How does rock music behave in a confined space? Or, to put it another way, how does space rock music work in the Purcell Room? Traditionally the most intimate of the Southbank Centre’s musical spaces, the room is usually home to small scale chamber music – but for Meltdown it’s great to see the lights turned off and the music amplified. San Francisco’s Moon Duo are in town at the invitation of Robert Smith – and the mood has to be just right.
Augmented to a trio tonight with drummer John Jeffrey, they are intent on letting their music do the talking. No between-songs banter for them – rather a couple of dislocated sentences, drenched in reverb, triggered by the effects pedal. This keeps an air of mystery between Erik Johnson, Sanae Yamada and their audience, and also works rather well in its aim to keep everyone focussed on the music.
To call them ‘space rock’ would be a bit too restrictive, for there is a freedom about Moon Duo’s music that is instantly appealing, especially when paired with a dazzling light show. Jeffrey is the lynchpin of the sound, while the spectral keyboard sounds from Yamada dance in the middle distance. Both are in thrall to the lead guitar of Johnson, who bends his solos instinctively. Without a bass player Yamada supplies the lower end groove, boosted by the drums.
The attention is drawn to Johnson, his bearded figure in silhouette on the side. All the melody comes from him – and the vocals too. The trio begin with a taut, urgent double from Occult Architecture Vol 1, The Death Set and Cold Fear setting out the sonic template, before older song Sleepwalker builds the tension further. We enjoy White Rose, with its occasional but oblique harmonic twists – the band sweeping all before them in a rich, propulsive tumult of sound. The lights dance, dappled through the smoke.
There is only one criticism – that for an hour or so of music, much of it is spent in two distinct pitch areas, from which it might be good to have a bit more variety. Yet that may have turned out to be a cunning ruse in itself, the contrary argument being that the band are garnering a trance-like state.
And then, just over an hour in, the lights are up and it is suddenly over. New songs Jukebox Babe and No Fun impress, but before we had time to fully digest them the performers are off stage and the lights on. It is a shame, for Moon Duo make the sort of music that once started you never want to finish. Tracks can go on for 15 minutes or more in this setting, with the trio really getting into their collective groove.
Despite the shortfall and sudden return to reality, it proves an immersive hour-and-a-bit spent in the company of three far-out musicians who are releasing an impressive amount of music and backing it up with live performances of real substance. Here it has reached a higher plain, explaining the wide grins on pretty much each of the audience members as we leave. Cosmic rock in confined spaces does work after all.