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There’s No Going Back : Intense Mazzy Star Plays on Its Own Introverted Terms, Forgoing Theatrics--and a Second Encore

Show business custom doesn’t matter to Mazzy Star. At the Coach House on Tuesday, not even wild applause could get the Los Angeles band to do what most other rock headliners do when a crowd voices the least sign of approval: jump back on stage for an encore.

For more than five minutes, a lit-up audience hollered and cheered for a second encore at the end of a too-brief, 58-minute set. Tough luck, but this one truly was over and done when Mazzy Star came to a hushed finish with its sepulchral show-closer, “Into Dust.”

Step by sad, halting step, singer Hope Sandoval had lowered the song into the grave. Finis. Requiem in Pacem. An encore would have been as great a violation as a disinterment.

In fact, Sandoval, like the song’s disintegrating protagonist, was gone by the end of “Into Dust.” Before her band mates could stroke the last notes, she hurried from the stage, like somebody who has been dealt sudden, tragic news and can’t stand to remain in others’ sight. It left one wondering whether this slender, fragile singer could have performed more even had she wanted to.

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Utterly miscast for something as extroverted as performance, Sandoval and the rest of the band played on their own introverted terms.

Forget stage patter, or even thank-yous to acknowledge applause. Mazzy Star made not a sound between songs, except for the deep sigh Sandoval let out before the unrecorded number that immediately preceded “Into Dust.”

The band performed under blue and indigo lights that rendered the members almost ghostly. Sandoval kept her beautiful face hidden in shadows and half-light and behind a curtain of long, dark hair. Of course, nobody moved. Lacking the personality to do anything as overt as grab, shake or entice an audience, Mazzy Star quietly and solemnly wove a dreamlike, fragile web. Nothing happened to shatter it, although the strong applause and yells of approval that followed each number were almost an intrusion. Hollering in any context is out of place with Mazzy Star.

Sandoval sang with a rare blend of detachment and intensity, of clarity and soft-focus haziness. The desires and longings in her songs came through with the vividness of truly felt emotion.

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But there was a distance in her performance, something opiated in her drawl that suggested a removal from the passions conveyed. It was as if her characters knew their desires would be thwarted, that their longed-for lovers would remain ever out of reach.

For self-preservation, they would have to hold themselves back from speaking their desires aloud. They might be dreamed, or perhaps murmured to oneself, but never laid bare. These painful yearnings could be lived with in the shadows but would prove shattering when brought under the naked light.

The playing was as nuanced and detailed as the singing. David Roback, who shares the songwriting with Sandoval, remained even deeper in shadows than his partner while applying measured, appropriate touches on guitar.

In Roback’s hands, slide guitars did not bray wildly and feedback did not run rampant over the musical range. All was judicious and controlled--even his barking fuzz tones and jagged squawks during “Ghost Highway,” a “You Really Got Me” knockoff that was Mazzy Star’s nod to rock’s more overtly physical side.

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One wanted to look for a facetious wink in the song’s blatant appropriation of that single-minded Kinks riff, but Mazzy Star wrung eerie obsession out of it rather than playing it for humor.

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Keith Mitchell’s sparse, echoing drumming helped convey the sense that the music was occurring within a cavern. The spooky organ playing of Suki Ewers (like Mitchell, a holdover from Roback’s previous band, Opal) added to the Doors-like, weird-scenes-inside-the-mine ambience of several songs. There also was a late-night country-and-plains feel at play that has brought frequent comparisons to the Cowboy Junkies.

If Mazzy Star’s set had a familiar ring, it was not because of these stylistic borrowings and allusions but because the band almost exactly replicated the instrumental arrangements and vocal inflections of its two albums, “She Hangs Brightly” and the current release, “So Tonight That I Might See.” (The set included five songs from “Tonight” and could have used a few more. Mazzy Star’s version of a gorgeous, recent-vintage Arthur Lee ballad, “Five String Serenade,” was especially missed.)

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With so little deviation from the recordings, and such an absence of conventional stage craft, one could have had nearly the same experience by staying home, turning off all the lights, and putting on the albums. But live or on record, the Mazzy Star experience is one well worth having.

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The opening band, That Dog, was a good match for Mazzy Star in that it emphasized musical detail work and performed songs that came across as the inner musings of women who distance themselves from feeling to fend off pain.

But where Mazzy Star finds a rich tension between the power of feelings and the need to hold them in, these young L.A. newcomers, whose debut album is due out next month from Geffen, settled for rather pat depictions of enervation and anomie--right down to a deliberately affectless stage demeanor.

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Their sketchy, underwritten songs examined characters and situations but did not inhabit them. That Dog interspersed punkish garage-rock passages with its delicate violin and harmony bits--not for release, but merely to underscore the so-what randomness in the lives portrayed.

The band made its point, all right. But in the end, so what, indeed. There’s talent here (two of the harmonizers, Rachel Haden and Petra Jones, are daughters of the jazz bassist, Charlie Haden, while the third, Anna Waronker, has a dad near the top of the Warner Bros. Records chain of command). But one would like to see it engage life full-on instead of dwelling almost exclusively on people so alienated as to be inert.

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St. Johnny, which went on second, played a dismal, sourpussed set. On its upcoming Geffen debut, the Connecticut band does a fair, if unremarkable, job of conveying alienation. On stage, Bill Whitten’s yelps and whines were irritants, and the dense arrangements made the band sound like a clumsy cousin to Sonic Youth.

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A deservedly tepid audience reception left Whitten grousing from the stage: “You guys are swell. Hope I don’t ever have to come back here again.” Who would disagree?


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