“Good Evening. We played in this town six years ago, and it almost broke us.” Welcome. Come one,come all ye masses; go hither into the Luminaire’s dark and wondrous cavern, and bear witness tothe second coming of Stars Of The Lid.
‘Ambient’ bands don’t, in general, tour. In an ideal world we’d be able to up sticks and go tothem, studying them in situ like funky anthropologists. Instead, they have to lug their oftensupremely complicated setups from venue to venue, trying to recreate perfect sounds in imperfectsurroundings like Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. It’s a bitch, frankly, but it’s a set of circumstancesunlikely to change anytime soon, and it certainly doesn’t put the punters off, either, becausetonight the Luminaire is packed to saturation with eager gig-goers straining at the leash for a bitof hot live ambience.
Openers Rameses III do well to set the tone for the rest of the evening, playing a single, longtrack of atmospheric drones and folksy acoustic guitar. Sure, it’s a little derivative, but it’shard to seriously quibble when the results are so lovely – what, are you going to complain aboutpuppies, sunny days and vodka martinis being ‘a bit derivative’ because ‘everyone likes them too’?No. You’re going to lie back, and let the quiet waves wash over you, because that’s pretty much whateveryone at the Luminaire did.
But just when everyone’s mood was in a good place, in came Boduf Songs to let us down, ungently.A mixture of soft vocals, plucked guitars and serious lyrics, Mat Sweet’s Boduf Songs project soundsa hell of a lot better on record than it does live.
There are only a smattering of performers who are both introverted and yet paradoxicallycharismatic enough to get away with it, and sadly Sweet just isn’t one of these. Flanked by twoother musicians on guitars and various other bits and bobs, he starts out gloomy and doesn’t getmuch better. His choice of covers didn’t really do him any favours, either: as the familiar lines toLeonard Cohen‘s First, We Take Manhattan ring out, looks are exchanged around the room.Laughing Len always managed to sound both sad and self-mocking; Boduf, sadly, are just downrightsad.
But there was really only one reason for most of the crowd to be here tonight – the chance tofinally catch Stars of the Lid, Adam Wiltzie and Brian McBride’s transcontinental project, live. Asyou may have guessed from Wiltzie’s opening address to the audience from the first paragraph above,SOTL haven’t exactly been lucky in their previous trips to Blighty. Their last visit in 2001/02resulted in some pretty spectacular tour woes, including power cuts and exploding PAs – notforgetting the duo’s tendency to electrocute themselves onstage as an encore. Not pretty.
This time, though, there are no unpleasant surprises. Wiltzie and McBride stand at either side ofthe stage, guitars in hand and blinking boxes in front, flanking their female string trio likeundernourished bookends. There is a noticeable intake of breath amongst my fellow gig-goers as themusicians’ raise their instruments to start, but as the first, tentative washes of Mulholland from2001’s The Tired Sounds of… drift towards the audience like a puffy, friendly cloud, any pastdisappointments are quickly forgotten. And by the time the familiar swells of Requiem For DyingMothers start up, its infinitely sad string melody played to perfection, there is the audible ‘pop’of jaws meeting floors.
Some of the pleasures of seeing this kind of music played live comes from the feeling ofincredulity that it conjures in the listener. Seeing two men with guitars (and, alright, a fewstrings) recreate what on record sounds like massed armies of synths and effects can be downrightawe-inspiring. The addition of the trio is beneficial – not just for their beautiful playing – butin providing a visuomotor link between sound and action. There is little mashing at keyboards orbending of strings from Wiltzie and McBride, who are content to exchange quizzical looks across theheads of the strings, seemingly conjuring their music from thin air.
Inevitably, some of the detail of the records are lost in the venue’s acoustics, but that’s notthe Luminaire’s fault: in an ideal world we’d have been hearing this on the South Bank, but nevermind. They keep the best for last, though, ending with – and I’m not really sure if this is theright term – a ‘cover’ of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s Fratres. It’s a bold, audacious move,light years away from the bloated treatment that classical music usually gets from popular music –ELP’s version of Fanfare for the Common Man, for example.
The piece ends the show as a challenge to those that might question the ability of contemporarymusic to inspire the same heights of emotion in the listener that Pärt’s music does. On the night,Fratres sounded like an original SOTL composition: simple, emotive, memorable, and achinglybeautiful. A fitting end to an unique night.