I’m not a particularly reverent person when it comes to live music. I come over quizzical in the face of earnest displays of emotion among my fellow concert-goers. I giggle contemptuously at cliched stage banter and tired little tricks trotted out just to please audiences. I scoff at others’ unabashed adoration of heroes whose feet will inevitably turn out to be made of clay.
Mojave 3 are one of the few bands, however, for which I have at times felt genuine, awestruck reverence in a live setting. There’s just something about their beautifully orchestrated, countrified tales of loneliness and heartbreak that hits all my weak spots and turns me into an old softie. So when a woman in the audience cried “I love you Neil” when Mojave 3 took the darkened stage at the Bowery Ballroom, for once I was right there with her. And not just concurring with the adoration for frontman Neil Halstead, but for bassist Rachel Goswell and drummer Ian McCutcheon, and whatever the four other men onstage to play keyboards and steel guitars and other instruments are called too. I was ready to check my critical objectivity and be mesmerized and spellbound for the duration.
Unfortunately, no spells would be cast on this night, unless it was one to make guitar strings break and timings go awry. This was an extraordinarily sloppy show, and for a band that relies heavily on tone and mood, a particularly deadly one. The fuck ups started in nearly from the beginning, as the second number of the night (“Give What You Take”) had to be restarted 20 seconds in after some kind of miscommunication, and were emblematic of what was to come. It’s rather difficult to be captivated when the singer cracks up during a quiet percussive break in a plaintive song like “Battle of the Broken Hearts”, or when the lead guitarist is so out of sync with the rest of the band that he appears to be learning the songs as he goes along.
Much more so than in the past, on this night Mojave 3 seemed like a boys club, with Rachel Goswell there mainly to suffer the antics with an sardonic smile, and to reign things in when they got out of hand with a few well-aimed barbs and reminders of what song they were meant to be playing. With the surfeit of facial hair, loose-fitting trousers, and shambling movements up onstage, the scene sometimes resembled some kind of shaggy, laidback hoedown, which was amusing for an upbeat number like “Some Kind of Angel” or the extended jams at the end of songs, but completely incongruous for the watery, multi-movement “Bluebird of Happiness” or the usually breathtakingly heartbreaking “In Love with a View”.
Given that the band has four albums from which to pull material, not to mention Halstead and Goswell solo material and a storehouse of covers of songs by their touchstone country- and folk-rock influences (we did get a Gram Parsons cover, the archetypical “Return of the Grievous Angel”) to draw from, the set list was disappointingly unambitious. Unambitious not so much because they relied heavily on their latest album—rather to the contrary, they only played six songs from 2003’sSpoon and Rafter, and brought out almost as many from 1998’s Out of Tune—but because they chose to play the same repertoire of older songs that they seem to pull out for every occasion, whether it be a full Mojave 3 show or a solo instore performance by Halstead. While I’m as big a fan as anyone of songs like “Yer Feet”, “This Road I’m Travelling” and “Give What You Take”, it’d be nice to be surprised on occasion, especially if the executions of such well-trod songs are going to be less than perfect anyway.
This New York show was the last of the band’s brief tour, and with a flight home to Britain to look forward to and friends in the audience providing a steady stream of good-natured heckling (like the plea for the band to “Play something good!” or tributes to Halstead’s ass), there really wasn’t much incentive to pull off something a bit more magical. And, of course, Mojave 3 don’t owe me anything (they especially don’t owe me anything since I didn’t even pay to get into their show). But, as you can probably tell from this less-than-starry-eyed review, I’ve lost my reverence for them. That’s probably a good thing, but I sort of wish I hadn’t.