Live Review

Bombay Bicycle Club, O2 Academy, Birmingham

They play for 90 minutes with an enthusiasm only youth can lend.

It’s obvious as soon as you step into the O2 Academy: along with the rest of Bombay Bicycle Club’s UK tour, this gig is sold out. Really, really sold out. Like, fight-your-way-to-the-front-and-you-will-lose-a-shoe-and-maybe-a-limb, er… sold out. An hour and a half before the band make an entrance, from the bar to the barriers, from the floor to the rafters, the place is rammed.

It’s a mark of the band’s profile being higher than ever before, thanks to three very distinct albums in as many years – all of them standout – but also indicative of how admired the unassuming boys from Crouch End have become. And boys they still are; it’s easy to forget, what with intricately crafted melodies that would be the envy of a muso twice their age and vocals full of old soul, that they’ve only just passed the milestone of 21. But when they bound onstage to the happy house piano loop of ‘Shuffle’ with a freshly laundered look about them, they play for 90 minutes with an enthusiasm only youth can lend. Amidst a fearsome roar of recognition, an addictive momentum’s been set: once we get the feeling in, we’re staying put for more.

Luckily, youthful exuberance mingles comfortably with dead-on precision. The foursome execute the whole affair like a bunch of pros, with masterful transitions between songs and a setlist that seems wonderfully intuitive, cherrypicking the very best off their LPs. The ‘Club are given further ballast onstage by the addition of a keys player for their new material, as well as Lucy Rose, their elfin blonde collaborator and a songsmith in her own right, who provides the dulcet female tones throughout ‘A Different Kind Of Fix’. She pulls focus on the subtle groove of ‘Lights Out, Words Gone’, which comes over like a prismatic, textured daydream, and endows the taut, bass-driven ‘Leave It’ with a barely there urgency.

Frontman Jack Steadman’s no slacker though; he transfixes on ‘Still’, letting out a haunting Thom Yorke wail against the spartan background arrangement. His typically hushed tones regress into spectral on the lo-fi menace and watery dissonance of an outstanding ‘Bad Timing’, only spoilt for a moment by a squeal of feedback: ‘Can I have your wayward stare? / Never mind him calling you, just keep them there’. With four large quasi-anatomical renderings of the human head from their album sleeve on stage like art installations, and bathed in a ghostly blue light during, the visuals foreground the song’s eerie eroticism. Likewise, ‘How Can You Swallow So Much Sleep’ turns into a different animal live because the layering is fully manifested: the dawn chorus-like intro opens up into a trip hop rhythm whilst swathes of fuzzy reverb interplay with disembodied vocals. And maybe it’s just an effect of the sound equipment, but elsewhere Steadman’s usual quivering vibrato is smoothed out somewhat, as though coated in a warm, honey glaze, sounding dreamy on the sinuous, slo-mo funk of ‘Lamplight’, nestled in between its sweet guitar bends – and the upshot is a surprisingly loud and powerful vocal presence.

The most surprising thing by far is how heavy they are live. To be fair, the words ‘epic shredding’ and ‘thrashing out’ wouldn’t immediately come to mind here, but it’s another thing they’ve got. A typical hallmark of grunge, the band have nailed the quiet/loud dynamic, except it’s transposed onto an indie-shoegaze template; practically every song has a riotous instrumental breakdown that could rival the intensity of traditionally harder outfits – and the audience lap it up. On ‘Evening/Morning’, a large proportion of the 3,000 strong crowd sing along determinedly to bassist Ed Nash’s serrated riff and the mosh pit, which has been active all night, becomes even more frantic.

In amongst the heaviness there’s also a place for folkiness, and ‘Flaws’ is given a cursory nod, confirming the notion that it was a cross between a detour and side project rather than their true second album. “We’re gonna do something we haven’t done before” mentions Nash coyly, before the band unveil electric versions of its two most memorable tracks. ‘Rinse Me Down’ is more robust post-makeover and Suren de Saram’s drums have a satisfying thwack-factor to them, whilst ‘Ivy & Gold’ is winningly silly, with the banjo playing providing some fun, bouncy relief.

Ironically, the highlight of the entire evening is followed immediately by the low point of the gig. On ‘The Giantess’, Appalachian folk without warning morphs into the blistering instrumentals of ‘Emergency Contraception Blues’, amid strobes flashing at blinding speeds and deafening cheers, and is an incredible flourish to end on… or it would’ve been, had the band not left the stage and then come back for an encore. I couldn’t help wishing that they wouldn’t; they’d done everything to the nth degree and what followed felt inevitably anti-climatic. Because when you’ve outdone yourself, what else is there to do but call it a night?

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