Neil Halstead plays on a learning curve

Neil Halstead's new "Palindrome Hunches" features reflective songs of heartache sung in a hushed voice.
Neil Halstead's new "Palindrome Hunches" features reflective songs of heartache sung in a hushed voice.

From shoegaze rock to fingerpicked folk.

Posted: September 29, 2012

Neil Halstead spent his early 20s at the helm of Slowdive, one of the U.K.'s signature shoegaze bands and a touchstone for current young groups such as Wild Nothing, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, and Beach Fossils (who recently released a cover of Slowdive's "Alison"). According to Halstead, Slowdive "was more about the atmosphere and playing loud guitars," and it wasn't until after Slowdive disbanded in 1995 that he became interested in traditional songwriting as opposed to My Bloody Valentine-inspired waves of sound.

"When Slowdive first finished, I was traveling in Israel and I was staying in a hostel. I remember telling someone I was a musician and they gave me a guitar, and I had this realization that I really couldn't play acoustic guitar," Halstead, 41, says on the phone from London. "I had grown up playing electric guitar with effects pedals and stuff. I was never one of those guys that sat down at a party and was able to play you Dylan songs. It kind of spurred me on to realize that it would be nice to be able to sit down with an acoustic guitar and play a song. It was kind of a turning point for me."

He cites hearing the first Leonard Cohen album as another turning point in heading him to the song-oriented approach that has dominated his career since then, first with the much-loved Mojave 3 (who recently reconvened for a few shows in China), and especially on his three solo albums. The new Palindrome Hunches, which he will feature when he plays World Cafe Live on Wednesday, is full of reflective songs of heartache sung in a hushed, understated voice, set to fingerpicked acoustic guitar. It's beautiful stuff, indebted to Nick Drake, Bert Jansch, and Jackson C. Frank, whose classic "Blues Run the Game" he alludes to in "Tied to You."

"I am now a folk artist, I guess. I'm no longer a shoegazing artist," Halstead says with a laugh. "This latest album's definitely got a lot of that folk revival stuff that was around in the '60s."

Now that younger bands are discovering what Halstead was doing in his 20s, he's inspired by older artists that he first heard at that point in his life. But that's part of the discovery process, or what Halstead calls the "learning curve."

"To me, one of the interesting things about music is that hereditary thing, that everything you listen to is influenced by something," he says. "When I was a kid, I remember listening to Dinosaur Jr., then reading a review or something, discovering Neil Young, and discovering the Velvet Underground because of the Jesus & Mary Chain. That's one of the really great things about music: You find out about one band, and immediately there's this whole path, this thing that goes backwards. It's all connected."

And, like a palindrome, moving forward can also mean looking backward.


Neil Halstead and Jim Hanft with Samantha Yonack play 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut St. Tickets: $15. Information: 215-222-1400, www.worldcafelive.com.

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