much died (twice!) from pneumonia and tissue damage. He's come back from that white light with more lucidity, re-working and performing music that now fully embraces the gospel nature of his songwriting. For the past year or so, Spiritualized has toured under the "Acoustic Mainlines" tag (a pun off the "Electric Mainline" track), with a healthy dose of ballads and old classics on the set list. At the famed Apollo Theater on 125th street last Friday, Pierce shuffled onto stage accompanied only by his Spiritualized keyboard player, and backing them, a nine-piece string section and choir. The combination of Pierce's storied musical past and his recent brush with death makes for a dramatic premise for sure, and I was curious to see how it would unfold.
"Sitting On Fire," a new track, started things off, and the gentle swell of the song set the tone for the rest of the show. Fifteen minutes later, he played Daniel Johnston's "True Love Will Find You In The End," which proved to be one of the more majestic moments of the night. Of course there were the Spacemen 3 jams, as he played "Walking With Jesus," "Amen," and "Lord Can You Hear Me." The middle of the set had "Stop Your Crying" going into "All Of My Tears." The best song of the night was "Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space," the first track off of Spiritualized's seminal album of the same name. As the song wound down, the choir started phrasing parts of Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling In Love" into the mix. And there were more than a few appreciative outbursts after he finished "I Think I'm In Love." One of the best things about Spiritualized's music is the sense of wormhole-like possibilities in its sonic excess, with all of it going up, up and up, spiritually. With that gone, what you have are beautifully tender, rapturous ballads about the stuff you want to hear in love songs-confusion, humility and epiphanies.
With no sci-fi lightshow or Tolex walls of feedback to be found anywhere, Pierce seemed almost timid, as the setup was stripped down to just an acoustic guitar and keyboard. While Spiritualized's drug-soaked laser rock does well to gloss over the gospel themes in their arrangements at times, their acoustic versions reveal just how emotionally rich they are, both lyrically and musically. Pierce's voice was never the selling point for his projects, and it seemed a little jarring to hear him singing without the reverb cranked or sheets of guitar fuzz buzzing over it. The brilliant backup singers revealed Pierce's vocal deficiencies even more, but in a way this is what is intended with the whole "acoustic mainline"-a man exposed, trying to connect with something. The starkness might've been more than he originally intended though, as Pierce sat with his profile facing the crowd and sunglasses on for the entire set, with hecklers chirping for him to take them off more than once ("Jason, take off the sunnies!"). Pierce largely ignored the taunts, projecting not arrogance so much as reticence.
After watching Pierce for nearly two hours, it still wasn't completely clear to me as to whether he sees his time now as an afterlife. His heart stopped back on that hospital bed in 2005 and was declared dead for a brief moment, and he surfaced from that experience both frail and deplete. The Acoustic Mainline gigs are obviously a result of Pierce reevaluating both his life and his approach to his craft, but who can argue that he wasn't obsessed with mortality even before the close-call deathbed. For a musician who basically wants only to write about the big picture, what did that (almost) final curtain call conjure up? As the performance ended, Pierce stood and applauded the crowd as well as the musicians at length. Yes, there was gratitude (for everything I imagine), but more affecting at that moment was the vulnerability of one of the more unique poets in contemporary music. Good health is sanctuary. Sometimes, it's simple.
Photo gallery from Gabriel Kuo