Before their appearance at the 2016 Shaky Knees Festival, Slowdive hadn’t played Atlanta in over two decades. But here they were last Thursday, just a year removed from their once unimaginable return, performing to a nearly sold out audience at Variety Playhouse. And while I’m sure they played a fine set on the fest’s outdoor stage, I couldn’t imagine seeing the shoegaze legends anywhere else. (Well, maybe Terminal West.) Although Variety Playhouse is a fairly large mid-sized venue, it felt extremely intimate from up front. And considering the peculiarities of the oft-discussed “Slowdive sound,” this was an appropriate choice.
The band opened their set with their self-titled track, “Slowdive,” originally released on their first eponymous EP, from 1990. It’s a statement if I’ve ever heard one — thunderous and passionate, with only a tiny bit of guitar squall, sounding as if it was being slowly ejected from a passing spaceship. For the crowd it, and the band remained loud and invigorated throughout.
Next was the warm and ethereal “Catch the Breeze,” from their 1991 EP Holding Our Breath, and, later, their debut full length, Just For a Day. This was followed by the excellent “Crazy For You,” one of the more conventional tracks on the decidedly unconventional Pygmalion. It sounded incredible; the harmonies between Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell in particular were gorgeous. Goswell in general seems like a rather dreamy person; during many of the tracks she would stare off in the distance absentmindedly, with a smile on her brow. Other times it seemed like she was gazing at Halstead quite intently.
It’s almost an essential part of the Slowdive mythology that Halstead and Goswell famously shared a quite intense, intimate relationship of over four years that came to an end about a year before the release of their magnum opus, 1993’s Souvlaki. That record was, in a sense, a breakup album.
In addition, Halstead wrote the near entirety of 1995’s Pygmalion by himself, and in that context, it was a further — perhaps final — step of coming to terms with the relationship’s end. (By that time, Goswell had herself moved on an married Christopher Andrews of the band Air Cuba.) If you didn’t know anything about the critical consensus of Pygmalion at the time (largely, if not overwhelmingly, negative), you may have assumed that Slowdive broke up because of this romantic tension, as I did. But in fact, the band was dropped from their label following the record’s release, which prompted Halstead, Goswell, and drummer Ian McCutcheron to place Slowdive on indefinite hiatus and form the country-tinged slowcore project Mojave 3. All of this is to say that the two of them still share an undeniable chemistry, though perhaps I was only seeing what I wanted to see.
Next up was “Star Roving,” the first single from Slowdive’s new self-titled record, released this year to significant acclaim. In their write-up Stereogum described the track as “a grand and sweeping rocker,” and it is definitely that. They’ve been gone for 22 years, dammit, so why would they come roaring out of the gate with subtlety? It’s not my favorite song on the record — the towering walls of sound are almost Explosions in the Sky in nature, which seems miles away from the shoegaze-pop that so marked Souvalki — but it translated better live.
Much like on record, “Souvlaki Space Station” instantly brought chills. This was all the more impressive because, before they launched into the track, I had begun to regret bringing a sweater, which only added to the song’s visceral effect. Also from Souvlaki we heard “When The Sun Hits,” “Alison,” “40 Days,” and my personal favorite, “Dagger.” I hadn’t expected to hear the latter, mostly because the mythology surrounding the song. Famously written by Halstead about the dissolution of his relationship with Goswell, the song is almost painful to listen to — not only in its lyrics (“I am your dagger / You know I am your wound / I thought I heard you whisper / It happens all the time“), but also in its bare-bones, acoustic composition. The sparseness of the track is stirring, and when the band hit the opening notes, I almost refused to believe they were really playing it. (I also didn’t realize just how hushed it would sound in that setting. It made it all the more intimate.) I had always imagined the song would be more befitting to close the set, but I imagine that’s probably not the kind of statement that Slowdive would want to make.
In sharp contrast, the one-two punch of “She Calls” and their oft-played cover of Syd Barrett’s “Golden Hair” closed out the opening set in a crushing wall of sound. This effect was just as pronounced on “Slomo,” which opened the band’s encore. It was loud, massive — what I would expect a band like Godspeed You! Black Emperor to sound like in a live setting. And while GY!BE is a fine band on record, and probably an even better one live, I have to admit I wanted something different from Slowdive. Something softer, dreamier.
Fortunately, we got that with the additional tracks from Souvlaki, as well as two of the cuts from their latest LP, “Sugar for the Pill” and “No Longer Making Time.” As the second single released from the new record, “Sugar for the Pill” took a lot of listeners by surprise. Me, I hardly noticed that it was anything different from what they’d done before because I was so in awe of it from first listen. It was, for lack of a better description, definitively Slowdive. And while “No Longer Making Time” shares a similar guitar tone, it more evokes the majesty of “When the Sun Hits.” Although they don’t quite share the same dynamic sound as found on Souvlaki, the warm, dreamy aesthetic exhibited by both songs translated excellently in a live setting.
Slowdive closed out the show with “40 Days,” one of the more upbeat tracks from — yep, you guessed it — Souvalki. It’s never been a favorite of mine, but upon hearing it, I felt as if I had heard it in my dreams a million times before. The pacing was just right, providing the crowd with a much-needed jolt of energy to cap off an emotional performance. Two decades is an eternity when it comes to music, but Slowdive somehow manage to sound like they never left.
Catch the Breeze
Crazy For You
Souvlaki Space Station
Blue Skied n’ Clear
When the Sun Hits
Sugar for the Pill
No Longer Making Time