Godspeed You! Black Emperor played at the Sage Gateshead on Saturday, accompanied by support act Dead Rat Orchestra. It was a heavily anticipated performance for fans of alternative music in the area, and turned out to be a strange one for several reasons.
Dead Rat Orchestra begin their performance at 7:30, as the audience is still filtering into the venue and struggling to find their seats in the dark. Two bearded, full-throated singers and multi-instrumentalists, they are ostensibly a folk act, but their music is less traditional than that implies. While they certainly draw on old folk standards, their performance is often more obscure and impressionistic than that. They use feedback loops and unusual instruments to supplement their music – one of the duo often tapes down the keys of his organ, the other uses a metronome as part of one song, and blows through a straw into the microphone as part of another.
It’s unclear how receptive the (at this point, relatively small) audience is to this kind of experimentation, but for my part this sense of atmosphere, of songs rising up out of the impressions of songs, is immensely effective. A touch of humour helps to make sure proceedings don’t become too solemn; the final song, an eighteenth century folk ballad called ‘The Black Procession’, is introduced as being about ‘criminal justice, in a roundabout way.’ And certainly when they burst into full song, often in unison, the range and power of their voices is enough to carry off any sense of self-indulgence and make Dead Rat Orchestra a surprising, compelling intro to the show.
And then, of course, the main event. Godspeed arrange themselves in a loose semicircle, self-consciously avoiding giving any one band member the centre-stage position. They’ve always been a collective more than a band. And in case anyone wasn’t certain it was really them, they start the show by blasting the audience with a huge wall of noise, while the projection on the wall behind them shows grainy footage of railway tracks with the word ‘HOPE’ scrawled in messy handwriting, flashing over the top. You couldn’t give a better summary of the aesthetic they’ve been working with for the last twenty years if you tried.
The Sage feels simultaneously like a very weird and a very oddly appropriate place to see a Godspeed gig. The decrepit industrial wastelands being projected in the background during the performance are in sharp contrast to the impressive room housing that performance, and the band’s whole punk aesthetic is belied by their performing in front of a largely seated audience, in a building most suited to hosting classical recitals. And yet this anarchic presentation can’t hide the sheer symphonic scope of the music. I’d wager no single piece performed during the show clocks in at under ten minutes, and ‘Behemoth’, the piece that takes up the entirety of their most recent album Asunder, is, well, a behemoth.
As the show goes on, the quality that allows them to captivate the attention of a room this size becomes very apparent. Precedence is given to material from the band’s two post-reunion albums, with ‘Mladic’ from their 2012 comeback album, and the aforementioned ‘Behemoth’ taking up most of the evening. These are compositions that build slowly from humble beginnings into huge, cathartic climaxes which have the whole room in awe. ‘Behemoth’ begins with this kind of bombast, collapses into a long drone section in the middle, then bursts back into life again for a sustained, soaring post-rock conclusion.
Then disaster strikes. The lights come up during the performance. Someone has reported a fire in the building and we have to evacuate. Worse, it happens as the band appears to be beginning ‘Moya’, the first pre-split material of the evening and a fan favourite. The audience give a standing ovation while they’re ushered out of the building, in case the show doesn’t go on. It’s a weird, faintly
heartening moment. The show is resumed with admirable efficiency after just a few minutes, but likely due to time restraints, ‘Moya’ is sadly never continued
This interruption over, we instead move into what is seemingly new material – an impressively intense piece of joyful celebration, reminiscent in mood of their classic ‘Storm’, and accompanied on the projection by striking images of derelict skyscrapers. It’s nothing ground-breaking, but it’s a great piece of music that will hopefully make it onto an album in the future. After this, as if to apologise, the band closes the show with the piece that makes up the other half of the EP containing ‘Moya’, another fan favourite and my personal pick for the best thing they’ve ever put to record, ‘BBF3’.
Whether they’d been intending previously to play the two back-to-back as they appeared on the EP is unclear. Regardless, the room bursts into excited applause when the idiosyncratic voiceover that provides the thematic core of the piece comes on, and the night climaxes with a rousing, deafening performance of the most driving, ferocious music Godspeed have ever produced. Once they’re done (the projection having returned to the railway tracks from the start of the show again), the band don’t wait for applause. They exit the stage one by one, in no particular order of precedence, each giving a little wave to the audience and leaving feedback loops going onstage to stifle any sense of a conclusion. You only know it’s over when the lights come back on and you can see the goose bumps on your skin clear as day again, and people start to shuffle out oddly quiet like they’ve witnessed a miracle.