Thursday, January 30, 2014

London Grammar Manchester Academy 1, 30th January 2014 9/10

Music is such an abstract form that commentators unsurprisingly use other acts as terms of reference. In London Grammar's case, The XX is often mentioned, perhaps because of their shared ethereal qualities. Yet last night in Manchester, it was Florence Welch who came to mind, as this rising trip-hop group is dominated by the powerful yet pure voice of Hannah Reid. The trio was formed from University friends Hannah and the guitarist Dan Rothman, joined in Nottingham by classically trained keyboard player Dot Major. They effectively acted as backing for Hannah's emotional songs such as Wasting My Young Years, about a former boyfriend. Her soprano vocals are influenced by 1970's folk, but were pitch perfect and operatic despite the generous reverb. Musical talent of this statue demonstrates how fundamentally misunderstood she was by a BBC Radio 1 employee, whose Tweet about her appearance in September provoked a debate about sexism in music.

The Guardian alluded to the trio's middle class background by saying: 'This is not the sound of three angry kids busting out of a council estate burning up to rail at great volume against life's iniquities'. London Grammar's on-stage demeanour is indeed polite, and the 2500 strong audience listened appreciatively, if not without background chatter. Yet it would be a mistake to infer that they are lacking in power or passion. Songs which feel understated and homogeneous on their album slowly build into powerful climaxes; Flickers especially rocked. Hannah has suffered from stage fright, and her eyes were often closed. Yet she was clearly moved, and her reticence was as endearing as Elena Torna's for Daughter. As she gains in confidence and experience, she'll learn to move around stage more freely, but her natural introversion channels her amazing emotional energy into an intense musical performance. This reticence has wisely deterred the group from sharing every detail of their lives on social media, but I'm sure they'll become more demonstrative on stage to engage audiences in larger venues.

Outward reserve hasn't hindered London Grammar's meteoric rise: this, their largest headline gig to date, sold out immediately, and their album If You Wait reached no. 2 in the album charts in the UK. I'd been eagerly awaiting to see them after they had to pull out the Dot to Dot Festival last May. Their collaboration with Disclosure has aided this rapid ascent, and hints at a possible future direction for London Grammar. Slowed down echoes of dance permeated the set, aided by percussion with a stronger rhythmic drive than the XX. The closing part of Metal and Dust finally got the crowd moving and hinted at their potential for large stage festival appearances. Their immense beauty was epitomised by Hannah's piano ballads and the stately, atmospheric Kavinsky cover Nightcall from the Drive soundtrack. Yet, despite the Arctic temperatures inside the venue, the musical energy belied the slow tempos and British reserve on stage. This intensity was reinforced by an imaginative lighting design with cinematic spotlights.

Regrets about the inevitably short hour long set were counterbalanced by the highly credible support acts, even if Josh Record's wash of sound, with Fleet Foxes vocal harmonies, was too earnest and sentimental for my taste. Opener Kyan's soul sound, influenced by Stevie Wonder and Prince, was more engaging, and enhanced by the producer's electronic compositions. It is London Grammar who will remain in my memory though: live, they bely critics like Pitchfork who've found them too polite. Even on record, they've struck a strong chord of popular appeal with their mix of sadness and serenity. The group is at a crossroads: will they progress to play arenas, or become a niche footnote in music? Hannah Reid's vocals reminded me of Adele's, for all the contrast in their background and personality. Live, both are able to hold you spellbound with the power of their voices, suspending time and transporting you to another dimension. If there's any justice, and her merits are judged in musical terms, Hannah Reid will become another national treasure.

Set List
  • Hey Now
  • Darling Are You Gonna Leave Me
  • Interlude
  • Shyer
  • Wasting My Young Years
  • Flickers
  • Sights
  • Stay Awake
  • Nightcall (Kavinsky cover)
  • Strong
  • If You Wait
  • Metal and Dust

Hannah's Set List

Josh Record's Set List

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