Cosmic, sulky, deliberate of tempo: Mazzy Star has its act down cold ... leaving no room, unfortunately, for warmth.
Detachment is what makes Mazzy Star both alluring and annoying. To a stuffed house at Slim's on the Saturday before Christmas, the six-piece psychedelic revival band -- something of a local entity (singer Hope Sandoval reportedly lives in Berkeley) -- played it typically coy. In a crisp, dozen-song set capped by two brief encores, every move was calculated, and there weren't many moves; the only words spoken to a mostly adoring (if tranquilized) crowd were maestro David Roback's summary "thank you" as he exited stage left.
Psychedelia in its heyday was nothing if not mercurial, alternately luminous and ludicrous, guitars played with breathtaking gravity on one passage and with ham fists on the next. But under the exacting direction of Roback -- sometimes tagged "David Throwback" as the erstwhile bandleader of two other neo-paisley groups, Rain Parade and Opal -- Mazzy Star has retrieved classic psychedelia from mothballs and ironed out its myriad wrinkles, rendering the hoary old style presentable enough for a surprise hit single (1993's "Fade Into You") and platinum-selling album (So Tonight That I Might See).
Singer Sandoval is the musical equivalent of Kate Moss: not just waifish in stature, but pouty and manipulative as a performer. Her one-trick songwriting strategy is to drone romantic lyrics sucked dry of emotion, like a Kids cast member reading from Wuthering Heights. Though she may still sing, "You're a ghost on the highway/ And I'll love you forever," you get the feeling the Jim Morrison poster is long gone from the back of her bedroom door. (Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger, however, are apparently still tops with her partner Roback.)
To be fair, Sandoval's steely baby-talk works perfectly well with Roback's folkie foundations, his minimalist Velvet Underground mimicry, even his sterilized country blues. And all these elements contribute to a singularly focused stylistic package.
At Slim's, the band drew equally from their three albums, the 1990 debut She Hangs Brightly, the aforementioned So Tonight, and the recent Among My Swan. The newest songs suggested that Mazzy Star has become less adventurous, if anything, than they were at their outset. Still, their formula obviously works, attracting a devoted fan base about which no pat generalizations can be made (and nothing frustrates a writer more). Despite Sandoval's affinity for the words "devil," "spirit," and "ghost," there were few black-clad witchie-poos in attendance, and despite the band's modern-rock successes, paying customers who might have been judged fair-weather rock fans didn't seem to mind that Mazzy Star passed over their best-known song.
Delving quickly into their oldest material with "Blue Flower" from the first album, the band established early on that it was not just well-rehearsed but well-versed in the ebb and flow of concert presentation. Shrouded in a bare minimum of stage lighting, at times the outfit seemed to have less than six working parts, with Roback's second guitarist occasionally stepping to the fore with a violin on his shoulder. With all eyes riveted to Sandoval, the hottest topic of between-song conversation in the sardined audience revolved around the backlighting that was making the singer's sleeveless cotton top sheer as cellophane. (Methodically shaking her ubiquitous tambourine, Sandoval couldn't be bothered, by the lighting or anything else.) Among My Swan is not as bad as some critics are claiming, and the tracks the band played from it -- "Still Cold," the murky, effect-laden "Happy," the churchy and bleak "Look on Down From the Bridge" -- were of a piece with their earlier material. "Flowers in December" featured Sandoval on harmonica. Magic Dick she's not, but her wheezing melody, accompanied by an elegant violin, was oddly affecting.
The band's obligatory flashback segment came in the middle of the show, as Roback coaxed dizzying transmissions from his electric guitar with a slide on "Umbilical" (or was it "She Hangs Brightly"? Like many Mazzy songs, they're nearly interchangeable). The lazy sing-along "Ride It On" brought the band back to solid ground before they segued into "Flowers ..." and "Into Dust," the latter suggesting that somebody's been admiring Kristin Hersh's solo records.
Opening act the Sunshine Club was perfectly suited to play Mazzy's undercard, surely winning over at least a few new fans with their own stately misery and similarly Velvets-descended guitars. The band played a number of songs from their indie debut, Visit to a Small Planet, including the quietly desperate "Sunshine Maker" and the band's most twangy tune, "Rainy Day Friend," introducing a new composition or two as well. Husky-voiced singer Denise Bon Giovanni thanked the crowd "for being so cool and quiet during our set" and guitarist Sean Coleman gushed twice that the Club were "thrilled to be here." The controlled feedback of their finale, with all three guitar players facing their amps, was much more dignified than most similar displays.
A few songs into the Sunshine Club's set, one female patron standing behind me said that the group reminded her of the Sundays, as well as the Cowboy Junkies, "of course." When her companion pointed out that the band onstage had "a little more edge" than the others, she replied, "Doesn't everything?" Including Mazzy Star?