Our past defines us. It’s what made us who we are, and the further we move away from it, the more people tell us we’ve changed: “You’re different,” they say. “We liked you better in the old days.” The thing is, growth doesn’t necessarily negate the bygone times. It just placates them. We never actually shed that skin. We grow a new, thicker one.
Neil Halstead, Mojave 3’s main man, knows this more than most. His past comes back to haunt him in every review, every show, and every song. The proverbial monkey on his back is called Slowdive, and it’s something the people of Philadelphia aren’t going to let him forget.
22 Oct 2006: North Star Bar Philadelphia, PA
Case in Point 1:
Standing in the bathroom line for the obligatory pre-show pee, I overhear a guy ask the hipster equivalent of “Do you come here often?” i.e., “Are you here to see Mojave 3?”
To which the lady replies: “Well, I’m a big Slowdive fan, so I had to.”
“You have a Slowdive tattoo?”
“No. But I do have a Ride one.”
The word ‘seminal’ was invented for the sole purpose of describing bands like Slowdive, a group that shimmied their way through the shoegaze haze, releasing three albums before breaking up in 1995 and re-forming (only Halstead, guitarist Rachel Goswell, and drummer Ian McCutcheon actually made this transition) that very same year as Mojave 3. The new band’s country-rock undercarriage was the antithesis of Slowdive’s mix of cathartic wall-of-sound wailing and sleepwalking ambience. As patron saints of shoegaze (along with My Bloody Valentine), Slowdive garnered critical acclaim and a legion of loyal fans, so much so that, even after five albums as Mojave 3, Halstead still can’t curtail the calls for songs from his early nineties catalogue.
Case in Point 2: Though it does take six songs longer than I thought it would (I had bets on the third tune), the shout for a Slowdive song surfaces as the band finishes a cacophonic and cascading shoegazey coda. Inevitably, the request rattles out for “Alison” from Souvlaki. It’s the same shout for the same song that accompanies every Mojave 3 show, and Halstead, acknowledging the fact, shrugs it off like a drunk’s embrace.
Not as easy to shrug off is the loss of Rachel Goswell, whose backing vocals have consistently complemented Halstead’s poignant, but less-than-powerful voice (think Bob Dylan-put-through-a-trouser-press). Goswell is unable to tour, or fly for that matter, due to a serious ear infection that has caused the loss of hearing in one ear, and, in turn, prompted problems with her balance. Her presence—prominent throughout Mojave 3’s back catalogue—is notably missing. Though the band does bring on a twenty-something female to sing backing vocals on several songs, she’s too low in the mix to hear, especially above the chatty crowd.
These masses consist of a cross-section of experience and youth: those who dig Mojave 3’s country rock ruminations, and those hoping to hear an impromptu Slowdive sing-along. Worst of all are the bar people, drinking and talking while Halstead hums and haws his way through a solo “Hi Lo and Inbetween.”
Mojave 3 fight back with their own wall of sound; over half of the evening’s tunes segue into cascading codas that shimmer and shine, awash with glimmering guitar lines that sound Slowdive-esque in their execution. It’s a beautiful sound to behold: intense, vibrant, and powerful, these crescendos call out to the past, just an effects pedal away from cacophonic collapse. The set list is a mix-and-match affair, taking tunes from every album, including Halstead’s solo record. The band give some songs the aforementioned shoegaze shine and play others as straight as a six shooter in a steady hand.
Much to my surprise, the band’s latest album, Puzzles Like You, is visited as often as their older records. “Truck Driving Man” (which opens their latest release) appears early in the set. A departure on record, tonight, in a live setting, it’s a barroom boogie backed by a choppy Jerry Lee Lewis-style piano that’s strewn with American allusions. Only a British band could get away with such overt nods without sounding ironic.
Named after the desert where Gram Parsons’ over-prescribed body finally gave up, Mojave 3 channel the legend’s chiming country roots rock, albeit with a positively engaging English ennui. Only Teenage Fanclub transmits a similar style, and it’s these Scots Halstead apes on “Big Star Baby,” a title that alludes to Alex Chilton, who, along with Nick Drake, inspires Mojave 3’s quieter moments.
These quieter moments are limited to songs such as Ask Me Tomorrow‘s “Sarah” and Excuses for Travelers’ “In Love with a View,” both of which receive rapturous applause. Some numbers do suffer from a lack of pedal steel, with keyboardist Alan Forrester making the most of his effects in an attempt to cover. He’s able, but the authenticity is missing, making certain songs sound a little artificial. “Bluebird of Happiness,” on the other hand, is positively organic. It grows, accruing energy as it bundles forward, simple in structure, striking in execution, and again, its conclusion allows for a liberal sprinkling of Slowdive comparisons, something that’s not lost on the crowd.
Case in Point 3: Hipsters have humor! One intelligent guy, realizing that a Slowdive song is out of the question, chimes up, just before the closing “Life in Art” and asks: “How about a Chapterhouse song?”
Mojave 3 can’t escape their past. But tonight, it sounds as if they don’t want to. They embrace it, squeeze it, eschew it, nod to it, ignore it, and embrace it once more, with a competent grip that pines for posterity, but feels a lot more like progress.