Published on December 30th, 2013 | by Rob Rubsam0
Concert Review: Brooklyn – Stars of the Lid
Show Review: Stars of the Lid w/ Wordless Music Orchestra at The Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Sunset Park Brooklyn
The train ride from Poughkeepsie to New York passes the Palisades, Bannerman’s Castle, Bear Mountain (the farthest north Kerouac travels in On the Road), Indian Point. The factories and the gravel mine that dot the tracks, growing ever sparser, all look about a hundred years old, even when still in operation; rust creeps up the sides, and the life of each is only declared by the occasional new sign, or by the trucks, themselves old, just sitting around. Today, the 17th, we’re traveling into a snowstorm and it whips by the train and kicks up off the river. In all the white and gray, a few snatches of color, red vines and light brown cattails, leap out, and ducks and seagulls turn over the water or sit on the ice. Sometimes when I look across the Hudson, everything but a few hundred yards on my bank is invisible, completely washed out and desolate. Sometimes there’s nothing there at all.
The Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, so I take the subway from Manhattan and as it passes over the Brooklyn Bridge the train passes brand new condos and empty office buildings. A woman stands next to me and touches a bruised finger to the window every time we turn. The neighborhood is cold and icy but warm in other ways, restaurants full of families speaking Spanish and lit banners of shooting stars strung up over the street.
Inside the church it seems barely warmer, giant vaulted ceilings stealing whatever heat is generated in this 19th century building. Music stands are set up in front of the altar and the half-dome of the basilica sits massive above us, Mary framed at center. In fact, she is all over, in the way that crucifixes tend to be in European cathedrals. We sit in small pews with hymnals and missalettes reading Unidos in Cristo sitting in wire baskets a bit too close to the benches for my long legs. An inscription reads:
No One Ever
Implored Thy Help
I’m not sure to who it is addressed.
Justin Walter goes on a little after 8 PM, playing what seems to me like a digitized saxophone, capturing and looping the sounds to make beats that a friend on drums occasionally picks up on. When Walter noodles, it seems like overblown lite-jazz, but when he succumbs to low bass hums and the slow, steady build toward climaxes that never quite arrive, he approaches something resembling thrilling.
Between acts everyone stands, stretches. A man in front of me with a shock of brown hair reaches for his cigarettes. Before and between sets, scratchy old music plays over the loudspeakers, perhaps the stylings of William Basinski, I can’t be sure.
After a brief “Hello Sunset Park!” Stars of the Lid begin. I never connected with the duo’s recordings, in fact buying and returning ‘The Tired Sounds Of’ around the time it was released. The two seem to work from what sounds like a dare: ‘What if we made Pärt and Górecki even simpler?’ It might seem strange coming from someone who knowingly bought tickets to a drone show, but I guess I always wanted a little more movement.
But live, with the 15-piece Wordless Music Orchestra, including 2013 Pulitzer Prize (for music) winner Caroline Shaw, everything just clicked. Standing up on the altar the parts stirred glacially, small shifts moving through whole string sections, but they were no longer isolated sounds; each movement made sense. Brian McBride and Adam Wiltzie provided the base of each piece on guitar or keyboard, but the body lay with the strings. Those players gave each piece a life and a heartbeat.
Several projectors sat in the choir loft and I spent most of the performance focusing on the kaleidoscopic imagery, at some times dense, others bare. Once, a woman’s face hung transfixed over the rim of the basilica, then spun and disappeared. On occasion McBride or Wiltzie would gaze up, too.
The bulk of the performance was entirely new material, tough for me to judge given my lack of engagement with the rest of the band’s catalog. As would be expected, the pieces were slow, slotting together placidly, climaxing in searing hums as the sky tore wide open, staying on that open note for quite some time. There is much talk of ‘spiritual’ music but no song has ever approximated a closeness with God to me; but in those sustained blasts, I might have heard it. Then it was gone and we trooped out into the cold, filling the subway all the way back to Manhattan, clear and bright and all the emptier for it.