Transcendental Longings of the Heart and Mind: Lael Neale + Guy Blakeslee Live In Rotterdam

TEXT: Alexandra Alden | Walking into Roodkapje, the lights are low and the instruments are already placed and waiting idly onstage to be played. Outside, it’s a beautiful, balmy summer evening (one of the last of the season) and as it happens, it’s also the first night of Lael Neale’s inaugural headlining European tour. How convenient, that it would start off right here in my back-garden- in the heart of the city of Rotterdam, the Netherlands. 

I had the opportunity to check Lael’s music in person at the Great Escape showcase earlier this year on the Subpop stage, where I became a fan. It was a stand-out performance amongst the sea of bands and Phoebe Bridgers knock-offs, so I was excited to follow up and see where this artist would progress next.

Guy Blakeslee is Lael’s long-time producer and collaborator who played an instrumental part in shaping Neale’s recent albums ‘Acquainted with Night’ (2021) and ‘Star Eater’s Delight’ (2023). He accompanies Lael throughout her shows on keys, guitar, and effects, making him an ideal and rather convenient choice as a support act too. 

He adds depth to the evening by beginning his set with a visceral soundscape which he improvises loosely on the spot. He uses various loopers, effects and samples over chord progressions that vaguely echo those of Lael’s songs which cleverly sets the mood for her show. As the ambient soundscape progresses, the audience plunges deeper into a trance-like state. It feels as though the ‘Dutch disease’ has been completely eradicated by the time Blakeslee enters with his signature warm, guitar lines before progressing to his next song; a gentle instrumental ballad on the piano. Dutch audiences are famous for talking throughout concerts (hence ‘the Dutch disease’), even when they truly love an artist, but in this case, this audience seemed much more educated and perhaps, experienced, so they have come to Lael Neale’s concert expecting to not only receive the music, but also give back something to the artist. Some listeners have even chosen to slide down onto the ground and sit with their backs against the wall on the side of the stage, listening intently. It’s quite a picture, with the warm lighting onstage pooling out into the audience as the music’s sparkling tones and drones embrace them. 

Blakeslee comes across as thoughtful, sensitive and acutely in tune with his surroundings onstage, despite not ever looking up from his instruments if not only to curiously ask the audience ‘what time is it?’ and quickly introduce his next and last song. After an outro of chirping birds (perhaps sampled from the barn in Virginia, where Lael’s last record was written?) Blakeslee hammers out an emotional tune titled, ‘Sometimes’; a song about the ephemeral aspects of time, inspired by a car crash in his youth that would forever change his life’s course, as well as playful musings about Stephen Hawking.

A lone plume of smoke fills the room and it’s not long before Lael eventually takes the stage and begins the set with her ceremoniously lush lines on her omnichord. She wears polka-dots, a mini skirt and Mary Jane ballet flats. With her fringe and long caramel locks, she exudes the delicate feminity of a 70s Jane Birkin with the musical prowess and determination of a young Joni Mitchell. 

Blakeslee’s allusions to the spiritual realm, the cosmos, and the natural world merge seamlessly with Lael’s impactful first tune, ‘Every Star Shivers in the Dark’, off her second album ‘Acquainted with Night’. Thematically, the duo are much invested in the same ideologies and values. She chants lines like ‘I am a pilgrim too, I am a pilgrim too’, ‘I’m gonna love someone, I’m gonna love someone’ as she gazes longingly out into the room. As Lael sings, it’s not always clear whether she’s singing to you, through you, or for you. Her intentions drift, but are never lost, with each song. In her second tune, the more uptempo ‘I am the River’ off her latest album, invites you into a danceable, singable space with catchy hooks and processed beats. 

Lael tempts you to ‘Remember dancing, remember magic, we are together’ as the audience grooves along. Blakeslee also heeds Lael’s message, while she stands poised and doe-eyed near her omnichord. He gradually becomes much more animated as he plays, at times joyfully spinning around with his guitar. Their chemistry onstage is evident as it is off the stage and in the studio. Making music for them is a positive, transcendental experience and although Laele never cracks a smile as she plays, her lyrics are never too somber, singing of feeling at home with her surroundings, ‘I pledge allegiance, to tree and meadow, I have no need to conquer or keep them’ all the while the light in her eyes continues to beam outwards.

