This was not a gig notable for between song chatter: we were in that slightly awkward zone of introverted males amongst strangers, not quite sure how to make conversation, which I can identify with. However, about half way through Wild Beasts' set, front man Hayden Thorpe expressed gratitude to the 2500 Mancunians in the sold out venue, recalling a story from their earlier days when they played to 20 people in The Roadhouse. Apparently, someone had written over their faces on a poster with an expletive which Hayden assumed was a reference to their lack of aesthetic appeal. Ironically though, last night's event ended up being more notable for its visual impact than aural qualities.
Opener East India Youth, the stage name of Bournemouth's William Doyle, belied the assumption that electronic musicians lack stagecraft. He demonstrated considerable energy and emotion both in his movements and music. Whilst his vocals were powerful, the highlight for me was when he picked up a guitar. He cites Brian Eno as an influence and there is a bleak, ambient feel. If ultimately I was affected more cerebrally than in the heart, he was a highly credible opener and an act I look forward to seeing in June at Parklife.
A friend at this gig suggested that I reviewed the venue as well as the music, as it was my first visit to Albert Hall Manchester. Even allowing for the fact I have an affinity for ecclesiastical spaces, this former Methodist Hall is visually absolutely stunning, with baroque and Gothic influences. It opened only late last year as a concert venue, and its conversion has by necessity (given a Grade II listing) preserved its character. A pipe organ forms the backdrop to the stage and stained glass adorns the walls and ceiling. It's close in atmosphere to Manchester Cathedral, but the high stage and wrap around balcony provide superior sight lines. I expect it to provide healthy competition for the similarly sized but bland Academy 1 to the south of the City centre.
Full advantage was taken of the setting with an imaginative lighting design, featuring a translucent rising sun motif behind the stage. This effort may have been an acknowledgement of the fact that Wild Beasts' music is introverted in feel, and that the band themselves eschew bold antics on stage: there was never any likelihood of stage dives or a performance in the crowd. The music has an intimate feel, its subtlety reflected in the fact that drama is held just below the surface. Hayden's falsetto voice is delivered with restraint, but is effectively contrasted with the more robust vocals of bass player Tom Fleming, who stood on the right hand side of the stage. Yet, key to their communication are the direct, honest lyrics which often articulate male desire; this was where the evening failed to live up to expectations.
The opener Reach was unsteady, and the sound impacted by feedback; surprising for such an experienced act, but perhaps reflecting the fact this was the first date of the tour. Indeed, Hayden's smooth voice was subsequently pitch perfect, and he relaxed after consuming generous quantities of wine. But the sound balance didn't improve: the provocative line 'Jesus was a woman' in Daughters failed to sound radical even in this setting as it was barely audible. Whilst Palace brought the main set to a relatively upbeat close, in the first encore Wanderlust, the thunderous bass totally obscured the vocals, although I felt that by this stage their performances had gained confidence and passion. Sadly though, there was distortion in the sound from my position on the front rail; perhaps it was better elsewhere, other I noted a several complaints on Twitter after the event.
Until I visit this venue again in May to see Neutral Milk Hotel, I have to withhold judgement on whether it is the most beautiful or frustrating in Manchester, as it's impossible to say whether the sound issues were inherent or due to Wild Beasts' engineer. The album Present Tense was released only a month ago, and has received almost universal critical acclaim. The band took a year out to write it independently, coming together in August 2012 to play their material to each other, then went away again and carried on writing. This may explain its personal, intimate feel; certainly I consider it by far their best work to date, and its beauty may even reflect the landscape of England's Lake District from where they originate. However, there isn't always an exact correlation between my favourite recorded performances and the most memorable live acts.
Wild Beasts attract comparison with another cerebral British indie rock group, Alt-J, yet they seem less eager to impress with musical sophistication and more willing to reflect on darker emotions. Despite this, the use of lasers which befitted a rave and subterranean keyboard bass notes led the enthusiastic audience to dance in the more upbeat numbers; they've skilfully embraced the trend for guitar bands to adopt electronics. At 6 Music Festival at the start of this month, they were compromised by an overcrowded venue and again sub-standard sound; this gig had the potential to be on a different plane but just fell short despite the generous set. March has been a difficult month for me, and had to miss a few gigs. I was hoping for an escape, but this performance never quite transported me. It's unfair to compare any band with The National, yet also difficult for me to forget that experience from a happier time. I will have been literally transported to the other side of the world for my next musical encounter; perhaps that will prove to be more of an escape for me.
This is Our Lot
Bed of Nails
A Dog's Life
All The King's Men