Magnolia Electric Co @ The Brudenell Social Club, Leeds, 4/9/09

September 13, 2009

Before the show, Jason Molina (who is tiny) wandered happily around the venue complex, passing me about three or four times. First, he was watching support act The Bitter Tears, next, he came out for a fag out front (enjoying the fact that he turned heads with this appearance, he held up the ‘V’ for peace sign and lit up), then he passed me in the corridor, by this time, suited up for the show. I patted him on the back.

The younger Ollie would have accosted him at some point – I mean, I had enough chances – but I’m almost 30, don’tcha know. Let the man get on with his life and the show. My role is to spectate and annotate. Or as Denny put it when we went along to see Molina play solo at The Mint Lounge in Manchester, ‘what would you say to him? You don’t want to get too close to that sort of greatness’.

I don’t know if Jason Molina is one of the greats. Too often, his songs revisit the same themes – the first time, they hit, by the third time, you sense a little artifice – and the sound of tonight’s set is essentially one-dimensional. It’s an awesome, old-time electric rock dimension, but nevertheless, non-aficionado friends of mine are left feeling that the show was a little samey.

But he was rocking up old acoustic gems like Whip Poor Will – and adding hugely impressive layers of distortion and mystery to Talk To Me Devil, Again, which on record, is a lovely, chiming dream! Sure, but if you’re not familiar with the songs in the first place, it just sounds like another stern, musicianly blast, from the same Neil Young & Crazy Horse lineage as the last.

I took one look at The Bitter Tears, dressed up as they were in varying shades of preposterousness and wrote them off, before smirking and deciding to stick around and watch for a while. The singer, in white face-paint, hotpants, tights and a red, sparkly top (and straw Stetson) broke off from an excellent song from the PoV of a trucker who’s just run over a dog on the freeway to jump into a wary, reserved audience. He gets back onto the stage and unsuccessfully tries some banter, before giving in with one last shot; ‘don’t worry, the jam band Magnolia Electric Co will be here soon… then you won’t have to think too much’.

I wonder, does he have a point? But in the end, I’ve decided ‘no’. An evening watching Molina kick out the jams is fine reward for his fans, who have followed him through his lengthy, varied career.

There is pain in Jason Molina songs, cryptic symbolism, forlorn love – ‘static and distance’, many haunting images. All the violence of nature, many bleak, empty landscapes and endless variations on the theme of love. At his best, there are few songwriters capable of provoking such emotional resonance….

Fuck it, let’s rock for an hour.

Of course, there are numerous cuts from new album Josephine, with which I’m not yet acquainted – but previous Magnolia albums are well represented, especially What Comes After The Blues. The Dark Don’t Hide It, one of Molina’s poppiest tunes, benefits from the crunchy ambience of the silver-grilled Fender valve amps, more so perhaps than the awesome Hammer Down, which suits the nakedness of Molina + acoustic guitar superbly.

Elsewhere, Talk To Me Devil, Again surpasses the (gorgeous) Fading Trails version so spectacularly, it almost calls for a re-recording – and the classic Magnolia Electric Co LP gets two references. Riding With The Ghost makes for a stirring opening salvo, before a neat bookend set is completed by a suitably huge encore of John Henry Split My Heart. This full-blooded barrage follows audience requests / pleas for Farewell Transmission. ‘Oh, we’ve got something to top that’, drawls Molina. He doesn’t, but the unexpected lurch into mid air across the Grand Canyon-expanse of John Henry is nevertheless a fan’s delight.

Other than that, we get treated to some serious guitar riffs from Jason Groth – one or two friends felt his style was a bit overkill, but I love him for his aggressive, dominant lead, which is not promoted so high in the mix as to be over-the-top. Again, those I spoke to say that Molina’s voice was drowned out a bit by the band – nah. I’ve heard Molina sing plenty. I know what he’s saying. Let me bask in the amp power for an hour.

That’s where the singer from The Bitter Tears was dead wrong and that’s his problem. By hiding his undoubted intelligence behind a misanthropic facade, Alan Scalpone, who could do much better, who could go further, chooses not to. Molina has said so much in his career and provoked so much admiration for his songwriting, that to describe Magnolia Electric Co as a ‘jam band’, whether in jest or not, was another blooper on the road to the end.

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