Low-key gigs are the best ones. I never find myself enjoying massive concerts quite as much as the tinies. The thought that practically everyone you’re jamming with is in your immediate vicinity births a sense of intimacy and mutual bonding that larger shows cannot. That’s how I felt with Declan McKenna.
I’ve been a fan of his for years and boy can you bet I was excited for this gig. I got my best outfit on (just in case he pulls me onstage) and hopped onto the Central line towards the little-known gem in London’s Tufnell Park. The line outside was buzzing — and almost non-existent, considering the smallness of the venue — so my partner and I stepped into the evening enraptured with zest. The supporting act Osquello began his set just as we ventured into our spot in the crowd. His style unexpectedly showcased an amalgamation of alternative, trap, hip-hop, and EDM music. He went a lot harder than most Declan McKenna fans were likely bargaining for, but his clean set paid off and left us hyped.
Touring his first album for the third time (or fifth, I literally can’t keep track of his success), McKenna brought a fresh infusion of Alternative Indie Rock goodness to the venue. The Dome’s capability to host a maximum of 500 definitely enhanced the sense of community and intimacy that permeated through us all. Nobody else could get in here even if they tried! Out he came running against a backdrop of his name in fiery bold, to the instrumentals of his biggest breakout single, ‘Brazil’. Nothing builds tension like a lengthy introduction, especially when the song kicks in and just so happens to be a complete banger. ‘Brazil’ is no exception, kicking off the gig with fierce, pulsating energy. The build-up of musical layers in its minute-long intro set off the sparks in the audience that powered the entire gig. Fans of the alternative genre are already accustomed to his unconventionally lengthy songs — that to musically illiterate and inexperienced ears might simply seem like a prolonged clump of sounds.
Aesthetics alone were pleasantly profuse; if you ignored all the stage lights and LEDs, you would’ve thought it was the ‘80s. McKenna was decked out in sparkly glitter as were the rest of his bandmates, and wearing an unbuttoned black shirt with khaki shorts. They were oozing queerness and psychedelic liberation — metaphorically speaking, of course. I’m a sucker for good attire, and I especially love when that ‘fit contains the soft-boy singer who penned excellent tracks like ‘Bethlehem’. He simultaneously played the guitar whilst singing for the predominant part of his set. Smoothly switching between electric and acoustic guitars during ‘Make Me Your Queen’, he kept the vivacity fairly high whilst pulling the show deeper into more introspective numbers in his discography. His onstage bandmates and the audience seemed to be on equal par with him the entirety of the night, which seriously urged my respect for him as a non-greedy, non-materialistic genuine musician.
Our descent into slower, more thoughtful tracks continues with ‘Mind’, a lo-fi album record in which McKenna, in the fanzine of his 2017 What Do You Think About the Car? album, “recalls the happiest memories”, reminding him of a party he attended in 2015. “The song lyrically and artistically kind of reflects the confused mess of my 16 year old self”, evidently clear in this rendition which seeps the vulnerability of transitioning from childhood to adolescence. This aura of fragility echoes in the track ‘The Kids Don’t Wanna Come Home’ where his young audience belt the lyrics in alliance with each other. Likewise ‘Paracetamol’ touches on the misrepresentation of the LGBTQ+ community in the media, and how adults incessantly overlook their issues. It was during this harrowing song that McKenna climbed the scaffolding structure next to me, and I started fangirling over how I was merely two metres away from him (much to the dismay of my date). Kicking the tempo back up with a massive build-up was ‘Humongous’; we all saw the breakdown coming from a mile away, and we were as ready as ever for the chords to blaze out an orgiastic release of catharsis.
He ended with ‘Isombard’, a wonderful 8-bit ditty which has only grown more poignant as the political landscape shifted further and further to the right. McKenna is young — he’s my age — and it moves me to see such youthful art touch on so many sociopolitical issues. His sullen voice rang over the band “police with gangs / it’s all the same”, and resonated with his equally passionate and disenchanted audience. In an early 2017 interview with Coup de Main Magazine, McKenna, when asked how he thinks the year will go, stated that “there’s been a big rise in fascism, if you want to call it that,” which we here at the CUB Magazine music column often like to do, but he continued on to say that we shouldn’t be too pessimistic:
“I think you can have this doom and gloom perspective […] but I like to think that there is going to be lots of good things happening in 2017 that will move the human race forward and closer to being at one with each other, and closer to being at one with the planet that we live on.”
Oh Declan, you poor sweet optimistic boy. It’s safe to say that in the two years since that interview, we’ve all but moved closer to each other or the planet, and in the wake of the soul-crushing, oil-chasing, ocean-destroying, drone-striking, crap-stinking mess of the current year of 2019, McKenna dropped the visceral, gut-punching single ‘British Bombs’, which served as the encore to this phenomenal set. After an evening of rising and falling, the energy during this encore was (fittingly) nuclear. If this is where McKenna’s sound is going, if he’s really taking a sharp turn towards pessimism, then I’m all for it. More of this, please.