Live Review: Mogwai at the Belly Up, June 3, 2012

Photo credit: Steve Gullick

MP3: Mogwai – “San Pedro” (MP3)
MP3: Mogwai – “Rano Pano” (MP3)

Note: Update following review

Since 1985, Mogwai has been blazing a trail in the underdog world of post-rock. Known for its bleak, largely instrumental, guitar-drenched soundscapes, the five-piece from Glasgow, Scotland, has paved the way for so many bands in this niche genre.

At the Belly Up on Sunday, Mogwai started the proceedings with dimmed lights and a steady drone echoing throughout the venue. As the band made its way to the stage, guitarist Stuart Braithwaite’s unmistakable Glaswegian accent greeted the near-capacity venue with a very polite “Hello, we’re Mogwai,” while bassist Dominic Aitchison pushed off gently into the set with the melodic bass line of “Yes! I Am A Long Way From Home” from Young Team, the band’s 1997 debut album. The song’s laid-back beginnings quickly gathered pace before exploding into effect-ridden guitar debauchery, surely reaching close to Mach 3 for anyone in the front row.

Mogwai was joined onstage by guest musician Chad VanGaalen, who played guitar and piano. Although a supremely talented musician in his own right, VanGaalen was clearly not 100% up on the behemoth that is the Mogwai back catalog, and at times turned to his Glaswegian comrades for guidance with panicked glances of “What happens next?”

“I’m Jim Morrison. I’m Dead” from 2008’s The Hawk Is Howling and “Travel Is Dangerous” from 2006’s Mr. Beast came next, followed quickly by “I Know You Are but What Am I?” from 2003’s Happy Songs for Happy People. Throughout the set, Braithwaite and Co. ripped through a well-balanced mix of past and present fan favorites without a hitch. Well, almost without a hitch.

Technical issues plagued the band midway through its set, which obviously caused frustration even as Braithwaite tried to make light of failing equipment and gremlins (or Mogwais) in their monitors. Issues were soon resolved as the unmistakable clicking intro of “Mexican Grand Prix” machine gunned over the PA to a big cheer from the crowd. The band then headed down the finishing straight with the epic “Rano Pano,” “Ex Cowboy,” and “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong” making appearances before the finale of “We’re No Here” closed out the show nicely.

Throughout the band’s 17-year career, Mogwai has consistently received critical acclaim for its live shows and continues to be a powerhouse in the post-rock genre. Musically, the praise is absolutely justified, with the Scots creating sounds and textures that in one moment can be as delicate as a wind chime swaying in the breeze, and the next, make you feel like you are being sucked out of a Boeing 747 at 50,000 feet.

The problem with this, however, is that without a visual performance element, music played this well can feel a little like listening to a recording. This is exactly what happened at the Belly Up. Granted, Braithwaite made every effort to reveal some kind of feeling and emotion in what he was playing, and certainly attempted to tune into the crowd. Sadly, the same can’t be said of the remaining band members, who for the most part looked like they wished they were somewhere else. Mogwai have from time to time been dubbed as a “shoegaze” band and, in many respects, they lived up to this label.

Go and see bands from the same genre like Explosions in the Sky or Pelican and you will witness a musical performance in the truest sense of the word. For these bands, every part of the performance oozes passion and feeling, and communicates that they truly love what they do — something that Mogwai struggled to deliver.

Musically, Mogwai are masters of their trade. This was without a doubt a good show. But it might have been a fantastic show if I had closed my eyes.

Editor’s note: Mogwai have informed us that Chad VanGaalen has never joined them onstage. We regret the error.

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