A couple of indie rock’s elder statesmen held court at the Majestic Theater in Detroit last Thursday. First up was Sonic Boom, co-founder of 1980s psychedelic rock deities Spacemen 3—and arch nemesis of fellow co-founder, Jason Pierce/J. Spaceman, now leader of born again mega-group Spiritualized. While Pierce hires more and more musicians for each album and develops a more state-of-the-art light show for each successive tour, Sonic Boom has been on a far more minimalist path, appearing on this tour with just a guitar-playing sideman, a couple of small keyboards, a drum machine and a small arsenal of effects pedals. As he tweaked and prodded the dials on his various machines to create the perfect sound (not to mention having to contort himself to reach behind him to switch drum machine volume levels mid-song), Sonic Boom visually resembled a bizarro world Dick Tracy character, his square jaw clenched, his impossibly symmetrical bowl haircut shading his eyes, his movements stiff and precise. The gorgeous drones, sonic swirls, and echoing vocals these efforts produced wouldn’t have surprised or displeased fans of any of Sonic Boom’s musical projects, whether they be Spectrum or E.A.R. aficionados, or devotees of Spacemen 3 itself. Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be too many members of these constituencies in the house, since Sonic Boom’s short but entrancing set was nearly drowned out by the din of several hundred conversations.
Dean Wareham has been around so long he’s been in two indie touchstone bands, dream pop heroes Galaxie 500 and his more rock-oriented current outfit, Luna. In their decade of output, Luna have gone through a number of line-up changes, but the current incarnation includes frontman Wareham, long-time guitarist Sean Eden, drummer Lee Wall, and rock boy wet dream Britta Phillips on bass, with a keyboardist added just for this tour. They’ve flirted with mainstream success over the years, and were even on a major label for most of their career until getting dropped by Elektra just before their last album. Luna are back in upper tier indie label territory now, and that’s where the majority of their fans seem to like them.
Luna’s quirky guitar-focused songs and Wareham’s distinctive reedy vocals have made them much imitated but rarely replicated over the years (though, bizarrely enough, Moby’s current single “We Are All Made of Stars” seems to be giving it the old college try), so they really don’t have much to prove anymore. And, if their set on this night was any indication, they know it. Wareham made a big show of how he was phoning this one in, picking up the set list at key points and reading his tour manager’s scripted patter (“Hello Detroit, we are Luna”) and stage instructions (“Say ‘thank you’ with feeling after every song”) aloud for the audience. But even semi-phoned-in Luna is pretty darn good, since the band members are all solid performers and live their songs become much fuller and more dynamic than on record. The guitars were soaring, the bass suitably moody, the keyboards and percussion perfectly balanced, and, aside from a rather awful rendition of “Bonnie and Clyde”, both Wareham and Phillips were in excellent voice. The set list took from nearly all their albums, with a predictable emphasis on the current album Romantica and a not-as-predictable but very welcome emphasis on their 1995 album Penthouse. In fact, virtually all the non-Romantica songs appeared on Luna’s live album from last year, so it’s unlikely any long-time fans were caught off-guard by the selections on this night, though as a sop to them, Wareham did ask for requests at one point. Whether the band actually changed course and played one of the many screamed out titles or just pretended to and continued on with the set list is up for debate—either way the audience was happy, and Wareham’s dry humor in interacting with them, rarely on display in live shows, was amusing to observe.
Before Luna came out, I had briefly surveyed the scene, and had been pretty taken aback. The crowd at this show had to be one of the least stylish I’d ever seen, outside of a Monster Truck rally or Jimmy Buffett look-alike convention. Hawaiian shirts, mullets, fluorescent tank tops, men wearing short-shorts and flip flops—not to be elitist (I’ll never be mistaken for a fashion guru), but who were these people, and why were they there? Once Luna started playing, though, it became apparent that these bewildering fashion victims were there because they loved the band. They called out requests, hooted and hollered at guitar heroics, whistled and screamed their throats raw after every song. Either indie rock has gotten a whole lot more populist since the last time I paid attention, or some of these folks latched on to Luna as their one nod to musical nonconformity at the crest of the band’s hype wave and have held on for dear life ever since. Well, good for them. A world where sandal-wearing frat boys and mullet-haired NASCAR fans know all the words to “Lost in Space” and “Freakin’ and Peakin’” is a definite improvement in my book.