“I can’t control the rain,” shrugs a sarcastic Harry Styles, part-way through this ‘One Night Only’ date at - for him - the wholly intimate confines of the iconic Brixton Academy. Fans have been unofficially camping out opposite the venue for days; even the twelve hours prior to tonight’s doors opening featured thunderstorms, hail and blazing heat. He’ll twice later stop the set - once mid-way through a first attempt at ‘Sign of the Times’ for medics to reach a handful of gig-goers for whom it all turned out to be too much.
It’s almost a relief to find something he can’t do. Currently, most of the midweek Top Ten singles come from third full-length ‘Harry’s House’, the album making up new streaming records as it goes. Tonight’s gig largely follows the same pattern as the weekend’s live streamed set from New York: the record in full, followed by a handful of older favourites.
But where that set - complete with the full-scale television operation that directed it - highlighted the funkier aspects of ‘Harry’s House’ - say, the Nile Rodgers-like guitar licks of ‘Cinema’, or the ‘70s basslines peppering ‘Music For A Sushi Restaurant’, Brixton’s legacy finds itself giving extra oomph to the record’s heavier moments: the crashes in ‘Daylight’, blistering climax of ‘Satellite’ and the four-to-the-floor bass drum that propels ‘Love of My Life’ all shine a little brighter.
Similarly, the sheer force of the room - find us a better venue for communal moments in front of a live band in the UK - you can’t! - takes the singer by surprise on repeated occasions. He’s no stranger to an underplay - his solo launch took place in Academy-sized rooms; his last London headline was at the even smaller Electric Ballroom back in December 2019 - but whether the screams peppering between-song banter (he can hardly get a full sentence out without interruption), or each lyric flying back to him, it’s often as if the sound has its own gale-force.
For most acts passing through its corridors, Brixton Academy proves a make-or-break moment: marking a graduation to the ‘big leagues’; a test to whether the popularity that’s sold the tickets can be matched with on-stage prowess. It’s near-on impossible to sound ‘bad’ in this room, but any breach in an artist’s arsenal can quickly become amplified on the vast stage. Tonight, it’s almost the opposite: there are no arena production bells and whistles to hide behind. There may be more lighting than the Academy’s stage usually finds itself under, but the frills are minimal, just the outline of a house as backdrop. Each member of his band is in their own little bubble, arranged in a semi-circle, as if to cocoon the singer, creating his own “safe space” on stage. Drummer Sarah Jones sits atop a riser in the centre, looking every bit as visibly in command of the group as she is audibly. And it’s not even the huge drum fill that crowns ‘Sign of the Times’ that’s the pinnacle of her night; instead it’s a newly-discofied ‘What Makes You Beautiful’, which has her controlled and pin-sharp in the verses, then flexing for fun by the song’s full-throttle end. Guitarist Mitch Rowland, too, seems in his element, his wiry guitar sounds in ‘Adore You’ a little more peacockish as the track progresses. The outfit’s backing vocals - Sarah joined by keyboardist Ny Oh and bassist Elin Sandberg - also prove a masterstroke; during the quieter moments of ‘Matilda’ and ‘Boyfriends’ the trio’s harmonies become echoed by the largely female audience in front, the chorus almost melting into one.
It’s finale ‘Kiwi’ though, that tonight was really meant for; the rollicking rock number having practically begged for this specific setting since the release of Harry’s self-titled debut back in 2017. The band let loose, Harry flails across every inch of the stage, and a few thousand leave very satisfied.
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