THE SISTERS OF MERCY - The Nightclub 9:30, Washington DC, USA, September 23rd, 1999
(...putting the fun in funambulism...)

Photos 9/23/99

Let's get the extranities out of the way first: The band is fine, the lights are showy, the billowing clouds of smoke are so much a part of the mythology that they get cheers all by themselves. But they're all beside the point. The show's pinpoint center is Eldritch: he's its whole engine and focus, the sole reason you and I are all here. And what makes it work is his infinitely delicate balance, his tightrope poise between ironhanded control and utter, quaking terror. Yeah, terror. You may (or may not) be as surprised as I was to learn that Black Emperator Spig is as wracked by stage-fright now as he was in his kittenhood, but he is (and so honestly so, that he devoted an extended column in the splendid and sadly-defunct SOM zine Underneath The Rock to describing his most-used anti-panic devices: smoke, shades and vodka in that order). It gives one the oddest sense - so unexpected - of empathy and support for him to realize this. You just can't stand in subservient awe of someone, however much admired, when his beautiful fencer's poise shivers visibly, and you know that his off-balance grace comes not from ease and confidence but from sheer will power exerting a white-knuckle grip on his every motion.

So it's impossible not to have goodwill in your heart as he walks on - just walks, no Entrance - and takes the mike. The focus of all the room's attention pulls straight into him with an near-audible snap and he accepts it impassively. The band kicks straight into "Train" and he picks up the rhythm almost unconsciously, rocking his weight off one slid-back heel. The man's aging elegantly, striking as ever, the chiseled cheekbones and jawline just as statuesque. Slight and compact in black leather pants and a tight, sleeveless t-shirt that emphasizes his wiry arms and expressive, finely-manicured hands. The hand that isn't gripping the mike - never minus a cigarette - moves constantly, describing shapes in the smoke, warning, admonishing, underlining. Handcuff him and he couldn't sing a line. The tense, sensitive fingers test the air, careful as antennae as he paces, his mouth working with nervous intensity. The intensity's as keen as the nerves as he hurls his whippet frame into the songs, contorting into doubled-over knots, lunging into the mike stand. And that voice! Where does he keep that sobbing, core-deep cavern of a voice? There's hardly room in his chest for the mass of it, epic and fathomless, something raised by black prayer from the deeps of the sea. It commands the hall, and he owns us....and retreats into the safety of his rolling fogbanks of smoke. The Recluse Emperor.

Eldritch grabs his first shot of the night (the Poland Spring water bottles that line the back of the stage, filled with cherry-red liquid, eventually prove to contain a potent-smelling homebrew of vodka and cranberry juice) and commences to rule. The set covers a generous timeframe from "Teachers", "Train", and "On The Wire" through Floodland ("Dominion/Mother Russia", the crowd-pleasing encore "This Corrosion" --"Sing!" he commands, raising his mike like a scepter, and watches with serene pride as the crowd roars the chorus-- and an intense, dramatic "Flood I"/"Flood II"), Vision Thing ("Detonation Boulevard", "Something Fast", "Vision Thing", and the hissed erotic menace of "Ribbons"), and five (!) as-yet-unrecorded songs that show Eldritch to be, if not breaking any new ground, at least cruising reassuringly on course. Favorites here were the moody, handsome "Summer", the surprisingly poppish bounce of "Will I Dream" (which sounds as if it should have been a single from VT) and the lovely "(We Are The Same) Suzanne", with its sweet, plaintive riff and indelible chorus. We're even treated to a jaw-dropping straight-faced cover of the Andrews Sisters' "Bei Mir Bist du Schon" - Andy Eldritch, America's Wartime Sweetheart. Doktor Avalanche's duties have expanded from mere percussion to handling bass and sound effects as well, and the neutral but capable guitarists take it all in stride.

--You can't help but be struck by the thousand little balances and counter-balances in the performance, the little ironies, the way Eldritch sings with the desperate anguish of a drowning man but still manages to convey that he thinks the whole thing a little absurd...and likes it that way. ("This is no job for a grown man," he observes dryly at one point.) He needs the distance and security of the star/fan wall, but somehow bridles at the artificiality of that arrangement, and looks for controllable ways to kick through. As more shots follow the first he opens up a little breathing space, making wry quips in response to questions, seeming genuinely curious about the possibilities of dialogue between us. His bone-dry cracks are truly funny, and he doesn't mind getting a laugh. (Remember "Trust me, I'm a gynecologist", from DH3?) He demands respect - not only should you sing along, but you get a black mark if you fumble a line - but the solemn stares of the Goths so irk him that he challenges one front-row girl to smile and even invites her onstage to dance with him. ("You're embarrassed now, aren't you?" he asks her. "Believe me, not as much as I am.") It's as if he wishes you saw the thing in all its monumental, overblown, ridiculous glory and loved both the nonsense and the glory of it, somehow saw it the way he must - the tawdry carnival lights of a cheap thrill ride that can change your life for real - and constantly shifts the sharp edge of his presentation to catch that light, trying to make it reflect in your eye. The moment when the crowd reacts with spontaneous joy, when everyone sings every word, is the one in which he steps back a pace and smiles.

In the last analysis, though, one's strongest feeling - stronger even than awe - is gratitude. So rarely do you get something like this, so layered with nuance and shade, something that never has to raise its voice (figuratively, of course; Eldritch's voice is still registering on seismographs miles away). It wants you to think but doesn't hammer you with concepts; gets you to dance without ever having to ask you; is sexier in its whispered subtlety than a year's worth of tight lurex and rude words. Less Is More, if you craft that "less" with care, and this one's raised with the skill of a diamond cutter and the conscience of Hippocrates.

Truly epic. AND groovy.

==paula angelynx== by Elizabeth Bouras.
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