A last minute decision to use my ticket for this gig despite feeling unwell was immediately vindicated by one of the most compelling support acts I've seen recently, Kojey Radical. He described himself as a poet from London, though he’s also a visual artist, and his way with the spoken word is incredibly persuasive. Soon after my return from a festival with 100,000 people, the intimacy of this event was heightened by Kojey’s warm rapport with the audience, and the personal nature of his lyrics. A love for Shakespeare is clear, as is that for his family: the song about the impact of the church compounding his mother's poverty, was strikingly honest. He ended with his recent song Bambu, with a creative use of electronic beats, and an accompanying guitarist. His lyrical delivery could be described as a blend of rap and poetry. Ironically, given his views on organised religion, his search for deep meaning and communication skills mean that he’d make a great preacher. Perhaps that actually is his mission, in a non-traditional context.
Young Fathers, so called because all three original members have their fathers' names, present a contrasting persona on stage. There was controversy after the surprise Mercury Prize win in 2014 for their album Dead, due to a lack of outward display of joy, and their uncompromising stance towards the right wing tabloid press at the event. They made few attempts to address the audience during the show in Stoke, aside from a brief encouragement to approach the stage and dance. The hour long set ended abruptly, as they simply walked off stage without returning for an encore. This detached air stems not from a lack of gratitude, but a desire to remain in character. The essence of this music is total absorption: it’s an overwhelmingly intense experience, designed to exclude all other thoughts than the present. The audience at The Sugarmill was smaller than I’d expected, or than Young Fathers warrant, but much of the crowd seemed to completely understand the need to lose yourself in this auditory barrage.
Young Fathers are keen not to be categorised as a hip hop act: they utilise eclectic influences including R&B, electro and Krautrock. Pitchfork cited TV on The Radio and The Streets as influences, describing them as a ‘grungy relative of Arcade Fire’. They certainly have some of the theatricality of the celebrated Canadian indie rockers: the stage was a blur of limbs, an overwhelming explosion of dancing and drumming. They created a sense of disorientation and chaos, constantly swapping places with each other, moving around stage with mics in their hands. Perhaps this acting is intended to depict the whirlwind of the modern city: certainly the deep bass added to the visceral nature of the set. There use of drone sounds is striking, and there’s a psychedelic element to their sound which transcends expectations of the genre.
For many, their single Shame must have been the highlight: this is also a great starting point for exploration. Yet Old Rock N Roll felt like the real culmination of a set packed with short songs, its ambiguous message making up their most recent album title White Men Are Black Man Too. I’d first seen Young Fathers supporting CHVRCHES in 2013: the shock of that encounter remains with me, overshadowing the main act. They're above all a collective, illustrated by the tribal chanting and the seamless way of which they exchange roles. Such complexity must surely have been rehearsed exhaustively, yet it always felt spontaneous, even dangerous. The harsh back and strobe lighting gave a sense of unease, as did the ear splitting volume: the intention is to be provocative, to lead the audience to question the established order. Young Fathers is surely one of the most outstanding contemporary live acts; regardless of your usual musical preferences, I’d urge you to take a risk and submit yourself to their alternative reality.