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25 September 2012

Live Show Review: Neil Halstead in Venice Beach, CA. August 5, 2012.

Live Show Review:
An Intimate Evening with
Neil Halstead   

Part One

Performance Date:

5 August 2012
Reviewed by: Dave Milewski
Mollusk Surf Shop, Venice Beach, CA

Mr. Neil Halstead, what can be said about him…here is a man who seemingly effortlessly and unknowingly revolutionized an entire genre of music, which came to be known as the “shoegaze” genre. Defining the ‘shoegaze’ genre is something that people still argue about frequently; what “is” versus what “isn’t” shoegaze, deemed as such by the ‘definition’ of the genre (which no one can agree upon). Depending on where you are from or what side you wish to take as far as ‘what that word means’, it would not do him justice to stereotype all of his creations into a single genre.

Here’s the scene: it’s roughly 6 pm on a beautiful California summer evening and I am driving towards the beach. The sun begins to set as the tired and weary surfers make their way home, but I am on my way to see Neil Halstead, someone who has influenced myself, as well as so many others, to play the guitar and to give birth to lyrics, notes, and collections of sound, all stacked up in neat fuzzy walls of reverberation.

Entering into Mollusk Surf Shop in Venice Beach, there are about 10-12 people standing outside the building, talking to other locals, smoking cigarettes and enjoying the scenery. On first impression, I immediately think that I’m in over my head and the place is completely filled to capacity, thus pushing people out the door. However, I walk inside and notice a nice little surf establishment located just a few blocks from the California coastline. Inside are various surfboards, books, CDs, ornaments, and arrangements in a neat little order.

Above are two ceiling fans circling calmly and coolly; the people milling about inside the store behaved in a similar fashion. All along the inside perimeter is a collection of people from various decades, ages, and places. There would be no way to tell if any of these people were  locals, fans, ‘mega fans’, those having gone out on a Sunday evening to enjoy life, musicians, or the wholly uncategorizable. The merchandise is neatly placed; along with the decorations and inhabitants, the whole shop really gives off a relaxing vibe, much like the music that would soon be heard.

I saw many people at this show who, upon first glance, were those lucky enough to be around in the time when Slowdive was at their peak. A time when they were still a band, touring the world, and releasing their material over the airwaves, speakers, and headphones to so many people. I saw many children whose ages didn’t reach into the double digits, as well as their parents who had brought them to the event. I wish I had been lucky enough to have my parents bring me to a Genesis event when I was that young; to be so small and watch in such awe as one of my biggest musical influences performs before me…

To be consciously aware of being in the same room with a musician who has influenced other people, musicians, and myself was something inexplicable; these words which you are reading and the video capture is still not enough to give you a true account of what happened at Mollusk Surf Shop; it’s truly only left in the memory of those who were in attendance that night. However you want to put it, there was no way to neatly label the audience that was there that night. It was people of all ages, coming from all different facets of life; they knew who Neil was and had been called to assembly because of his influence on the world - which was something amazing to be a part of.

In just that one hour of his performance, Mr. Halstead took us on a journey through solo material (some of which was just released September 11, 2012 on his brand new album, Palindrome Hunches, via Brushfire Records), Mojave 3, and Slowdive tracks. He was also accompanied by two other fantastic musicians, Ben Knight and “Farmer” Dave Scher, members of the band Beachwood Sparks, whom (according to Mr. Halstead), had never performed with each other prior to the event. When Neil comes onstage he is as cool and calm as his surroundings. He is dressed in jeans, sneakers, t-shirt and a green plaid over shirt; everything matching and reflecting the Venice Beach weather and style of Neil’s music.

(Video 1)

(Video 2) Neil introduces himself to the crowd and quickly starts playing his first track, “Tied to You”, which is from his new album, Palindrome Hunches.

Next, he tunes his guitar by ear (classy as all fuck) and starts playing the beginnings of his track, “Digging Shelters”, but stops quickly after a few seconds because he mentions he can’t do it. The crowd laughs (as does Neil); he pauses and then starts playing “Full Moon Rising” which was a HUGE highlight for the night.

You can see the raw, human emotion and pure drive he possesses in this track; how he effortlessly strums the strings to driving resonance and makes the people in the audience quiet down and stand in wonder, taking in everything in like a wave. As he finishes this one, the crowd gives a congratulatory wave of applause and whistles; he then begins to prepare himself for the next track as he speaks about the difference between California and Dallas, Texas (where he had performed his previous show), where it was far too hot. A fan in the audience offers him some support and everyone laughs.

For the third track, he tells us he is going to perform a Mojave 3 track; this is acknowledged by support and applause. He tells us about the true meaning and nature of the upcoming track, and the audience laughs harder than ever, giving him a couple woo’s and claps while he tunes the guitar in preparation. He starts playing the beginnings of Mojave 3’s “Yer Feet” and captures the attention of the audience instantaneously.

(Video 4) The opening lyrics, “I was drunk when I met you and I was drunk when you walked out the door,” couldn’t have been more appropriate; the whole night was supported by the Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company (of Buellton, California) offering two varieties of free beer, Davy Brown Ale and Hoppy Poppy IPA (fantastic beer, by the way). Unfortunately, this is the part where my camera overheats and shuts off, so I miss a part of this song. I manage to get it going again right before the last lyrics of “Yer Feet” begin.

(Video 5) You can hear a vocal stutter/break when Neil sings the line, “like a dog that comes when I call,” as if there is a deeper personal meaning to these words that we couldn’t possibly understand; he continues forward. Neil mentions that the acoustic guitar he is using was made by a friend of his who used to “make really bad surfboards, (but) now makes really nice guitars.” Apparently this guitar was also on its very first journey to the United States. A high-pitched voice comes out of the crowd, shouting, “WE LIKE IT!” and it was true; I am in no way a classically trained musician, but the guitar sound was on point for the event.

