The next question I asked myself was ‘will I accept the earplugs distributed on the way in or are those just for lightweights?’. My friend had joked I should play it by ear (pun intended) and see if I could cope without, but I made the sensible decision – considering I had a 9am the next day to get back to Bristol for and couldn’t afford not to be able to hear – to accept. Someone jokingly tweeted earlier in the day that apparently they were going to do an acoustic set. For those of you unfamiliar with the group, an acoustic set would be akin to Pavarotti performing without singing or Dylan doing ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ without a harmonica. Inconceivable. The Dublin outfit are renowned for their distortion, ear-splittingly loud sets and meticulously produced albums and EPs. Legend has it that during their 1992 ‘Rollercoaster’ tour, sound waves were so great that they would cause pint glasses to fall out of spectators’ hands.
They started off with a new song, called ‘New You’, which appears on the new album, mbv, released on February 2nd, and – with its crescendos and increases in intensity – was a devastatingly effective opening track. It preceded ‘I Only Said’, which they usually open with; the first of six from Loveless.
The way that you only notice singer Bilinda Butcher every once in a while typifies the effect that listening to the four piece can have; the way it has you mesmerized, zoned out, surrounded by incoherent noise. It’s as if she’s singing loudly enough to be heard but you’re not hearing it, and not because of the earplugs. Half of me thinks that that’s best-suited to other environments: when you’re at home, or on the underground where the sound of the tunnel acts as further background noise and you’re imagining (and praying) that you’re anywhere but the packed, grubby train carriage that you’re in. This seemingly suits more than the somewhat pressured environment – where were the singing more audible, you’d be expecting people to sing along and were the music more dancy, dance – of a music venue. And while the gazing at them more intently than the archetypal shoegaze band’s gaze at their footwear does put you in set of pleasant trances which make you forget just how much it cost for a drink on the way in, when they finally finish ‘Soon’ and you realise that the 50-year-old next to you has muscled his way in front, you lament not having them to yourself.
The sound quality was a bit ropey, there were surely too many awkward silences and tune-ups – one punter remarked that it was as if, while other bands did sound-checks, MBV did their rehearsing in front of the 1500 there – and Shields even stopped ‘To Here Knows When’ halfway through. For such a perfectionist who can spend days just setting up his amp, it is surprising that he put up with such a substandard P.A.. Despite their initial rustiness, however, they steadily got better, finishing with the headbangingly frenzied ‘Feed Me With Your Kiss’ and immortal ‘You Made Me Realise’, leaving fans craving an encore which was not forthcoming – and never is in their shows. Other highlights included ‘Only Shallow’ and ‘Come In Alone’, and while it was far from being anywhere near as perfect as their 1991 album which they have only this week felt able to release a successor to, it was certainly quite something.