Mogwai make it up to Massachusetts fans

A review of Mogwai at the Wilbur Theatre on May 1, 2009

, Staff Writer

The last time Scottish post-rock outfit Mogwai were slated to play in Massachusetts, the band wound up cutting the tour short due to drummer Mark Bulloch having issues with a new pacemaker. McCulloch is thankfully well and good, and the band has rescheduled the shows in America to make up for the dates missed. Those who had had their hopes quickly dashed months ago were rewarded, as the band’s show at the Wilbur Theatre was everything that could have been expected – a loud, noisy night that showcased not only some quality new material but a number of old favorites as well.

The band kicked things off with “The Precipice”, a cut from their new album Hawk Is Howling. Barry Burns, usually working the keyboards and vocoder, played a guitar. Burns and Sutart Braithwaite began by slowly laying down a droning rhythm in three, layering slightly on top of one another’s guitars, and were eventually joined by Bulloch, who did little more than keep the beat. John Cummings, meanwhile, used his guitar to lay down pads of sound, bending down to tweak the knobs on the pedals he was using, allowing the sound to fill out and grow in a very organic way. The song continued its slow ascent for five minutes before the guitar distortion really kicked in and Bulloch put his cymbals to good use, exploding into a heavy rock-out as Braithwaite trilled madly in a picture perfect display of what Mogwai does best.

Barely pausing for applause the band quickly went into “Friend Of The Night”, which could have easily been transitioned into given how similar it sounds to “Precipice”. “Friend” started off heavier than the opener, but that didn’t stop Mogwai from continuing to push the sonic boundaries: Cummings and Braithwaite are a dangerous combination of guitar players, and the band works with them in interesting ways. More often than not one will be playing rhythm guitar while the other plays lead, though rhythm guitar for Mogwai is laying down a ridiculous riff, while lead is usually trilling all over the place on top of it. Burns used a remarkably authentic-sounding piano sample for the song, a really wood, hollow sounding instrument, just slightly out of tune. The piano took the melody often, piercing through the dense construction of guitar noise and ringing clearly in front of everything else. The song was a real testament to the Wilbur’s acoustics, which were fantastic, as well as the band’s ability to properly soundcheck, an underrated quality.

The band continued to work with their old material, which was well-received by the members of the audience. A large cheer went up as “Hunted By A Freak” began. Burns put his vocoder to use for this one, an ethereal, spacey, indiscernible voice operating more as a melody than a conveyer of lyrics. The vocoder would return for “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong” to begin the encore, the other song that received a large amount of applause, making it pretty apparent that people like the vocoder.

The new material ran the full spectrum of the band’s sound: songs like “Precipice” show the heavy, loud side of the group while others, like “Thank You Space Expert”, were much slower, with gorgeous and sweet soundscapes plodding along slowly, not building to a grand climax so much as organically developing, becoming more dense as layers of piano and glockenspiel doubled up on the melody. “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead” kind of straddled the line between the two extremes, growing to a head-banging loud peak while Burns’ synth floated calmly on top.

The high point of the performance was easily the closer of “Helcion 1” (as opposed to “Helcion 2”). Bassist Dominic Aitchison, who spent a lot of time facing the Dominic Aitchison-sized amplifier behind him, took guitar in hand and played an exquisite introduction, trilling lovingly with bare fingers, producing a sound that was soft and solemn. The other guitarists joined in, and the song quickly flourished into a triumphant cascade of guitar, with Bulloch keeping steady rhythm the whole time. After about five minutes, the band played a brief “bridge” that tapered off to Bulloch on the high hat before the song burst into a joyous mass of noise.

After “2 Rights” Mogwai ended their show with “Batcat”, also off of Hawk Is Howling. The song was easily the heaviest of the night, a very heavy dose of metal pervading the entire track. Aitchison’s bass was deep and powerful while Burns took the guitar again and just rocked out. After the song died away Cummings was left alone on stage to mess around with various pedals in front of him, letting this absolutely piercing mass of noise develop. Members of the audience were clutching their ears, looking stage left to see if they were going to get a second encore. Cummings’ experimentation went on for a good five minutes before he himself walked on stage, leaving a roadie to come out and end the noise.

Mogwai is one of those bands whose studio albums need to carry extra weight because their live experience is so difficult to capture. There’s only a certain amount of power than you can purvey through a studio, and the live Mogwai experience ramps up the power and intensity far past that cutoff point. The sound might not be as crisp as it is in the studio, but that’s just the trade-off of seeing Mogwai as they intended it. Those who attended the show left with ringing ears, very pleased with the performance and certainly hopeful that Mogwai will be back soon just as nice and heavy and damaging to our hearing.

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