The Sisters of Mercy Flatline the Masonic
The Masonic Theater
May 17, 2023
Photos by Raymond Ahner
Those who lived through San Francisco’s underground music scene in the mid-late 80s, will vividly (or maybe hazily) recall late nights and early mornings spent carousing the dark basement club at the legendary Lipps’ Underground at 9th & Howard.
It was the spot where outcast gutter punks and misfit death rockers congregated far after the witching hour to perch in the shadowy corners, drink cheap keg beer, smoke cigarettes and cloves, and await the perfect song to play so they could swoop onto the dance floor.
Come 3 AM, that dance floor in the dank brick basement (that is now Asia SF) transformed into a sweaty, grinding, sauna for black clad party people elevating in the darkness. The music that served as the soundtrack to those long gone, carefree, nights and mornings consisted of local heroes, one-hit wonders, and underground musical legends.
One band that fit the latter category, painting the musical backdrop to many of those raucous memories, The Sisters of Mercy (TSOM), recently reintroduced themselves to the Bay Area at San Francisco’s Masonic Theater.
TSOM, led by the irrepressible (just turned 64 years old) singer / songwriter Andrew Eldritch, has not released a new album since the majestic 1990 offering Vision Thing. That however did not stop them from playing a trove of new material during this performance.
Backed by the twin guitars of Ben Christo and Dylan Smith, and Ravey Davey serving as the ‘man behind the curtain’ to Doktor Avalanche (the backline digital rhythm and synthesizer section of TSOM), Eldritch took the packed auditorium through a set that included the past hits that influenced generations of goths over the last four decades, as well as nine unreleased new tracks.
Appearing amidst a forest of smoke and colored pillars of light, all members of TSOM donned the requisite attire of dark sunglasses. Eldritch emerged in his typical mysterious pose, hovering over a spotlight which illuminated his ghostly visage and now completely bald head.
A charge and buzz from the crowd accompanied the initial presence of the band as they rocked the churning groove of ‘Don’t Drive on Ice,’ a new fast-paced track that had hands raised along the horizon of the stage.
It was interesting that TSOM chose to jump start the evening with two new (thus largely unknown) tracks, as it created a situation where the crowd had to absorb songs they were not familiar with. This made it a challenge for the band to amp the room energy to the next level.
Ultimately the energy that accompanied the start of the set quickly faded, leaving the crowd largely static. It was odd, as save for a handful who were flailing around in a maniacal dance trance, the audience was largely just standing or sitting in place and watching.
That flatline of crowd energy was exacerbated by the nature of the band’s live performance which is also largely static. Eldritch tends to mostly rock back and forth in place as he sings. When he does move he tends to stalk the deeper levels of the stage.
Christo and Smith do move a bit with their guitars, but there was little direct engagement with the crowd. And with the fact that the Doktor Avalanche backline is programmed, the rhythm elements of the music are also static, stripped of a sense of percussive dynamics (which is a downfall of all programmed music in a live setting).
Though Ravey Davey tried to be a hype man, constantly raising his arms and (we think) pressing keys on the computer, his performance impact was minimal. Also, there was no stage show or projections to speak of to help change up the mood of the set, so the ability to generate energy was not easy.
There was an injection of audience participation when TSOM did play the dark, driving material that they are renowned for, the songs that helped define seminal death rock and dark wave music. For instance, the haunting ‘First and Last and Always’ and ‘Dominion / Mother Russia’ (the dance floor favorite that used to fire up the Underground) noticeably lifted the Masonic.
However they were sandwiched around the new song ‘But Genevieve,’ which sapped the momentum of crowd involvement from increasing. This lack of flow in the set was prevalent throughout the evening, hindering the performance from really lifting off.
The loudest reaction of the evening came when the crowd came alive to call TSOM back out for an encore after ending the main set with the new track ‘When I’m on Fire.’ They were rewarded with a stellar performance of the trio of classics ‘Lucretia My Reflection,’ ‘Temple of Love,’ and ‘This Corrosion’. If only this burst could have been maintained through the entire set.
In the end, the 22-song set was solid if not inspiring. The sound was very representative of the studio recordings (save for a few moments of imbalance in the guitar mix), and Andrew’s baritone voice was delivered on time and sounded good with a strong presence.
Opening for TSOM was the Brooklyn duo A Cloud of Ravens (ACoR). Consisting of Matthew McIntosh (guitar and vox) and bassist Beth Narducci, the group is being primed for success in the dark wave genre as they also have planned tour dates with Clan of Xymox.
ACoR was formed in 2018 and released a series of recordings over the pandemic years which got them noticed and a natural selection for touring.
Their sound fits nicely with the dark post-punk of TSOM, and moved the crowd at the front of the stage when they closed their set with the recently released single ‘Parable,’ which has moody and atmospheric melodies layered over a md-tempo groove. They will definitely be heard from again in the future.