Friday, March 6
Scottish band Mogwai have this reverence about them – people speak of their god-like abilities and sound; fans seem like religious converts in fact. And, hey, fair enough – this is an extraordinary band. Not only are they great – they’re always great. No mean feat. Never at risk of being written off as just “post-rock” or merely ‘an instrumental combo’ Mogwai makes music – they don’t even make music as much as they conjure it, issuing it forth, it moves through them; they harness, channel, hold it for a moment – then release. They’re the lightning rod, harnessing that electrical energy and bringing it – momentarily – to earth.
People gush about Mogwai. And their records – diverse, staggering, wonderful – would give reason enough for that. But the live act is something else. And loud. Everyone is warned it’s gonna get loud.
So, finally with the chance to see Mogwai in Wellington I’m there, and excited to check them out. The opening track is Heard About You Last Night from most recent album, Rave Tapes. It is instantly strumming, the very best drum sound you could imagine, each instrument contributing to the track and able to be heard separately, precisely. It’s exquisite. Gorgeous. The build. The lift. The release. And this is only a hint of things to come. The audience is caught in a sway, mesmerised from lift-off – there’s about 90 minutes to go and this feels like some incredible encore moment to start the show.
But even as more great songs hit the stage – key moments in the Mogwai oeuvre; I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead, Rano Pano – the sound moves beyond what is an acceptable volume. The guitars have a layer of screech to them now, a nasty pinch. It’s too loud. People are moving, heading out, pushing back, covering their ears. Plenty have earplugs, and are achieving transcendence with a side of smugness. Some people with earplugs aren’t coping either.
Well, I didn’t have earplugs. Whether I should have had them or not is irrelevant – they shouldn’t be required at a gig, they should be a choice. And if they should be required then the promoter/venue/artist should have them on offer.
I had to go. I saw about a third of Mogwai’s set – and I know what I missed. I know I missed some of my favourite songs – but I kept my hearing. I had to leave. It wasn’t pleasant. It went beyond what is right. It went beyond what would have just been a hero-story of survival for me some 15-20 years ago. It was unpleasant, uncomfortable, more than that it was unnecessary.
The really loud moment/s – and I’ve heard from someone since who has said they have seen Mogwai even louder – should have been saved for an ultimate crescendo. The extreme noise, messy, bleeding, horrid, actually ruined the effect the music already has; there’s blistering. And then there’s just excessive.
But I walked from Mogwai having seen an extraordinary band – and an amazing show. I left with no bitterness, I just wanted to save my hearing. (What’s left of it).
It was a great bonus to see Mick Turner’s opening set – his most recent album is also a favourite. And when you see Turner on his own, away from the Dirty Three, you realise how crucial he is to that band’s sound. It’s funny that the contributions from both him and Jim White can be overshadowed by Warren Ellis, when actually it’s White and Turner that really make that band, that give the true flavour, the control the dynamics and give the music it’s uniquely Australian sound.
That version of Australia’s barren, dry landscape as channelled through guitar was there with Turner and drummer on stage. You hear the Otago peninsula in David Kilgour’s guitar, you hear the paddocks and shearing sheds of Australia in Mick Turner’s sound. You hear the lick and curl of the waves as his guitar seeks out a new sonic somewhere in an area where country and jazz sounds float, untethered.
Turner’s opening set was the perfect curtain-raiser for Mogwai, it prepared the crowd for instrumental music, set the tone in a sense, but was completely its own thing. Not a cheap version, not any sort of version. It was also enough to have me walking out early and not feeling particularly upset. I’d have stayed for more Mogwai if I could. But that just wasn’t possible.
Now to put up with too many people telling me I’m a) a pussy, b) should have head earplugs and of course c) missed all of the best parts.
Oh well, I’m used to getting it wrong.
Still I have to say that I got it right by walking away. For me it was too loud. It did not need to be that loud. I couldn’t take that volume. It was gig-ruining. But they certainly were majestic while I lasted.