Words and Photos by @Ben_Stas
Standing outside Boston’s House of Blues on a rainy November night, mere feet from a sign bearing the words “TODAY: MY BLOODY VALENTINE,” it still didn’t quite feel real. MBV, a legendary band who have sparingly doled out live shows and teased new music since their 2008 reunion, finally came through and delivered a brand new record and a proper North American tour in 2013. The band’s arrival in our own fair city felt like a minor miracle; a surreal treat for a few thousand fans who thought they’d never experience My Bloody Valentine’s eardrum-shattering glory for themselves. The course of the evening was one of dizzying anticipation and a slight anxiety toward what we were about to be subjected to. MBV is undeniably a band with a reputation, and that reputation is primarily for being one of the loudest live bands of all time. Music geeks speak in hushed tones about the walls of amplifiers and 10-20 minute “Holocaust” drone sections that close out every set. Signs posted around the House of Blues urging concertgoers to take and use the earplugs being handed out by every security guard in sight only served to reinforce the myths. One hesitates to even call them “myths,” however, when they largely turn out to be true. Upon entering HoB’s cavernous music hall, one’s eyes were immediately drawn to the imposing wedge-shaped stack of amps that dominated the right side of the stage and dwarfed most of the people who walked by it during pre-show setup. And that monster only accounted for one member’s setup. MBV were not messing around.
Opening act Dumb Numbers took the stage at 8 p.m. sharp, to the mild confusion of audience members who had assumed there was no opener. The quartet, headed by L.A. musician Adam Harding and featuring Dinosaur Jr.’s Murph on drums, pounded through a set of droning, smoky stoner rock that drew surprisingly positive reactions under the circumstances. As Dumb Numbers finished their set and broke down their gear, the enormous white screen at the rear of the stage began to glow with hazy blue projections. The letters “m b v” gradually materialized in bright pink, floating there to tease us for just a little while longer.
My Bloody Valentine took the stage just after 9, and preceded to blow minds for nearly two hours. They started off slow, with the droning “Sometimes” from shoegaze touchstone Loveless. Guitarist/mastermind Kevin Shields strummed an acoustic guitar that couldn’t have sounded any less like one in mechanically precise unison with bandmates Colm Ó Cíosóig and Bilinda Butcher. The sound was thick and enveloping; the perfect way to pull the crowd into MBV’s world.
The 18-song setlist leaned most heavily on Loveless material, but also brought out 4 tracks from m b v, a few from the band’s 1988 full-length Isn’t Anything and a handful of their more beloved EP cuts in a well-paced distribution. Given the band’s propensity for studio perfectionism, it was no surprise that these songs sounded as great as they did live. Shields, who was unsurprisingly the owner of the right-stage amplifier mountain, constantly switched guitars and tweaked his settings in pursuit of perfect tone. The effort paid off. From his and Butcher’s roaring guitars to Cíosóig’s tight drumming and bassist Debbie Googe’s thundering low-end (along with the subtler contributions of touring member Jen Marco), everything sounded perfectly in harmony. Even Shields and Butcher’s breathy vocals could be made out at just the right place in the mix.
The band isn’t huge on stage presence. Shields offered us a word here and there, but Butcher silently floated on the left side of the stage like an ageless angel from a distant planet, and the rest of the band focused steadfastly on their instruments. Wisely, they brought along some spacey, colorful projections, tuned to suit the mood of each song, to accompany them throughout the set. It’s often said that Loveless’ blurry, neon-pink sleeve is one of the album art world’s finest examples of visuals mirroring sound, and these projections felt like someone taking that general idea and running with it for all 18 songs. Stage lights were reduced to the occasional flash of a strobe which, combined with the psychedelic imagery and massive volume of sound, sometimes sent the show into full sensory overload mode.
True to their reputation, My Bloody Valentine were indeed very, very loud. It wasn’t quite sickness inducing, as some have suggested, or even uncomfortable most of the time, but it was still up there with the top five loudest things I’ve experienced in my lifetime. The infamous “Holocaust Section” of the set-closing “You Made Me Realize,” which roared on for roughly eight minutes of sustained feedback, rattled bodies in a way that I can only assume being strapped to the bottom of a jet engine might. My own earplugs came out during that song’s final push, and earlier during mammoth Loveless opener “Only Shallow,” and my hearing emerged largely unscathed. Your results may vary. Heads were spinning when it was all over. The feeling was a combination of not wanting it to end and still being amazed that it happened in the first place. Bands of mythic status will do that to you. In the case of My Bloody Valentine, finally seeing them live simply reinforced that status. Their shows are forever a big deal simply because they’re that good. “Magical” might be a hackneyed way of describing a concert experience, but sometimes a cliché really does say it best.
MBV 11/7/13 Setlist:
I Only Said
When You Sleep
You Never Should
Cigarette in Your Bed
Come in Alone
Nothing Much to Lose
Who Sees You
To Here Knows When
Feed Me With Your Kiss
You Made Me Realise