Who: Neil Halstead
Where: The Sunset
When: Saturday, August 23
Looking every bit like he had just rolled out of his tent, Neil Halstead delivered an hour-long set of hazy folk soothers to a Sunset crammed with folks in love with his old bands Slowdive and Mojave 3—actually the latter is still active, but the former definitely defunct. In his full beard, shaggy hair, and Converse shoes, Halstead sat on his stool hunched over a beautiful Martin acoustic and half-whispered a set of new solo material, older solo material, and Mojave 3 songs. And despite the shout-outs for Slowdive material (“Allison!”)—Halstead did ask for requests, by the way—he assured the crowd there would be no Slowdive played that evening. He opened the show all by his lonesome, then brought out “a couple friends; Adam and Ben” to back him up with guitar and bass on the title track of his new album Oh Mighty Engine.
I’m not like the diehard Halstead fans I know were in attendance that night. But I do like the guy very much and have been more impressed with this new solo material than much of his past work. When he played “Little Twig”, “Sometimes the Wheels”, and another song I didn’t recognize about a door-to-door Bible thumper (which sounded for all the world like a lost John Prine classic), I noted a serious stoner tone to his work. It’s not “stoner” like that of Brightblack Morning Light, but rather a mature toke-with-morning-tea kind of tone. Halstead has always evoked a relaxing vibe with his music, but this new stuff is re-laaaaaaaaxed…laaaaiiiiiiiid back, if you will. You’ll not hints of The Byrds, Parsons, and some of Crosby’s early solo work. With his accompanists Adam and Ben, they bopped their way through a brief set of new material because, as Halstead explained, they’d been opening for Jack Johnson up until now, so they hadn’t worked up a full set yet. To make up for time, he let Adam and Ben take a break while he delivered a stark little solo set, called them back out for a couple more tracks off Oh Mighty Engine, then encored all by himself with Mojave 3’s “My Life In Art”, giving the crowd a sense of fulfillment to exit with.
Halstead has a strange way of commanding attention while being totally unassuming that I admire: his songs are dreamy and elusive, and if you reach out to grab at them, it’ll be like clutching at air. But then, all of a sudden, the fog lifts to reveal these little moments of lyrical simplicity and clarity. Listening to Halstead, I can’t help but think of what Neil Young meant when he sang about a “smoke-ring day when the wind blows”.