Perhaps the highest praise that can be said about a band’s live show is that it made you see god. Hyperbole? Sure. But it’s not far off for describing Spiritualized live. Even playing a stripped-down acoustic set, as it did on November 13 at the Vista Theatre (the second of the band’s two nights there), without the usual electric sonic whomp the band has in its arsenal, Spiritualized had a celestial aura.
Irish troubadour Simple Kid opened the sold-out show. From his first song, it was clear why Jason Pierce (or J. Spaceman, if you will) of Spiritualized hand-picked Simple Kid as an opener: The tune was full of lyrics about ingesting chemicals and languishing in loneliness. The set wasn’t all so bleak. Simple Kid brought up video of Kermit the Frog, projected onto an old public-school-style collapsible screen, for a duet with the Muppet on “It’s Not Easy Being Green.” And “The Ballad of Elton John” was all about celebrity over-saturation and inanity, fitting for the concert’s location in La La Land.
Simple Kid was wise to keep things short. This was one of only a very small run of Spiritualized shows in North America, the band’s first trek to these shores in more than four years. Pierce set up the stage like a psych-rock Sufjan Stevens or Kanye West, with an all-female backing orchestra and choir dressed all in black. Across from Pierce, who was seated and playing acoustic guitar, was his doppelganger (with matching shaggy hair and dark sunglasses) and long-time collaborator Tim Lewis (a.k.a. Thighpaulsandra). Pierce used the night to road test some of his new material, expected to be released on a new Spiritualized album next year. The new songs didn’t stray far from the band’s standard model of heartsick lyrics over repeated guitar patterns, some even taking on bit of a Celtic lilt.
But of course it was the songs culled from Spiritualized’s and Spacemen 3’s back catalog that really pleased the crowd. Pierce pulled heavily from Spiritualized’s career apex, 1997’s Ladies and Gentleman We Are Floating in Space. The title track closed the band’s initial set, with a slight modulation into a full-on cover of Elvis’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” The first encore consisted of two more Ladies and Gentleman standouts. The already-orchestral “Broken Heart” was augmented by a great harmonica line from Lewis. And the key transition in “Think I’m in Love,” where the song switches from a druggy dirge to peppy call-and-response, got the crowd clapping along.
Pierce’s reworkings of old Spacemen 3 material were even more revelatory. “Hey Man,” which on record is dark and sinister, here became pastoral and pretty. “Walkin’ with Jesus” illustrated how Pierce is a much better lyricist when taking on religious themes than when he handles relationship woes. Ditto for “Lord Can You Hear Me When I Call,” which inaugurated the band’s second encore. Spiritualized finished up for good with the old gospel tune that’s become a staple of the group’s live set, “Oh Happy Day.” With the backing choir at full throat, it was a stunning finale, and it garnered the band its third standing ovation of the night.