It is strange to see J. Spaceman surrounded by so few friends. Typically, Spaceman –Jason Pierce and lead singer of British space rock outfit, Spiritualized — is flanked by quite the posse, especially during the 2009 epic run of performances of the group’s breakout album, Ladies & Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. During that handful of shows, Pierce was rolling thirty plus deep with a string section and gospel choir accompanying him. Tonight, the rotating cast of Spiritualized is sparse with four musicians and two background singers. The sparseness of the group’s roster is more than compensated by the vastness of tonight’s venue, the recently opened Emo’s East.
The original Emo’s was an Austin institution for decades located on the famed Red River Street strip. The doors shuttered in late 2011 with plans to reopen in a larger space in East Austin. A performance from a band like Spiritualized relies heavily on its setting and it is difficult to consider a poorer choice of venues in town then this metallic chrome warehouse. From a distance the site’s contours striking resemblance to the spaceship from the film Flight of the Navigator is impossible to ignore and despite the appropriate celestial connections, this is not the room to play from this reverb heavy catalogue.
The group opens up with “Hey Jane”, their first single from their recently released album, Sweet Heart Sweet Light. The lead guitar’s repetitive crescendo carries the track along with a chugging drum beat, while the female back up singers flank Spaceman’s lines with effortless “la la la’s”. The song reminds me of a Velvet Underground song if the band preferred speed to their heroin but with the recorded cut coming in at a shade under nine minutes, the live version too proves to be a couple minutes too long.
The crowd, however, seems not to care. The average age of tonight’s attendee is well past the normal Austin “indie” show, but Spiritualized was never the flavor of the week even when they were critical darlings some fifteen years ago and the room is full of smiles and plumes of smoke.
The underrated “ Rated X” is played early on in the set to audible surprise and gratification. The song opens with a hazy intro set to a subtle organ and what sounds like a guitar sputtering out of gas. Slowly the song opens up in triumphant jubilee while Pierce murmurs slowly “and memory holds the hurt inside/ regret creeps up on you” and somehow that pain becomes as blinding and awe inspiring as a shining star.
“I Am What I Am” is arguably the highlight of the evening and another track from the new evening. The song is sticky with a swagger that Spiritualized has not owned for many years. Much like its title, Pierce is not making any excuses for what he is all about. Yes, he loves his gospel music and his screeching guitars. He knows exactly what he likes and what he doesn’t and he isn’t afraid to call a spade a spade (“I am the pound of flesh that signifies the sun before you told”). The accompanying visualization on the screen is a journey through a computer programmers dream and loos like a sketch from the world of TRON.
When the famous recorded voice message to the title track of Ladies is played, the room erupts in approval. The song gives the feeling of being inside a warm house as snow slowly falls outside of your window. “All I want in life is a little bit of love to take the pain away” and everybody in the room seems to relate while also admiring the courage for such a stark admission. “Only fools rush in,” Pierce warns yet this audience knows there is not a more enjoyable sensation to commit to than that total surrender.
To nobody’s surprise and certainly nobody’s complaint, the band closes their encore set with “Cop Shoot Cop….” When the quiet jangle of the tambourine that teases the intro of the song is heard from the darkness of the stage, several shouts are heard from the crowd. This song still plays like you are listening to it for the first time even all these years later. The quiet-loud-quiet composition was first templated by the Pixies and copied by literally every band ever since though no band plays that hand with the restraint that Pierce and his troupe of miscreants do. When they go for loud they go for broke. Like a shootout in a studio basement apartment with 2,000 mercenaries or a screaming match between two fed up lovers, nobody has any expectations of leaving this room unscathed. Spaceman makes no apologies — for his drugs, his loneliness, his sickness or his hopes. And pleading for your lovers hand has and never will sound so chic.