After an afternoon of searching (mostly in pouring rain), I finally located the best music store in Milan -- Serendeepity. They focus mainly on electronic music, particularly house and techno. I flipped through impressively stocked rows of compliation CD's (both new and classic), new releases, and heavily discounted discs, eventually picking up stuff by Conforce, Tiga, Stefan Goldmann, and a few others. I barely scratched the surface of their vinyl stock, because what's the point? I don't have access to my vinyl collection or turntables so why set myself for disappointment by salivating over music I can't buy? Later on that day, I stumbled upon another cool store, Dischi Volanti, completely by accident when I was searching for a place to hide out from the pouring rain while waiting for the aperitivo bars to open. It's a second hand vinyl and CD store that mostly stocks jazz and rock, but they also had a few shelves devoted to experimental, ambient, and industrial music, most of it at least 10-15 years old. I felt transported back in time to a sale at Amoeba or the Record Peddler (RIP) in the 90's.
But the highight of this trip to Milan, musically speaking, was getting to see Spiritualized live for the ninth time on Sunday the 11th. There's nothing to make me feel more aware of the incomprehensible passage of time than the realization that it had been over nine years since I last saw SPZ, or put another way, more time since the most recent show than it took me to see them the first eight times.
Before that was a transcendent set by Roy and the Devil's Motorcycle. First, a couple of quick notes about Italian crowds (or at least about this Italian crowd). The hour of the concert, i.e. what is written on the ticket or in the newspaper, is the time the concert actually starts. And by concert, they mean the main act. If there's one thing I hate about concerts, it's always having to guess at what time to show up based on some combination of band and venue and time that people will decide to show up. In Italy, the listed time corresponds to a realistic start time, and the opening act hits the stage one hour before that. But this meant that Roy and the Devil's Motorcycle had to start shortly after 8 PM, with not more than twenty or thirty people in attendance. In Toronto, nobody would be caught dead within 50 feet of the stage in a mostly empty concert hall. But in Milan, everybody stood up -- no matter where they'd been sitting anywhere in the room -- and walked to the front as soon as the band appeared on stage. How about that, respect shown to the artists who came to entertain them ...
Roy and the Devil's Motorcycle certainly earned it. Their first song was a spot on homage to CCR -- if CCR had been a Krautrock band. I think that's yet another great musical idea that AFAIK nobody had ever thought of ... the world didn't know it needed a Krautrock CCR and how could a band like that be anything but good. Then they started rocking out John Lee Hooker style, with a heavy bluesy twang despite the lack of a bass player, with three guitar players hammering out Spacemen 3-like riffs right down to the uncanny ressemblances to S3's "Suicide".
The key turning point in SPZ's career happened between two legs of the tour in support of "Let It Come Down". Not like anyone realized it at the time. Fans were used to Jason's constant tinkering with the lineup and with live versions of his songs, so the changes didn't really register. But the fall 2001 incarnation of SPZ was still a maximalist space rock outfit, committed to creating the most overwhelming blast of sound possible by augmenting the regular band with singers and brass. It was a pint-sized version of the 100-strong collective that participated in recording "Let It Come Down", if Jason could have taken 100 people on tour with him, he would. Whereas the SPZ that emerged in spring 2002 was a more stripped down ensemble, now minus the brass and all the other bells and whistles, that played crisp Velvet-y rock with the occasional gospel ballad. And in the ten years since then, on every subsequent album and tour, they've entrenched themselves deeper into that mold. It's as if they took ten years to figure out what kind of band they wanted to be, spent the next ten years trying to perfect that sound, and yet judging by Drowned In Sound's recent interview with Jason, he still can't figure out exactly what he wants to do next.
That odd mixture of confidence and uncertainty was clearly evident when they were on stage. The wibbly improv interludes and noise freakouts used to be the glue that held their sets together. Now they feel out of place. This version of the band is too rehearsed, right down to their carefully coordinated choice of stage attire (all the bands members in black at stage left and centre, Jason and the backing singers dressed in white at stage right). I'm not convinced they enjoy jamming at this point in their careers, but they feel obligated to do it as part of the show. Most of the time I found myself wishing they'd stop wasting time and skip to the next song. It was often more interesting for me to hear silence -- silence!! -- between songs, because it was something I'd never experienced at a SPZ concert before. No guitar noodling or "pure phase" drones, just complete silence between songs, like with most other bands!
For the most part, that summarizes the first half of the concert. It was dominated by songs from "Sweet Heart Sweet Light", which according to Jason in the DiS interview, is an album he doesn't listen to and isn't even sure if he likes, partly because he was so miserable when he recorded it. "I Am What I Am", one of my least favourite songs on the album, packs a terrific groove live, which was one of the few surprises from the "Sweet Heart Sweet Light" songs they played. The bass was unfortunately mixed too high for most of their concert set, but this is one case where this sonic annoyance actually helped a song along.
The second half of the concert was like watching a completely different, more focused band. Maybe they needed the first hour to get warmed up. The first new song was a ferociously sludgy one chord blues, something that Jason hasn't played on since S3's "OD Catastrophe". The second new song was the sweetest, most direct love song Jason has ever written (working title seems to be "Perfect Miracle"). It was also more than a bit corny, which is both the principal fault and the primary appeal of the song, i.e. it's so cloying and awkward that you won't be able to stop humming it. It could be a minor hit off the back of a Wes Anderson movie. Anyway, another intriguing surprise.
The final section was a throwback to the SPZ of old, proving that they can flip the switch and turn into the improv-heavy space rock worshippers of years past whenever they want. Incendiary versions of "Take Your Time" and "Electric Mainline" closed the main set, and for the encore, they returned with "Come Down Easy" (!!) and "Smiles". I'm almost certain that they haven't played "Come Down Easy" as Spiritualized before (excepting the handful of shows from earlier on the fall leg of their tour). Looking forward, or looking back, what's next for this band? Jason says he doesn't know, and based on this concert, I believe him completely.
Heading For the Top
I Am What I Am
Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space
So Long You Pretty Things
Take Your Time
Come Down Easy
approx. 2 hrs