By Hollister Dixon
The relationship between time and music is a very strange one. Given enough time, any band can find their moment in the sun, and build up enough of a fanbase to make a reunion a viable idea; or, as Autumn Andel put it succinctly in her review of Slowdive’s performance: “Only time is the most reliable critic.” In the case of Slowdive, time has been incredibly kind. So, for those who weren’t aware of the band’s past, here’s a quick history lesson: Slowdive began in 1989, got a chance to put out three albums (’91’s Just For a Day, ’93’s Souvlaki, and ’95’s Pygmalion), and got screwed over by their US label (SBK records, who pushed back releases and pulled funding for tours) on several occasions. The records failed to sell, and reviews ranged from saying Souvlaki would “undoubtedly go down in industry history as one of the laziest ever”, to statements like “This record is a soulless void[…] I would rather drown choking in a bath full of porridge than ever listen to it again”. The band broke up in 1995, not long after Creation Records dropped them due to Pygmalion failing commercially. Really, I can’t blame them, and it’s a wonder they ever looked back after everything.
That should have been the end. But, thanks to the passage of time, and the invent of the internet, Slowdive found themselves a following. Which is how we get from a failed shoegaze band from Reading to a show-stopping, sold-out show playing behemoths. Though tastes may change, a great record will always be a great record, and a great band will always be a great band. But, we’ll get back to that great band in a moment.
It’s no secret that I hold Low very, very dear to my heart. Low operate on a similar, emotionally-gripping level as Slowdive, though the latter accomplishes this with walls of sound, whereas Low manages this in a calm, calculated way. The biggest problem, of course, is that their sound is best suited for small, intimate rooms. This is a band that, in their early days, would deliberately turn their instruments down while playing, and to this day, drummer/singer Mimi Parker still favors playing with brushes over drumsticks. In the years since, they’ve gotten better at making noise (they are masters of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, though they have built on their aesthetic masterfully since I Could Live in Hope), but it’s still in a way that, sadly, fails to fill up a room the size of the Crystal Ballroom (or the Aladdin Theater, where I last saw them, for that matter). The problem here is two-fold: the band’s sound fails to fill up the room like it really should, and because of this, every single conversation being had by the audience is perfectly audible. This did not, however, stop me from enjoying the band’s set, which made me want to listen to Things We Lost in the Fire standout “Dinosaur Act” on repeat for days, and reminded me that I cannot miss their next headlining show.
So, let’s get some things out of the way, before we get into the meat and bones of Slowdive‘s performance: it was, unquestionably, the very best reunion show I’ve ever seen. Reunion shows are something I have a strong love for, because often times, the reverence in the room is as awe-inspiring as the music itself. I’ve seen a lot of good ones (Slint come to mind – more on them in a moment – as do Pavement and Neutral Milk Hotel), but I’ve also seen some that just can’t match up to the image you get in your head. Arya Imig (my dear cohost) and I, after the afterglow had subsided, looked at last year’s Mazzy Star performance and this year’s Slint performance as examples of how these shows can go wrong; in Mazzy Star’s case, it felt like the band were going through the motions in a big way, and while they sounded technically good, it was clear that no joy was coming from the stage. In Slint’s case, the band seemed to enjoy what they were doing, but it never quite felt like we were watching the titans we knew, but rather, just another band – and the crowd seemed to feel that way as well. You want a band that’s aware of their legacy, and willing to build on it (Guided by Voices), instead of just settling for exploiting it (Pixies).
Slowdive did nothing to pretend they were “just another band”, though it’s hard to gauge whether or not they fully understand the impact they’ve had on people’s lives; this is a band that didn’t think They walked onstage to a song by their old producer Brian Eno, with frontwoman Rachel Goswell bedecked in translucent red platform heels topped with cherries. They smiled brightly as the crowd screamed their heads off, and launched straight into the two tracks from their debut EP. Hell, they smiled a lot during the entire performance, most of which occupied the face of drummer Simon Scott, who looked almost distractingly happy throughout the evening. The setlist relied heavily on tracks from Souvlaki, and though this may have annoyed die-hards who wanted a few more tracks from Just For a Day and Pygmalion, it’s hard to imagine anybody being disappointed by all of the songs they played. With each new song, the crowd’s rapt attention was renewed with excited cheers and screams, a pattern which culminated in a small burst of hysteria when Goswell introduced Souvlaki opener “Alison”. Even if the band hadn’t kept my attention (which, they did, and would have had it longer if they’d wanted to keep going all night), it would have been enough to see the Ballroom so reverent for so long.
The band’s set concluded with a brilliant, massive cover of Syd Barrett’s “Golden Hair”, which afforded Goswell the opportunity to let the boys in the band do their thing for a few minutes, leaving the stage to get a small breather. The whole band came back for a rapturous performance of Pygmalion opener “Rutti” and Souvlaki‘s “40 Days”, and left for the final time amidst a beautiful wave of reverb that rang out long enough that a lot of people seemed unsure about leaving.
20 years after their demise, Slowdive managed to make every early-90s rock critic look absolutely foolish, and put on a show good enough to justify not only their existence, but the existence of their whole genre. It’s very rare to come across a performance that feels truly life-affirming. It’s even more rare to walk out of a show wishing you could live in those moments for the rest of your life. Slowdive managed to do both of those those things, and more. All we can do now is hope the love they’ve received this year is enough to keep them going again for a long time.