Mojave 3 / Sid Hillman Quartet

[15 February 2001]

By Wilson Neate

It’s only been a few months since Mojave 3 last played New York (in support of the US release of 2000’s Excuses for Travellers), but the band certainly hasn’t worn out its welcome here. Evidence of that was a packed Bowery Ballroom—despite the combined challenge of several other groups performing in the metro area last night: Duluth’s doyens of slowcore, Low; Ned Oldham’s band, Anomoanon; and the next big Brit thing, Coldplay.

Mojave 3 have evolved considerably since their previous incarnation as Slowdive, the shoe- and navel-gazing darlings of the pre-Britpop early 1990s. While Mojave 3 still tend toward melancholic lyrical introspection and lush, haunting melodies, they’ve traded the electronic ambience that characterized latter-day Slowdive, in particular, for acoustic-oriented arrangements and a more familiar, verse-chorus-verse song format. The most striking contrast between Slowdive and Mojave 3 can be heard in the way that the latter have embraced country music and blended it with homegrown pop and folk, crafting a sound at once steeped in Americana and yet always identifiably British.

There’s a marked contrast between the way Mojave 3 gracefully negotiate these two national traditions and the various, less successful ways in which other British bands are currently responding to American pop music. Watching Mojave 3, I couldn’t help thinking of another UK group, the Manic Street Preachers, on the eve of an historic performance in Havana. The Manics chose Cuba as the venue for their highly anticipated live comeback, in large part so as to take a stand against the Americanization of global culture, currently symptomatized, according to Nicky Wire, by the popularity in Britain of “hideous” bands like Limp Bizkit. The Manics’ stand not only fails to acknowledge their own complicity with capitalism, it’s also historically naive. They don’t seem to be cognizant of the fact that their very identity as a band derives from the importing of US rock ‘n’ roll in the fifties. And wasn’t British pop culture thoroughly Americanized as early as the mid-‘60s anyway?

The music of Mojave 3 quietly makes the point that the impact of US culture abroad isn’t simply about the uncritical mass consumption of products like Limp Bizkit, Eminem, and Britney Spears. US cultural exports are much richer and more diverse than that. Moreover, the band’s music suggests that American influence per se isn’t necessarily a bad thing—it’s what the consumer (or in this case, the artist) does with those cultural products that matters.

Lacking this sort of subtlety, other British acts like Alabama 3 err in the opposite direction from their anti-American peers; they pile up signifiers of Americana, recycle styles and genres, and generally mix together disparate elements from the sound- and image-bank of US pop culture. The result is only mildly entertaining kitsch with a brief shelf-life. Mojave 3 avoid such pitfalls. The group’s relationship with America is infinitely more creative and not in the least contrived. Instead of such reductive sampling of US culture, the band displays a deeper connection with the traditions and sources that inform its music. Mojave 3’s American roots and influences—Tim Buckley and Bob Dylan, folk-country (from Gram Parsons and Neil Young to Wilco and the Jayhawks), and ‘60s West Coast pop—are only the starting point for a sound and an identity that are very much the band’s own.

Last night, then, it was entirely fitting that the show should have been opened by the L.A.-based Sid Hillman Quartet, which—despite having a quaint name that suggests some relic you might find in your grandfather’s box of old 78s—provided a direct link to one of the traditions upon which Mojave 3 draw. Singer/guitarist Sid Hillman is the nephew of Chris Hillman of the Byrds, a group whose records—particularly 1968’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo—are foundational for the contemporary sound. But there’s far more to the Sid Hillman Quartet than pedigree and genealogy. The band’s accomplished performance (especially of tracks like “Hope”) forced me to re-think a long-held belief that the convention of the “opening act” should be retired. Throughout the set, Hillman’s soulful voice (evoking Michael Stipe), the perfectly placed guitar atmospherics (electric and pedal steel) of Raymond Richards and the solid rhythm section of Jim Cheydleur and Michael Tacklender coalesced into a potent brand of dark-edged country-rock with occasional psychedelic tinges.

When Mojave 3 took the stage, it was in their familiar low-key manner, kicking off with one of the slowest numbers of the evening—“My Life in Art”, from Excuses for Travellers. Last night’s version succinctly highlighted the band’s strengths as they would manifest themselves throughout the show: Neil Halstead’s assured, note-perfect lead vocals, his affecting harmonies with Rachel Goswell, a swelling Hammond, and a haunting pedal steel (courtesy of Raymond Richards, on loan from the Sid Hillman Quartet).

Half of the set was drawn from Mojave 3’s second—and arguably strongest—album, Out of Tune (1998). While the fragile “Caught Beneath Your Heel” foregrounded the harmonies of Goswell and Halstead at their sweetest, Halstead’s solo vocal virtuosity was showcased on the down-tempo “Yer Feet”, in which he subtly evokes the phrasing and delivery of Bob Dylan on “Visions of Johanna”. Several songs—for example, “Some Kinda Angel”, “Keep it All Hid”, and “Give What You Take”—were rendered with a slightly harder edge and with a little more pace than their studio counterparts. Particularly striking on “Give What You Take” was the ability of Halstead’s voice to transform a banal, throwaway refrain of “la la la” into sheer poetry.

Despite exquisite renditions of “In Love With a View” and the Neil Young-esque “When You’re Drifting”, the standout track of the evening came at the conclusion of the set with the darkly powerful “Mercy”, from the band’s 1996 debut Ask Me Tomorrow. Mojave 3 might have started out in an understated fashion but they certainly went out with a bang of sorts, bringing the song’s building intensity to a big, guitar-fueled conclusion.

Emerging for encores with well-earned drinks and cigarettes in hand, the group seemed considerably more relaxed. After “Baby’s Coming Home” and a largely acoustic “Trying to Reach You”, Mojave 3 brought the evening to a close with a perfect version of “Who Do You Love”. This song—which beautifully captures the spirit, both vocally and musically, of Nick Drake on Bryter Layter—took Mojave 3 full circle, from their forays into distinctly American musical traditions back to their more immediate roots in British folk-pop.

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