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Downtown Los Angeles’ United Artists Theatre spent most of the last quarter-century as one of the city’s most eccentric houses of worship, under the ownership of gonzo televangelist Dr. Gene Scott. In its grand reopening Friday night as the Theatre at Ace Hotel, the 1927 movie palace was reborn as a really, really peculiar church, with the band Spiritualized bringing in a choir to augment songs about addiction and loneliness. As secular as the occasion was, it did end with a cover of the classic gospel-pop hit “Oh Happy Day,” which managed to make the occasion feel, well, spiritualized.
Bookers usually want to make a statement with any important venue’s opening or re-opening. When Inglewood’s hallowed sports arena came back to life with the Eagles last month, that statement was: This is still your father’s Forum. When the Hollywood Palladium had a grand reopening a few years back with Jay Z, the message was: This is not your granny’s swing-dance hall or your uncle’s slamdance pit.
Although Spiritualized is not a household name, you could hardly have picked a more ingenious booking for the Theatre at Ace Hotel’s coming-out party. The attraction was a full run-through of the act’s 1997 album Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space with 30 players or singers on stage, something that’d been done on stage in recent years at Radio City Music Hall and a pair of London festivals but not the west coast. Selling out a two-night stand within hours verified the Ace’s instincts were ace on this one.
Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space is an odd duck to still be revered as such a cult classic, especially in America, since the album never entered Billboard’s top 200 and is officially out of print in the States. Although Spiritualized fit in with the Brit-pop wave that included Oasis and the Verve, auteur Jason Pierce veered toward something both more expansive in arrangement and arguably simpler and dronier in song structure. There’s a slight prog-rock tendency at play in the piece, although to the extent that it recalls Pink Floyd, it’s one part “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” to four parts the middle section of The Wall, where Roger Waters is sitting alone in his penthouse in a drug-fueled haze, asking if there’s anybody out there. Heroin, unrequited love, and existential aloneness are the album’s big themes — perfect for a Valentine’s Day date night, right?
Something about having 30 players on stage for two hours made the song cycle seem less solitary and insular, though. And Pierce’s literal avoidance of the spotlight made it easy to disperse your attention among the extended ensemble, which consisted of eight string players, six horn players, nine choir members, and six core band members besides Pierce. Tiny sets of LED lights barely illuminated the amplifiers and tympani, but there was no direct illumination on anyone’s face, least of all Pierce’s; it was halfway through the show before we were able to make out that the seated figure was even wearing sunglasses and an MC5 T-shirt. That dim visual anonymity vexed the handful of frustrated media photographers on hand. But it also metaphorically served to make Ladies and Gentlemen seem less about one man’s lovelorn navel-gazing and more about a universal condition, as represented by the huge cluster of musicians reproducing his Brian Wilson-on-methadone production values.
The songs sound better now than they did in 1997. That’s partly because the soft-to-loud dynamics are more effectively rendered through a massive sound system, and partly because the piece was extended from 70 to 90 minutes, which allowed for a couple of extended harmonica solos, among other paddings. As strong as the full 30-piece group sounded, though, there was never a better moment than “Electricity,” which found the choir sitting down, the string players setting aside their bows, and the core unit blazing through a few minutes of intense cacophony. Ornate is great, but sometimes a rock band just needs to be a rock band, and Pierce did keep in mind that the guitars need to ring even louder than the bells.
How does the Theatre at Ace Hotel stack up as a music venue? It had barely ever served as one, although the former UA did book some acts like the Everly Brothers way back in the early ‘60s. Twenties movie palaces, built for vaudeville acoustics, are notoriously iffy when it comes to rock-show sound, and it’s easy to think of at least one in L.A. that is a nightmare for aural comprehensibility. But there was a surprising clarity to Spiritualized’s wall of sound that bodes well for fans who like to listen to as well as watch music.
As for comfort level, anyone over 6 feet tall may want to take note: The seating on the floor level was reconfigured in the 1950s for more leg room, but the rows in the balcony are scrunched together in the original 1920s short-people configuration. But balance that against the fact that the front section of the balcony seems intimately close to the stage and arguably offers the best seats in the house. Ladies and gentlemen, if you want a great view and don’t need a lot of legroom, you may want to be floating in space.
As for visual aesthetics, the theater is certainly on par with the opulent Orpheum a mere block away (which we hope doesn’t become more underbooked with the Ace as competition). The late start for Friday’s show may have had something to do with the difficulty of getting patrons to leave the theater’s two gorgeous lobby spaces. Interestingly, it’s almost like a difference between night and day, entering the auditorium, as the Ace has chosen to make the interior space even more gothic than it already was. Although most of the theater’s original design remains blessedly intact, the formerly tan walls have been painted a dark charcoal grey. Combine this with dim entrance lighting and you feel less like you’re entering a movie palace than walking into the Black Forest with lattice work.
LED lighting imbedded in the grills that used to house a pipe organ can be made to change color throughout the show, another nice touch few theaters can offer. The greying of the redesign may not exactly suit historical preservationists, but it does set the mood well for an act like Spiritualized, which already aims to take listeners to some dark but gilded places.
Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space
I Think I’m in Love
All of My Thoughts
Stay With Me
Home of the Brave
No God Only Religion
Cop Shoot Cop
Out of Sight
Spread Your Wings
Oh Happy Day
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