May 6, 2014
Yeah, it got loud.
That increasing interest in subtlety is reflected in Mogwai's chosen tourmate: Majeure, the solo electronic project of Zombi drummer A.E. Paterra. Paterra's music melds the repeating Reichian rhythms of minimalism with the warbly, Moog-driven atmospheres of Vangelis, which makes for an enveloping listen on headphones. It seemed mostly lost on the crowd, though. Polite applause greeted the end of most cuts, but the murmur of the crowd rose over the most contemplative moments of Majeure's set. Then again, Majeure isn't the most compelling live act, and most of the crowd probably lost interest in seeing Paterra pivot between two keyboard racks and a MacBook. It was intriguing to listen to, sure, though not wholly exciting to watch.
Then again, one could ostensibly say the same thing about Mogwai. For much of the band's hour-and-38-minute set, the band was shrouded in fog and/or eclipsed by megawatt strobes and spotlights emanating from the back of the stage. Even when the band was clearly visible, there wasn't much to look at. Guitarist John Cummings spent much of the set stone-faced; bassist Dominic Aitchison was equally staid. Only Stuart Brathwaite - who punctuated every song with a cheery "Thanks!" - really leaned into his more energetic parts, like the octave-run salvos of "Travel is Dangerous" and "We're No Here."
But Mogwai isn't a band that needs to be seen. It's a band that begs to be heard - felt, even. And Mogwai lived up to its reputation, delivering its songs at full force. (Though at times to its detriment. Auxiliary member Luke Sutherland, who played "Christmas Steps" achingly gorgeous violin line and sang the Krauty "Mexican Grand Prix" was often drowned out by the band's volume.)
Mogwai is about the mediation of ecstatic energy, built less for crowd interactivity than somnolent consideration. The crowd (which seemed a little thin, but surprisingly young) responded in kind, show-goers whooping at recognized favorites (like "Travel is Dangerous," or "Christmas Steps") and head-nodding during intense rockers ("How to Be a Werewolf"; encore closer "Batcat"), but mostly standing in hushed reverence, eyes closed as if meditating and waiting for transcendence.
While I've seen Mogwai get there, the quintet fell a little short at Amos'. The issue with Mogwai's recent records, the mostly excellent Rave Tapes included, is that they lack the dynamism of the band's canonical early releases, opting for easy payoffs that don't quite pay off. For its first appearance in Charlotte, and first North Carolina gig in five years, Mogwai's setlist felt a little limiting - its tight, efficient selection of 15 songs sticking mostly to post-Mr. Beast assaults.
On the surface, it seems a disservice to longtime fans who might never have seen the band and clamored for its defining moments. (I was with you, dude screaming for "My Father, My King." And also with you, dude who wanted to hear "Tuner.") Mogwai reached into its back catalog for some old favorites, like the mazy and mercurial "New Paths to Helicon, Part 1," and even a really deep cut, EP + 6's staticky "Small Children In the Background," but including too many samey-sounding songs at the expense of critical numbers from the canon - namely "Mogwai Fear Satan" and "Hunted By a Freak" - was disappointing.
Still, a show that falls just short transcendence is by no means a failure, and the high points proved that Mogwai, some two decades into its career, is an unparalleled force. "Helicon 1," some 17 years on, is still a blueprint for post-millennial instrumental post-rock, its coruscating builds yielding to shredding releases that reach ever heavenward. And "Christmas Steps," arguably the band's most haunting and dynamic song, reinforced the notion that Mogwai doesn't have to be overpoweringly loud to be emotionally cathartic.
It's the blaring rockers, though, that got the biggest response. Moody numbers, like the opener "Heard About You Last Night" and the slow-burning "Deesh," were greeted politely, but the room-shaking towers of noise - "Rano Pano"; "We're No Here"; "Batcat"; "Mexican Grand Prix" - won the day. For all its recent mellowness, Mogwai's still at its most potent - and most crowd-pleasing - when rearing back and kicking on the fuzz pedals.
Heard About You Last Night
Travel is Dangerous
Small Children in the Background
How to Be a Werewolf
Friend of the Night
Mexican Grand Prix
We're No Here
I'm Jim Morrison, I'm Dead
New Paths to Helicon, Part 1