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November 6, 2001

A Spirited Halloween

The history of Spiritualized has always been tumultuous. The band formed from the remnants of Spacemen 3 and the unsteady relationship between Jason Pierce (a.k.a. J. Spaceman) and Pete "Sonic Boom" Kember. Pierce continued in the Spacemen 3 tradition, adding sweeping orchestral sounds that have since become a trademark of Spiritualized. Meanwhile, Sonic Boom took a more experimental route, touring a couple of years ago with the Flaming Lips and playing a set consisting entirely of the staticky noises made from wired-together Speak and Spells. Rumor has it that Sonic Boom is touring again, under the name Spacemen 3.

Spiritualized, originally consisting of Pierce, his then-girlfriend Kate Radley, and bassist Sean Cook, has changed its lineup drastically since forming. Radley left Pierce, married ex-Verve Richard Ashcroft, and then left Spiritualized. There's no question that this was a rough period of Pierce's life, possibly accounting for his many, many songs about drugs and broken hearts, as well as a whimsical tendency to fire and replace band members. As such, the only current members remaining from the original lineup are Pierce, keyboardist Thighpaulsandra (a.k.a. Tim Lewis), and saxophone player Ray Dickaty. In the face of his misfortunes and resulting emotional unsteadiness, Pierce managed to complete Let It Come Down for release this year and embark on a supporting tour, which included last Wednesday's Halloween show.

Much is to be expected of a Spiritualized live performance; Pierce is notorious not only for his volatile personality, but also for an excruciating attention to detail in both recording and playing live. When touring in support of his previous album, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, Pierce requested a full choir, and was actually angry when the record company refused to comply. When asked how many musicians were used in the recording of Let It Come Down, Pierce replied, "That's an easy one. One hundred. On all but two tracks."

The Chicago show was scheduled to begin at 9:30, and even in the absence of an opening act, Spiritualized didn't take the stage until past 10:30. The hour-long wait was irritating, even if the show made up for it. Ambient underwater music played in the background, and gave pasty, malnourished scenesters ample opportunity to flaunt their indie-cred scorecards. However, once the music began, the audience was quickly entranced.

Pierce walked onto the stage, looking emaciated and strung out as usual (but still 10 times better looking than Richard Ashcroft). He was followed by the other 12 band members. Yes, 12. They opened with "Cop Shoot Cop," the final track on 1997's Ladies and Gentlemen. On the album, the track lasts over 17 minutes, and the live version was no shorter. The climaxes and anticlimaxes of the song were navigated expertly. Throughout the show, the music ventured into several-minute expanses of noisy chaos and back again to flowing melodies with seamlessness and fluidity. The next two hours were a religious experience; the band didn't sell the crowd short once. The sound was obscenely immense, and you couldn't help but surrender yourself to the exquisitely arranged performance. Much to my pleasure, a good portion of older tracks were played, including four or five songs from Spacemen 3 days such as "Shine a Light" and "Walking with Jesus." The show closed with a rendition of "Lord Can You Hear Me." The song, originally on the Spacemen 3 album Playing with Fire, but re-recorded for the final track for Let It Come Down, was nearly emotionally scarring in its beauty. The band left the stage unceremoniously, disappearing as a dream does when you wake up in the morning to face the real world.