The Jesus and Mary Chain – Liverpool Guild of Students – Monday 16 February 2015

Perhaps the word ‘legendary’ is overused, but it seems appropriate in the case of The Jesus and Mary Chain. The band retains a definite mystique to this day, something a cut above acts treading the nostalgia circuit with one founding member, or the stadium-stomping dinosaurs they shared theatres with in the 1980’s. Maybe it’s their sparse studio output which makes them such an interesting proposition; with just six albums to their three-decade career, their output feels distinguished in its rarity. Maybe it’s their apparent willingness to implode at the least provocation. Stories of their chaotic, drug-fuelled early live shows, the band standing with their backs to the audience wringing sheets of feedback from their amps for just twenty minutes before storming offstage and prompting riots are shocking even today.

At any rate, a February 2015 performance from the… well, legendary… Jesus and Mary Chain feels like something of a relaunch for the Liverpool Guild of Students. Following a revamp totalling £14.5 million, the venue reopened in November 2014 to host acts such as Jamie T and Example, and now looks forward to welcoming Placebo, Ryan Adams and Catfish and the Bottlemen shortly. There’s an echoing element of recommencement for the Mary Chain themselves, returning to the stage tonight following a near-three-month hiatus in their touring schedule.

Mountford Hall – Liverpool’s second-largest gig venue – certainly looks the part, still all but smelling of new paint, though poorly signposted with many wandering lost in search of the toilets. Even as tonight’s support act Bathymetry take to the stage, I look forlornly towards my former regular spot on the right-hand wall by the side door, now rearranged with the bar moved into the main hall and occupying this position. Following a cancellation from Eagulls (perhaps conscious of early JAMC gigs being punker than punk, but also evidencing that frisson of tension seemingly permanently associated with the Scots), tonight’s support slot has been hastily arranged with an emerging local act, as with every other UK tour date this month.

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Although Bathymetry are a bit of an odd pairing with tonight’s headliners – all melodic basslines, funny rhythms and jazzy 3/4 time signatures – they’re more than worth checking out. Just don’t baulk at ‘Goblin Fruit’s Christina Rosetti-inspired lyric first time around and enjoy guitarist Ariel’s high capoed, hand-strummed technique at times taking on more of a textural role.

Promoting the thirtieth anniversary of their seminal debut – another overused yet appropriate term – tonight’s Jesus and Mary Chain performance consists of a short set of hits and curios, followed by Psychocandy played in its entirety. At least, that was the plan. But what should have been a short, punchy and explosive mini-greatest hits set feels overlong, plodding and at times a little under-rehearsed.

The band enter, shambling through wafts of smoke with the barest acknowledgement to the considerable but not sold out crowd, singer Jim Reid arriving at centre stage and dolorously explaining tonight’s format. With his microphone levels characteristically way down, Reid might as well be talking into a gale both here and in between songs. Still, the band offer up powerful takes some of the Mary Chain’s more anthemic material, opening with ‘April Skies’, followed by ‘Head On’. But from there any gained momentum is lost; the band stand around awkwardly as guitarist William Reid seems to have a tuning issue, but does little to sort it. “Are we gonna play something or are we just gonna stand here all night?” Reid the younger spikily but pertinently asks in the needless, endless pause between ‘Head On’ and a consequently defanged ‘Psychocandy’ as the crowd grow restless. This is followed by an updated version of ‘Up Too High’, from the band’s 1983 demo tape; the original is an embryonic, ill-advisedly synthy Depeche Mode-light moment, its live incarnation sounding far more impressive. Nevertheless its obscurity assures a lukewarm response. It was a low, but one the Mary Chain managed to pull themselves out of from then on.

Pedals are appreciably trodden on as the band switch it up into ‘Reverence’, sounding much more menacing than its studio version, Reid snarling its nihilistic lyric over a hypnotic bassline, before going full-on white noise with ‘Upside Down’ to end the beginning.

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The band return after a short break, those audience members heading for the bar finding their visit over-ambitious and missing ‘Just Like Honey’s timeless, chiming intro. The Mary Chain return to the stage and confidently do their signature track the justice it commands; restrained and beautiful, it’s almost magisterial.

‘Just Like Honey’ is talismanic, almost characteristic of aspects which impress so much tonight. The JAMC are more than capable of holding back, and producing gorgeous moments such as the ‘60s girl group intervals of ‘Cut Dead’. ‘Sowing Seeds’, after a false start, is equally shimmering, although dismissed as “some sort of fucking jazz version” by a wryly-smiling Jim Reid after he got the key completely wrong. But the main draws are of course the tempestuous swirls of noise such as ‘In A Hole’ or ‘Never Understand’, all but their most strident chord changes cloaked in squalls of feedback. The frequent monitor whistles just add to the atmosphere of the gainy sound, always teetering on the very brink of control, threatening to plummet at any moment into a hellish cacophony but never quite doing so. William Reid rakes the strings of his guitar right on the bridge, stalking up to his amps and thrusting the instrument at them, producing tortured howls of feedback from the equipment. Even thirty years on, it’s exhilarating stuff. Meanwhile little seems to defy Jim Reid’s inscrutable gaze, who mostly props himself up on his microphone stand. At times he wears the semi-apologetic look of a man who has stepped into your eyeline as you chose bananas in Tesco. At others he’s the epitome of the aloof frontman, looking smart in all black, barely able to make himself heard over his brother’s shrieking guitar but seemingly not caring.

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I find a certain correctness to Psychocandy, an appropriateness if you will. Everything from the title up seems to fit into a niche perfectly, describing the record’s bittersweet nature; it’s aggressive bubblegum, abrasive pop. It’s like sugar coated with… I don’t know, sulphuric acid, but Psychocandy is a pop record at heart, just like the JAMC are a pop band. There’s a similar inevitability to the Mary Chain sound; as if every chord change could only have happened one way, as if every lyric has only the rhyme they chose. It’s simplistic, primitive stuff and rightly influential on almost every noisy indie band of their day (Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth and Pixies to name a few), or on the dubious genre of shoegaze as a whole. Whether it’s the cut-‘n’-paste drums, channel upon channel of guitar or barely comprehensible lyrics, there would certainly be no Loveless without Psychocandy and even more so Darklands. Perhaps that record will also receive the thirtieth anniversary tour treatment in two years’ time.

So The Jesus and Mary Chain shamble off the Liverpool stage as they did coming on, Reid Snr. managing to stumble over some equipment onto his hands and knees upon exit. Please note that a ‘You Trip Me Up’ joke placed here would be trite and tasteless. The accident however seemed symptomatic of a gig that wasn’t a disaster, but a little beleaguered sounding in places. Far from perfect then, but there isn’t a lot of work to be done by the band which should see them sharpen up for the remainder of their dates.


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