Mogwai at the Thebby

Mar 01, 2015

Serendipity is magnificent. Around the age of 10, I sat down in a large, open-sided shed one day and witnessed – purely by accident – my first rock gig.

It was Easter 1968, maybe 1969. I was a newsboy, walking around Sydney’s agricultural show all day selling newspapers. By mid-afternoon my feet were hot and tired, and while I relaxed I watched some people set up stuff on a stage. I was about to see The Masters Apprentices.

A few years later, some teenage mates took me to see a US band I’d never heard of, Little Feat, and they’ve been a strong favourite ever since. So on Friday, I hoped that the chance to see Scottish band Mogwai, as InDaily’s last-minute replacement reviewer, might also spark new excitement.

Suffice to say, at the end of the evening I was not an instant new fan, despite admiring much of what I saw. But Thebarton Theatre was filled with an enthusiastic and respectful crowd who warmly greeted and applauded every Mogwai song, so the congnoscenti were happy.

The Red Paintings, an Australian art-rock band, opened with a show strong on visuals. Three highly stylised geishas played cello, violin and bass, looking stunning in matching red and silver, and two local artists painted live on stage.

With a near-naked woman on a pedestal to the side, dancing like Shiva while she was painted red all over, main man Trash McSweeney cavorted about in a Cossack outfit – set off by what looked like a child’s R2D2 backpack. The Painters’ new show is highly watchable, but the music often felt muddled or drab when it didn’t descend into distopian diatribes.

In extreme contrast, the five members of Mogwai looked more like office workers on casual Friday as they trudged on stage to begin their first Adelaide show in 13 years (and their only Adelaide performance this visit).

Pretty much all I knew about Mogwai was that they are Scottish, stupendously loud but also soft in extended passages, and that their mostly instrumental repertoire has been a festival mainstay for nigh-on 20 years. At this show, the musicians – playing guitars, bass, keyboards, drums and occasional violin – built pieces using loops, effects and wide contrasts in the crystal-clear volume to unveil their music’s sepulchral architecture.

You’ve heard about Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound”? Mogwai create, live on stage, a whole suburb of sound – ranging emotionally from utter tranquility to the organised, chest-thumping fury of a SWAT raid with helicopters.

Before going to the Thebby, I played a couple of Mogwai songs on YouTube. “Mogwai Fear Satan” is just astonishing, but on Friday night my favourite was the beautiful first encore, “Hunted By A Freak”. The set list also included songs such as “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead”, “Travel is Dangerous”, “How to be a Werewolf” and “Remurdered”.

I’ll certainly listen to more Mogwai – once I’ve bought bigger speakers! So maybe they will enter my life in a slow burn, like the music they write, rather than with instant, childish delight.

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Mogwai performed one show only at the Thebarton Theatre as part of the Adelaide Festival program.

Click here for more 2015 Adelaide Festival stories and reviews.



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