(Video 6) This next part marks the point when Ben Knight and “Farmer” Dave Scher of Beachwood Sparks join Neil Halstead onstage to perform Mojave 3’s “Who Do You Love.” After a bit of laughter, they take the stage and begin the performance, using an organ, vintage Fender Telecaster guitar, and a beautiful and fantastic assortment of instrument fx pedals.

(Video 7) Camera flashes erupt and the musicians’ expressions become dueling “guitar faces.” A female acquaintance of Beachwood Sparks sits atop an amplifier, assisting with the tremolo effects as everyone is singing and playing and performing to their heart’s content. Everyone, both band and audience, is having a good time… all is well. It ends too soon and Neil offers his gratitude to the tremolo assistant. The band starts playing Neil’s track “Seasons” from the Sleeping on Roads LP. Using the voice box/hose, some absolutely BEAUTIFUL sounds are created. At this point Neil modestly claims, “We have never together played before,” followed by laughter from the crowd and band alike.

(Video 8) Neil is then left by himself to play by Mojave 3’s, “In Love with a View,” while Beachwood Sparks take a break. It seems Neil may be assisted by Farmer Dave Scher on pedals/speaker effects, as he can be seen crouching down behind the organ and looking at Neil as he plays. Neil begins the track and sneaks in the lyric “answer the phone!” as the store phone rings in the background; he laughs then continues to sing.

(Video 9) Spacey effects come back in as Farmer Dave Scher assists, beautifully/effortlessly using a PEDAL STEEL (a slide guitar), which is a fantastic proxy for the shoegaze-ey walls of sound. I have never seen another band so successfully employ these tactics. If you can see from the videos, many people in the audience began to sit or lay down on the carpet, as if Neil was acting as a fantastic storyteller for them. At the end, he appears to say “beautiful story” which was perfect; it faithfully reflected the ambience of his lyrics, vocals, audience, and atmosphere of the building. The meaning of the song title, “In Love with a View,” was truly captured in every way possible as he performed this one.

Next he does another ‘almost’ solo track, as Farmer Dave Scher once again assists him from under the organ, doing something with the pedals. As he finishes to the roar of applause, Neil tells us the song was off the previous record, Oh! Mighty Engine. He then asks the crowd if they “are doing alright” and quickly begins to play the title track of the aforementioned LP.

(Video 10) The chattering of the crowd turns to silence as the song progresses, as if the lyrics begin to gain greater strength. A heaviness falls upon the crowd, but that soon becomes laughter when a beer is brought to Neil by a person crawling along the floor. After a large amount of applause, Neil grabs his harmonica and mentions it will be “in D” and plays his track “Wittgenstein's Arm” which is also from the brand new album, Palindrome Hunches.

(Video 11) It was really nice to hear the harmonica complimenting the guitar sounds on this one. Many tracks on his albums employ the use of pianos, guitars, harmonica, and variety of other instruments; tonight he has done a very good job capturing the essence of the recorded tracks in a live setting. A photographer walks around snapping pictures of the audience and of Neil as he sings. He once again is congratulated and acknowledged with claps and camera flashes while he invites Ben Knight and Farmer Dave Scher back onstage to play Mojave 3’s “Some Kinda Angel” with him.

(Video 12) More excitement and frequent camera flashes begin to fill the store as Ben and Neil sing as a duet. Farmer Dave Scher plays the keys and often presses switches on the Line 6 DL-4 set up atop the organ. The exhilaration is beginning to reach an apex at this point. Everyone in the band is really getting into it; upon finishing the song, the band receives some of the loudest applause of the night. Neil smiles and seems to say to Ben, “We need to learn some more songs over spring.”

(Video 13) The best part comes next as Neil Halstead mentions the band will be attempting to play some Slowdive songs together, using the pedal steel/slide guitar, a Fender Telecaster, Neil’s acoustic guitar and an array of fx pedals. As they tune their instruments, the crowd’s anticipation is palpable as the opening lyrics to “40 Days” come in, “Forty days and I miss you/ I’m so high that I’ve lost my mind…”

The pedal steel did some FANTASTIC representations of the old Slowdive sound, along with the Telecaster. This was the merging of the ‘old’ sound with the ‘new’; Neil was totally getting into the singing while letting Beachwood Sparks take care of the “shoegazing” element of the track. As they end, Neil and Farmer Dave Scher begin to play Slowdive’s “Alison”; a slight delay in the pedal steel brings a laugh out of Neil as he continues to sing, joined by Ben Knight on guitar.

It was funny and really cool to see Ben Knight staring/gazing at the floor while getting into the guitar. At the point of the solo, all three members of the band can clearly be seen getting into their parts of the performance. As they end, more congratulatory applause is given as Neil Halstead thanks Ben Knight and “Farmer” Dave Scher. He goes on to say he’s about to play his last track of the set, “Spin the Bottle”, from the new album; lastly, he tells us he will be back in October.

(Video 15) As Neil Halstead finishes playing the final notes, he is congratulated one last time by rousing applause and whistles. Even a small dog is excitedly wagging its tail; the dog happily walks right up to Neil, who of course pets it, being the kind soul that he is!

(Video 16) Neil said goodbye and the crowd began to slowly exit the store. Neil was seen walking around, talking to audience members, shaking hands, thanking the band, and taking pictures with fans. Finally it was my turn to talk with him, and things got rather interesting…


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