Spiritualized Floats Back Into Boston

Jason Pierce and company compensate stage presence for dazzling visuals

Jason Pierce of Spiritualized onstage at Boston’s Royale Club (Image: Douglas Quintal)

Jason Pierce never, on stage at least, will be confused with somebody who has, uh, stage presence. Or charisma. However you want to phrase the thing that rivets your eyes to a musician (whose music you rather love) while he or she is performing.

Dressed in black, seated and sun-glassed in his Lou Reed best, the main man of Spiritualized – the singer-guitarist-songwriter since the group’s 1991 inception – didn’t move from his perch (front, stage left) before a music stand with his own lyrics on the pages in Boston Sept. 20 at the Royale Club. I take that back. He rose to say “Thank you” following “Soul on Fire,” the last song of the regular set.

The other eight musicians – including three backing vocalists, Jenna Byrd, Desiree Gillespie and Sha’Leah Nikole Stubblefield – were assembled in a semi-circle. All were pretty much lit in varying hues of not-bright lights; all the brightness – the splash, the sizzle, the color, the psychedelia that danced to the music – happened on the video scrim behind the band. 

Sometimes pulsing black-and-white streaks – like a futuristic old b&w TV gone haywire – and sometimes a helter-skelter display of colorful shapes, squiggles and swirls. (The Velvet Underground for the 21st century?) The b&w striped barrage happened at the beginning of the set, with “Hey Jane” – the protagonist here, her soul (lyrically) moving from “rotten soul” to “violent soul” in Pierce’s hands – merging into “She Kissed Me (It Felt Like a Hit).” It felt like a fast and furious assault – a loud, no-brakes rush of semi-cacophonous music, every musician thrashing away, complemented by the video onslaught. Took your breath away. 

Spiritualized onstage at Boston’s Royale Club (Image: Douglas Quintal)

Now, if you didn’t know Spiritualized, you might have thought, “Good lord, is this Britain’s answer to Swans?” and “Can I put up with this for two hours?” 

They are not and you didn’t have to. That was the storm before the calm. Pierce’s forte is going from one extreme to the other and after 15 minutes of in-your-face stun-gun rock they slid into “Shine a Light,” one of their best-known songs, a gentle number where Pierce begins, “When I’m tired and all alone/Lord, shine a light on me/And when I’m lonesome as can be/Lord, shine a light on me.” The search for redemption – and a gospel undertone – is both part of the Spiritualized mindset or narrative. A couple of softer, dreamy ones followed, “I’m Coming Home Again” and “A Perfect Miracle.”

Other subject matter: Aside from a search for redemption/inner peace/contentment is an exploration of the compulsive highs-and-hell of the addict’s life, never so clear as in “Come Together,” played near the end.  It’s nominally about “Little Johnny” a “sad and fucked boy” which mutates into “Little J” – Jason used to go by J. Spaceman in his previous band the drone-y, hypnotic Spacemen 3 – who also is a “fucked up boy/Who dulled the pain but killed the joy/And little J’s a fucked-up mess/But he’s offered, just says yes.”

That, for the record, is no longer the case: Pierce evidently consumed a boatload of various killer drugs over the years– a Spacemen 3 album was called Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To – and long-term liver damage was diagnosed. Continuation of his life was not assured. In fact, ten years ago he told the Guardian at one point he woke up in the hospital in intensive care, his children at his side and his partner being given bereavement counseling. He ruefully joked he was now on different drugs. 

In Boston, Pierce and company spun out a two-hour journey into dark recesses of the soul spiked with a series of resplendent moments that suggested a path out of that darkness. An extended case of sad, luxurious grandeur. Pierce writes music of great intimacy but loves the massive power of the big band, wailing away, a large but nimble vehicle negotiating sonic mountains and valleys. A panoramic psychedelic swirl.

When we talked about 25 years ago, Pierce told me, “The best music puts you in a different place. It’s all primal. I love the idea of music being physical and I think it’s spinal. It really floors you. You feel it in your spine and on the hairs on the back of your neck.”

A better reality, I suggested.

 “A better unreality,” he answered.

All of that: Still true, even if, save Pierce, this is an entirely different Spiritualized outfit that the one I last saw at Boston’s Paradise club ten years ago. I can’t say this was as A-level transfixing as the gig I saw a decade back. I’d go B+. Some of that had to do with a vocal mix that – on the louder songs – buried Pierce’s not particularly dramatic voice in the din.

Also, choice of material. Then, Spiritualized was touring behind Sweet Heart, Sweet Light and it’s a stronger record than the current one, Everything Was Beautiful. They played four songs from the latter, including “Let It Bleed (for Iggy),” and although I knew the song was influenced by and dedicated to The One, We All Love, I really picked up the words from a later lyric check – “I wanted it to cut deeper and darker for you/I wanted it to show reason where honesty’s due/Open up and bleed.” If Pierce had been prone to things like introductions, he might’ve called attention to this by name-checking Iggy. 

Spiritualized onstage at Boston’s Royale Club (Image: Douglas Quintal)

That said, Pierce, like Prince, relishes the joy of repetition and there’s a siren-like allure to what he does – why not enjoy the groove until it all comes crashing upon the rocky shoreline? (Or, heck, even enjoy the crash.)

Pet peeve: You know an encore is coming – you’ve seen a few prior set lists – and yet the band keeps you waiting and waiting and waiting – as the applause ebbs and flows – and finally they come back. Spiritualized closed with “So Long You Pretty Thing,” about (yet another) plea for help, this time from Jesus: “Help me, Lord, help me Father, ‘cause I wasted all my time/Help me Lord, it’s getting harder ‘cause I’m losing all the time/I got to reason to be living anymore.”

And with that they were off and so were we.


VIDEO: Spiritualized “Always Together With You” (Live)


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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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