Live Music + Gig Reviews

J Spaceman @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

23 October 2006

Last year, Jason Pierce, leader of Spiritualized and once part of Spacemen3, was hospitalised with periorbital cellulitis and bilateral pneumonia which almostkilled him. Looking his usual gloomy self as he shuffled on, with his mumbled”thank you” in acknowledgement of the rapturous applause of several hundred seatedworshippers, and sitting, as always, at a bashful ninety degrees to the audience andoff-centre stage, it was hard to tell.

Having had what audience remained supercooled by support act Lupen Crook, a talented twelve-string guitarist who produced musicthat could be best described either as Tourettes Folk or Suicidal Soul, Pierce hadlittle to do but lean into the microphone and sing the words of manchild DanielJohnston to have the audience’s collective heart beating with ecstatic affection.

The last time I saw Spiritualized, Pierce was, as far as I could tell, broke.Sure, he had the light show, but it seemed to me that, having been dropped by Aristaafter the brilliant but commercially unsuccessful Let It Come Down and being reduced torecording a patchy rock n’ roll record, Amazing Grace, the days of performing withthe classical and gospel accompaniments that filled places like the Royal Albert Hallwith magic were over for good.

However, the early signs are that Pierce is rebuilding,and in this first stage, joined on acoustic guitar by a string quartet, a three-voicegospel choir and a solitary Fender Rhodes, he restored some of the glorious fragility ofhis past outings to the obvious pleasure of all.

Pierce is at his best when his cracked, repenter’s monotone that yearns forsalvation, mingles with its platonic version – the gospel singers and the baroque tranceof the stringed instruments. Thus, this “Acoustic Mainline” presentation, while notnecessarily showcasing all his best work, was the most satisfying version ofSpiritualized that does not bear its name for a few years. A superb version ofSpacemen 3’s Hey Man, Ladies and Gentlemen… (with that “banned”lyric) and what sounds very much like a new song, Soul on Fire, reminded everyone howgood our modern-day Robert Johnson can sound.

I have a worry, however. I worry that his forthcoming album is going to repeat themistake of his last, where he seemed to have run out of ideas. On Amazing Grace, gonewas the witty, poignant lyricism of previous work (the ideal-real call-response of ThinkI’m in Love a shining example), swapped with unimaginative rhyming couplets, often thesign of an exhausted imagination (see Lord Let It Rain On Me for details).

My fear is founded in Pierce’s refusal to stop playing the sinner in music whileapparently cleaning up in every other area of his life. It gets harder to believe that”little J’s a fucked boy” when he’s pushing 40 and married with a kid. Even JohnnyCash managed to cheer up and clean up for a bit, although whether we want Piercehosting variety shows on national TV is another matter.

While we wouldn’t want him to lose his muse like Lennon, besotted by wife and child, he seems to be hanging on to a public image that is increasingly divorced from reality – and this may be why hiswork has suffered.

For tonight, though, with this beautiful performance, I’m prepared to forgive and havefaith. We all like our heroes to stay the same, but he’s not a soap-opera character – andthere is always the question of whether he’s ever going to own up to having beenredeemed. When he closes, as he so often does, with O Happy Day, you neverquite believe him, and maybe that’s the point.

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J Spaceman @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London