I’ve always looked upon bands touring specific albums from their back catalogues with suspicion. A couple of years ago, I had the chance to see Mercury Rev doing Deserter’s Songs, but even though I’ve been a huge fan of the band for a long time I stayed away. The Pixies — another one of my favourite bands — famously toured Doolittle for two years solid; I didn’t rush out to see them either when they came to Madrid. A band that is so patently living off its past glories that it is reduced to touring a single album from its heyday smacks of laziness, poverty of imagination and the death of creativity — cashing in even. A band that advertises the fact that they’re only going to play a set of songs from a specific album and in the exact sequence in which they occur on the album is going for the easy sell. It’s like saying “Our concert is going to do exactly what it says on the tin.” Adiós that frisson of mystery and excitement at the unknown that one should have when one goes to a gig, the heady pre-show speculation about “will they play this song or that one; will the concert go down this road or that”. The single-album tour is an explicit acknowledgement from a band that they have passed their creative peak, that they’ve lost their spark, that they’ve nothing new to offer the fan beyond note-perfect karaoke. Hell, even the Rolling Stones or U2 have never toured on that premise, preferring instead to pretend that the world tour they go on every three or four years is all about their “exciting new material”. But at least there is some effort made to pull the wool over our eyes and trick us into believing that there’s still life in the old beast yet.
So what, then, about a guy like Neil Halstead doing a ten-date tour of Spain playing songs from The Velvet Underground & Nico’s eponymous album? For over twenty years, whether in the guise of Slowdive or Mojave 3 frontman or as a solo artist, Halstead has consistently produced startling, heartfelt and original material. Is he a busted flush now, reduced to touring a decades-old album from a band more than half of whose members have (if we include Nico as a member), in the words of Monty Python, “run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible”? What, other than the need to make a few bucks and the fact that one’s own music isn’t drawing the crowds (this isn’t true, by the way; Halstead visits Spain regularly and has a large following here), would motivate one to take the Banana Album on an Iberian jaunt?
Halstead answered my question a couple of songs in.
“These songs are just so much fun to play!” he told the crowd, a huge grin on his face.
So, a ten date tour of Spain, having fun playing The Velvet Underground & Nico. A working holiday with your mates. Sure, wouldn’t I love to do the same myself?
OK, let me set the record straight: Halstead and Co. — a five piece, including him, and consisting of drums (Mojave 3’s Ian McCutcheon), bass, keyboard (support artist, Kezia, who by the way, was an excellent warmer-upper) and two electric guitars — were not approaching this from the point of view of a tribute band. For starters, they came out dressed in normal, indie band clobber; not a glimpse of High Sixties leather or suede gear and not a winkle-picker between the lot of them. No Lou Reed sunglasses or Sterling Morrison pudding-bowl haircuts. Halstead took all lead vocals and did so in his own voice. There was no cheesy, robotic German accent for Nico’s songs or an attempt to reproduce the talking–singing of Lou Reed. And they played the songs in a manner that reflected their status as seasoned musicians with long careers of their own behind them. These were not sterile, imitative covers; these were interpretations — not radical interpretations, but respectful, subtle re-workings with far more of each musician’s personality and musical background going into their parts than the context of a moribund tribute act would sanction.
Thinking about it, there are probably few people in the world as qualified to play a bunch of Velvet Underground songs in an interesting way than Neil Halstead. Slowdive, one of the most sonically innovative bands of the first half of the ’90s — droney but tuneful at the same time — were keeping alive a long tradition in pop music that the Velvets kick-started. They played with texture and noise and their best moments were a kind of alchemy, where wistful pop tunes emerged out of an almighty swirl of processed, raucous guitar. On the night, there were moments, especially the crescendos of “Venus in Furs”, “Heroin” and “European Son”, where unmistakable strains of Slowdive broke through. It was a marvel to watch Halstead abuse his (jazz) guitar during these moments. The glee with which he frantically strummed, bent strings and proffered his guitar to the amps for feedback probably reflected the fact that he’s spent the best part of two decades not being Slowdive. His post-Slowdive group, Mojave 3, was restrained, alt-country veering towards the folky, and his solo stuff — three albums to date — is quiet, rootsy and minimalist. This other aspect to Halstead’s back-catalogue is what probably allowed him to do such justice to The Velvet Underground & Nico‘s more restrained tracks. “Sunday Morning” was delicate and as beautiful as the first time I heard it. “Femme Fatale” was light-hearted and innocent.
There were a lot of greybeads among the Shôko’s crowd of about six hundred. These Velvet Underground purists, who may have been among the first wave of the group’s fans in Spain, seemed to appreciate Halstead’s approach to the material. I saw a lot of happy faces after “European Son” screeched and clanged to a halt and the lights came up. I for one was in sonic heaven during the concert. As an old shoegazer, I was thrilled to pick up elements of Spacemen 3’s sound from time to time. Ride’s Today Forever-era tremelo and cut up distortion also featured. Whatever equipment in terms of amps and effects pedals they were using, something of the sound that I fell in love with as a teenager suffused much of both guitarists’ output on the night.
A short interlude followed the completion of The Velvet Underground & Nico and then Halstead emerged on his own and treated us to five of his own songs, among which were two of my all-time favourite Mojave 3 songs — “Who Do You Love?” and “In Love With a View”. These fantastic renditions of brilliantly-crafted songs showed that Halstead is far from a busted flush. His voice, his guitar and his songs rooted us to the spot just as effectively as five busy noiseniks and material from the pens of Reed and Cale. After the applause for his final song died down, Halstead, who must have been exhausted, generously appeared front of house to sign autographs and chat with fans. I got to shake his hand and thank him for a great night out and over twenty years of memorable output.