Josh Pearson - Upstairs At The Spitz, London Wednesday December 4 2002
You can't see his fearsome, feral face any more. It's covered by a beard so vast and wild at first you think Josh Pearson's become a mountain man, until he raises his eyes to the heavens, and that forked, dark growth makes his head so huge he just looks like a mountain. He's making his solo debut in London, because the second album with his band of apocalyptic Texans, Lift To Experience, has been holed and gashed on the road to completion (crises of confidence and heroin are mentioned), so he broke off to write another album, minus their storm-guitar protection, in seven days. Nothing in the songs could be changed after that—it would test if he was really a writer. Playing them tonight will test him again.
Though he just has an acoustic guitar (and, for a few songs, a female fiddler), all the power of the Lifts is still his to command. On "The Clash", as he roars and murmurs and weeps, "I just can't get these devils off my back...oh, my God, why me?", the guitar seems to carry his body at times, as his clawed fingers flutter over it like his hand's some independent beast, and his dead eyes look upwards—for what?
The feeling that Pearson's some primal, Biblical creature is undercut by hilarious tales of Texan snake-killing, told between songs in a shy stoner whine. But when on "Banished" his voice grows gigantic like a bad dream, as he sings "I spoke the truth to keep me alive, and now I'm ostracised...", or on the head-down strum of "Six Bloody Strings", his hair hanging in sweaty strings now, baring his teeth as he bites at its words, you know a heavenly fire is still here.
The song he's most nervous of playing is the best, and furthest from the Lifts, a shamelessly, extravagantly loving 10-minute epic about his sister. But somewhere between the quiet needed for an acoustic show and the noise needed for an atmosphere, and the Pentecostal Texan brimstone of Pearson's background and the blasé capital cool of many here, the intensity of a crowd really getting it never comes. The closing "Sing A Song For The Saviour"—its intention introduced by Pearson as "like being at church, and God's actually there"—which begins in a high, feminine keen and ends in a growl over a hypnotic, transcendent strum, is his closest bead on rock'n'roll's Southern spiritual source.
When ironic whoops follow, he looks deflated. This is the real stuff, if you want it.