Just in case anyone was unaware of My Bloody Valentine’s reputation for playing very loud concerts, security guards were handing out free earplugs Saturday night (Sept. 27) outside Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom. Most of the concertgoers probably knew what to expect, even though few of them had ever seen My Bloody Valentine. The Irish rock band has been practically silent for 17 years, without any tours or albums. But the record that My Bloody Valentine released in 1991, “Loveless,” has become enshrined as an indie-rock classic, perhaps the defining album of the dense noisy style of guitar music known as “shoegaze.”
Saturday night’s sold-out and yes, very loud, concert was marvelous for many of the same reasons that the album “Loveless” is such a wonder. Whether they’re playing in the studio or in concert, My Bloody Valentine sounds like an orchestra of electric guitars. Riffs and chords are channeled through effects pedals until they sound like church organs or bagpipes – or 100 guitars instead of just two. This wall of noise isn’t just noise, however. It often has a regal, soaring quality, and many of the songs have the pretty pop melodies — if you listen closely enough through all that feedback.
The big question a lot of fans were probably wondering before Saturday’s show was: Can My Bloody Valentine do it live? The answering is yes, but with an asterisk. As the band played lively but faithful versions of the songs from “Loveless,” it was difficult to tell exactly where all those sounds were coming from. It seemed as if the group was using at least some backing tracks or samples. That’s nothing unusual at concerts these days, and it did not detract much from the listening experience, but it did make you wonder how much of the show was authentically live.
However they made all that noise, it sounded glorious. Guitarist Kevin Shields, the band’s leader, switched off on lead vocals with guitarist Bilinda Butcher, their voices floating somewhere near the top of those churning chords – as if vocals were just another instrument in the mix. Bassist Debbie Googe and drummer Colm O’Ciosoig kept the swirling music anchored to a solid rhythmic foundation throughout the 90-minute set.
“Shoegaze” music got its name from the musicians’ habit of staring down at their shoes as they were playing. The members of My Bloody Valentine didn’t literally look down at their feet all that much Saturday night, but they did have a tendency to stand in place. The only thing they said to the audience all night was “thank you.”
The band closed with the title song from a 1988 EP, “You Made Me Realize,” and when the song came to an instrumental break, it froze in place. My Bloody Valentine locked in on a single chord, playing it over and over – stretching it out for 25 minutes. Fans standing near the stage could feel the floor of the Aragon shaking. It was the sort of droning rock music that sends some listeners running out of the room and puts other people to sleep. But it also can have a transcendent quality if you let the oscillating waves wash over you.
It seemed like that chord might never end, but then it suddenly shifted back to the chorus of the song. A minute later, My Bloody Valentine’s musicians put down their guitars and left. There was no encore, and fans may have wondered if they’ll get a chance to see My Bloody Valentine any time in the next 17 years.
My review is also at the Southtown Star newspaper’s Web site.