It had been a long week, grey and rainy. I’d come down with a cold on Tuesday and spent the following 72 hours in a clogged funk. How providential, then, for the clouds to part late Saturday afternoon, low sun bursting through to the wet and shining city, hours before Slowdive took the stage at Olympia. Bolstered by the promising weather, I popped my meds and headed down to the show.
Japanese Breakfast kicked things off, the room already nearing capacity. The Brooklyn quartet lined the front of the stage and dutifully powered through their upbeat indie rock setlist, frontwoman Michelle Zauner’s peppy banter linking one song to the next. They seemed a little stiff, with their songs failing to really pop and fill the room. It was difficult to determine whether the fault lied with the arrangement and instrumentation or with the venue’s sound techs: guitar and bass blurred together and backup vocals remained buried in the mix. In the end Michelle’s powerful vocals stood out as the only clearly distinguishable element, and it felt more like we were hearing the idea of the songs than the complete package. Despite these sound issues the audience was forgiving, sending the band off with a roar as they closed with their strongest number, the driving “Machinist.”
After a wait filled with steadily rising hype and a strikingly good playlist (krautrock, Abba, and a Rihanna cover), the lights dimmed. The immediately familiar, comforting swells of Brian Eno’s “Deep Blue Day” filled the room and Slowdive ambled onstage, greeted us politely, and began.
At first, I was concerned. The opening run of songs seemed initially to be suffering from the same issues as the previous set: things felt a little muddy and underwhelming. Easing us in with a couple new songs and a few cuts off their older but lesser-known albums, the anticipation continued to swell, as if they hadn’t yet fully arrived.
As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about. Twenty minutes in, they dropped “Machine Gun” and everything locked into place. The difference was immediate. My body shook with peals of thundering guitar and pounding drums as psychedelic vistas opened up behind my closed eyelids, spurred by the strobing screensaver visuals onstage. The song hit harder, much heavier than the ones before. Maybe it was the crowd responding to an old favourite, maybe the techs finally nailed the mix, maybe the song was just written that way; whatever the case, from that point forward, they were in their groove.
The remainder of the set proved to be a pleasant exercise in dynamics. All the older tracks, such as “Alison” and the outstanding “When the Sun Hits,” served as the anchors, the ballast around which we could comfortably tether. Peppered between, the newer tracks all seemed lighter by comparison, more spacious and synth-heavy, marking an interesting new direction from more mature songwriters. The oscillation between gritty ’90s shoegaze and polished contemporary alt-rock was pleasant, and – with the aid of a truly outstanding light show – hypnotic. When the encore finished and the lights came on, I wandered out, dazed, with a newfound respect for an iconic group that has flourished for decades and turned out to be a lot more versatile than I once assumed.