Seamless transitions between songs make for an immersive experience and sonically, it’s never boring. From reversed samples, low-drumming beats, tinkling chimes, and driven guitars to lilting, delicate vocals that take on an almost spoken-word-like quality, the fourth wall is never broken. The suspense continues to be kept through songs like ‘In Verona’ and their latest single ‘I’ll Be Your Star’ which was released just in time for ‘back-to-school’ season. In the self-directed and self-produced video, Laele plays a tightly buttoned-up school teacher who transforms when she’s onstage. Lael takes the DIY very seriously. Besides producing her own videos, she also creates her own merch. She briefly breaks the set to announce that she hasn’t brought any vinyl with her, as they were too heavy to carry, and instead only brought CDs and some handmade artwork.

She shares her affinity for minimalism with her fans through her music and also through painting. Her works consist of confident strokes of dark paint against white canvas, to create beautiful forms, similar to the technique of single-stroke painting made popular in Japan. 

Besides travelling light, Lael and Blakeslee also share their gear- namely using one single electric guitar onstage; the only piece of equipment unifying the two, which further affirms the notion that less is always more. It makes for an unusual, yet intriguing set-up. The guitar is a standard right-handed guitar, that Blakeslee plays upside-down and Lael plays it right-handed, right way up. Blakeslee later claimed that this was the way he learned how to play the guitar, which is certainly unconventional and adds another layer of interest to their continually unfolding story.

It’s no wonder that an album as enigmatic as Acquainted with Night piqued the interest of one of the world’s foremost indie labels—Subpop. Lael Neale’s sonic identity is a challenge to categorize yet strangely familiar. Her most recent release, Star Eaters Delight, solidifies her position on Subpop’s prestigious roster. Her remarkable ability to explore a myriad of emotional and sonic landscapes is evident in her recent foray into the rich textures of surf-rock, grunge, and rock ‘n’ roll. These influences, perhaps shaped by Blakeslee’s own songwriting and production, find new life within the cavernous, ever-resonating chambers of Lael’s cathedrals.

She echoes the lo-fi sentiments of The Velvet Underground, Nico and the ephemeral qualities of Vashti Bunyan blended with something more current, but it is hard to define which voice that could be. It can be futile to try and pin down an artist’s sound when it is so unique, and why try, when the sound of an artist like Lael Neale’s seems to be completely her own? 

Perhaps Lael’s retreat back to her barn in Virginia to write Star Eater’s Delight in the pandemic-ridden world, is something we should all do from time to time to find our most innate rhythms and grooves, whether there is a pandemic or not. Her lyrical outputs continue to suggest that music emerges from the soul, the earth, the heart and some vast other place. 

One has to listen so closely, in order to hear the whispers from our inner and outer worlds to get to our collective and personal truths. Lael always hints that these truths can be heard in the most mundane, simple things as when one is ‘making toast’ or simply riding along ‘on the freeway’. She believes that one is actually ‘never lonesome’ and that ultimately, even sadness, can be ‘sacred’.

Blakeslee is sensitive to when and how he should take a step back musically, as he humbly exits the stage to allow Lael to churn out her last song of the night on voice and guitar- a song titled ‘Blue Vein’

The concert’s ending feels almost abrupt without even an encore (out of choice), but Lael has confidently said her part. The duo have said neither too much nor too little, and luckily for them their songs still have time to travel further across the Netherlands and the UK before returning home for their recently announced US shows supporting Weyes Blood, so it’s best and also wise to keep their minds and songs fresh. With such a strong entry into the European market, Lael Neale has perhaps found her home amongst key local venues, and more importantly, in the hearts of some loyal fans, which will hopefully encourage a return to these parts of the world on future tours.