It’s testament to the impact of the groop’s songs over 30 years later that they still sound altogether futuristic, keenly nostalgic and utterly otherworldly
“Let’s begin, shall we?”
Having to stand in an insanely packed room on a cold and wet November night and get through 14 long and disarmingly repetitive tracks before hearing a sped up French Disko might not sound like fun to the casual Stereolab listener, but for us long term ‘groopies’, tonight’s setlist was an absolute crate digger’s dream, and not one of us felt Debord. Some of us even felt an obligation to stump up the hefty cash for those charmingly kitsch yellow beer trays at the merch stand to add to our ‘Lab collection.
Playing a smattering of material from across their admittedly voluminous back catalogue on a tour supporting the career-spanning compilation Pulse Of The Early Brain [Switched On Volume 5], jaws dropped at some of their choices. When Low Fi is announced early on (the title track from an EP put out way back in September 1992) a crowd member close to us gasps and begins frantically announcing “oh my god, they never play this”. Whether or not that statement is true, it’s testament to the impact of these songs over 30 years later that they still sound altogether futuristic, keenly nostalgic and utterly otherworldly.
For us long term converts, it’s hearing beloved tracks like U.H.F. – MFP, Mountain, Super Electric and Harmonium that brings a stream of tears to our eyes, but for the pesky Pitchfork kids its hearing ‘newer’ songs like Miss Modular and Refractions In The Plastic Pulse, from Dots And Loops, back when the band were frequent collaborators with Chicago native John McEntire, that sends them over the edge.
So resonant was that mid ’90s period for Stereolab that the sound engineer for this coastal jaunt is none other than “The Designer” Casey Rice, the man who twiddled the soundboard decks for McEntire’s band Tortoise and got a special thanks for his influence on that group’s magnum opus Millions Now Living Will Never Die. And you can see why Rice is so revered, the levels are set to near perfection. The only fault is a slight muffling on Laetitia’s vocals in the hall, but the crispness of Andy’s drums, the chaotic fervour of Joe’s synths, Tim’s propulsive guitars and Javier’s sweet harmonies make up for any failings of the PA system.
“This is our last song,” Laetitia announces as the band begin Super Electric. “Did you see that ironic smile?” she asks, fully aware that the crowd will softly riot if we don’t get more, and there will be plenty more. But for now it’s as if they’d plugged the whole cosmos into the wall and set it to ‘vibrate’ mode. For a band who pioneered a mellow revolutionary sound, this feels something else, grandiose and monumental.
The thunderous gradations oscillate through the aforementioned French Disko, which let’s be honest we’ve all heard a thousand times now, and push deep into the final number, a rather succinct but devastating take on Simple Headphone Mind, one of two collaborations made with cult folk rockers Nurse With Wound. A decidedly spooky number about insular explorations of the soul with a cheeky tribute thrown in to Art & Language/ The Red Krayola’s iconic frontman Mayo Thompson, it’s the perfect end to a frankly astonishing night. The only way they could possibly have topped what we got would have been with a rip through High Expectations, but we live in hope we get that next time they perform.
In 1979, Nurse With Wound put out an infamous list of who they felt the most influential musical acts in history were. Most were cult acts that had shunned mainstream adoration in search of purity and sonic truth. If they had written the list 20 years later, you know Stereolab would have been added and had their name put first in bold and then triple underlined.
Before shuffling off to the next stop on their tour Laetitia does a round of introductions, inciting a huge cheer for local boy done good Joseph Watson, and makes a comment about how they wouldn’t mind perhaps playing a new venue locally (the Concorde 2 has become their unofficial home when in town) and the thought of seeing them somewhere larger, more grand, feels mightily appropriate. It seems infinitely possible they could blow the roof off anywhere they played and reveal the stars above.
Stereolab’s UK tour concludes at EartH, London with dates on 2 and 3 December. Full tour dates and further information can be found at stereolab.co.uk