When Spiritualized closed their set Friday night at Radio City Music Hall with an orchestral-rock encore of gospel standard "Oh Happy Day," the venerable Art Deco landmark's roof was there for the raisin'.
It was the last song of the last show of the week-long ZYNC from American Express concert series celebrating SPIN's 25th Anniversary, and the 30-plus musicians who filled Radio City's expansive stage -- string and horn sections, choir, plus bandleader Jason "Spaceman" Pierce and sidemen -- could've imbued the song, and the moment, with unequivocal, chest-swelling jubilation. But that's not the denomination of spirituality that Pierce practices. Or, in terms befitting the wastrel seeker he embodies on Spiritualized's 1997 psych-soul epic Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space -- which the assembled group had just covered in its entirety -- that ain't his hustle.
What gives "Oh Happy Day" its vital edge, at least in Edwin Hawkins' Latin soul-strollin', late-'60s reinterpretation of the 18th century hymn, is its emphasis on Jesus cleansing our sins so that we're rejuvenated to fight and pray. Redemption isn't a brash end-zone dance, but a coolly seductive challenge. You're still deep in the struggle, but now you've got a puncher's chance, if you're sufficiently devoted.
And one imagines that's partially what drew Pierce to first cover the song some years ago. Because Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space gets its devastating pulse from Pierce's ache to join just such a prayerful fight, even though he's woefully, visibly ill-equipped. See, "Little J" is a "fucked-up boy" too haunted by love lost (keyboardist-girlfriend Kate Radley, who ran off to marry the Verve's Richard Ashcroft in '95, though she still appears on the album), drugs found (heroin), and life's endless tiny grinds to surrender himself completely.
No matter how much communal salvation might soothe his emptiness and loss, ultimately he's trapped in his own tawdry, earthly strife. He's a a rock lifer, and all he can do, over and over, is dramatize his craving for salvation to audiences of drunk unbelievers in droning or blaring song. And that's what the album, with massed assistance from the Balanescu string quartet, the London Community Gospel Choir, Dr. John (?!), and a battalion of producers/engineers/advisors, conveys so beautifully -- a spectral, symphonic black hole of need.
Perhaps it's absurd to expect Pierce to reanimate that existential scar tissue or revisit that emotional mire (even the trickeration of digital technology is of no help!). And he's not interested in trying. During an interview the day before the show, Pierce explicitly said that he doesn't attempt to summon any particularized emotions when performing Ladies and Gentlemen; he just tries to execute the songs faithfully and allow the audience to project their various feelings onto the music.
In other words, Spiritualized on this night was a repertory company. And sitting, hunched over, far stage left, dressed in white t-shirt, pants, sneakers, and dark shades, the wanly intent 45-year-old Englishman chose to play the subdued director instead of the star. In fact, there was no star -- the downstage area was empty with the band members set back, and the strings/horns/choir directly behind.
Suffused in low purplish light, under a galaxy of stars sparkling on a dark backdrop, the musicians were loose and searching, drifting and wailing and thundering, with Pierce and the choir incanting the lyrics as much as singing them. At times, the show felt like an extended meditation on a theme to be named later. Even the most deafeningly pounding tracks ("Come Together," "Electricity," "No God Only Religion," "Cop Shoot Cop") probed for signs of catharsis rather than cathartically blasting off toward a fixed destination.
In fact, the spare, open-ended interludes that emerged from the numerous noisy breakdowns and free-jazzy freak-outros (like the skittering, muted trumpet that colored the chaos of "Cop Shoot Cop") often lingered longest. As a result, the show settled into itself during the less frenetic stretches, when Pierce's wounded narrator could amble into the distant night sky (or float off into space) and contemplate his multitudinous fuck-ups.
The three-song suite of "I Think I'm in Love," "All of My Thoughts," and "Stay with Me," took on a hypnotic majesty, moving from an extremely hung-over jazz-breakfast vibe with fluttering sax and calliope melody to a narcotic groove and lonesome harmonica moan and hymn-like processional, as Pierce and the choir played call-and-response with his alternately self-deprecating, pathetic, and wrenchingly tender pleas.
The drama peaked later, during the cinematic ballad "Broken Heart," which swelled with strings and trombone and tympani, as if Pierce had wandered into a lost scene from some artfully sepia-soaked '70s Americana saga directed by Terence Malick or Robert Altman, wheat fields swaying tragically. The strings reached full moan and Pierce confessed (again): "I'm wasted all the time." Respite came, momentarily, as the church organ and bell-tolls of "Cool Waves" poured over us, and Pierce advised, "Don't let the world lay heavy on your soul."
Sage words, maybe, but advice most of us are not likely to take anytime soon, especially if we're in a Spiritualized congregation.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space"
"I Think I'm in Love"
"All of My Thoughts"
"Stay with Me"
"Home of the Brave"/"The Individual"
"No God Only Religion"
"Cop Shoot Cop"