godspeed you black emperor!

Godspeed you black emperor! live; December 2, 2000 (Review by Bob Massey.)

St. John's Methodist Church, Baltimore

Around the turn of the century, the gray stone walls of St. John's Methodist went up on what is now a forlorn block in uptown Baltimore. Today, only the smoky stained glass and the choir loft suggest any former luster. Most of the people who showed up to see Godspeed You Black Emperor! probably hadn't darkened the doorway of a church in a long time, but this Montreal collective performs requiems that seem equally suited for Saturday-night drives or Sunday-morning mass. Eschewing interviews, identifying themselves by first name only, and purveying a ghostly and demanding chamber music devoid of lyrics, Godspeed have carved out their own negative space, one that an increasingly large fan base is eager to see filled.

After a short set by mournful folkie Will Oldham, the first violin drone drifted off the chancel. The nine members of Godspeed sat or stood, mute and eerily still under the high arch, dimly visible under a single red light. The performance, drawn mostly from the group's third album, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, was divided into long thematic movements. On "Monheim," the cellist plucked a hypnotic pattern under a languid violin line, a guitar somehow impersonated the sound of an operatic diva, and the band's charge up a crescendo reverberated off every sternum in the room. Godspeed's iconic geography is clearly the lonely highway between cities. In place of lyrics, film loops painted impressionistic pictures of unnamed towns and broken landscapes, which their music mapped through slow, steady movement punctuated by energetic swells.

The occasionally repetitive strain of American Gothic -- readings from the Book of Job; medieval illustrations of hell; Super 8 films of solitary figures, skyscrapers, and abandoned industrial sites -- was leavened by hopeful moments, like the pretty guitar and chimes that opened the new album's title track. (During the song's driving fugue, one bespectacled woman squatted on the floor, holding her head in her hands and swaying in time.) The group's music contained subtle musical quotes from Sinatra, J.S. Bach, the Eagles, Henryk Gorecki, and "Amazing Grace" -- almost a survey of the car radio dial. At this run-down church in dirty Baltimore, Godspeed managed to sketch a pop-mythical space between the (North) American dream and its waking reality: religon, lost factories and farms, and roads to nowhere.

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