Live Review

Salem, St Leonards Church, London

Live at the witch house trials.

So much ink has been spilt over Salem this year. From the praise heaped on their auspicious debut album ‘King Night’ and their unwilling implication in the birth of witch house, to the derision of their performance at the Fader Fort at SXSW in March.

With so many judgments already made about the band it is almost impossible for their live show to live up to any kind of expectation people might have. It can’t be much worse than the Fader set, but for an act with so little live experience (they have said that the SXSW show was only their eighth time on stage together) it is unlikely that they will be able to match the force and depth of their recorded work.

And then there is the deviant personal history of some members of the group. I’m sure much of the crowd gathered in the imposing setting of St Leonards Church is aware of their notoriety. In fact, it is part of the tabloid appeal of Salem and can’t have hindered ticket sales for the show, which has been sold out for weeks.

When the band eventually shuffle on stage their appearance lives up to most people’s image of them. There is no getting around it, they look like junkies. Not just casual drug users but addicts at the point when junk stops being a habit and starts to become a lifestyle.

Jack Donoghue steps up to the mic dressed in a huge coat with a filthy wife beater underneath. With one hand halfheartedly grabbing at his crotch he stumbles his way through a couple of raps. The words are difficult to make out and he is out of time, but the biggest crime is that his vocals have been left untreated. On ‘King Night’ his rapping is screwed to a crawl, pitched right down and it completes the tracks it is featured on. Coming out of the speakers raw it just highlights that he is no Lil Wayne.

When Heather Marlartt takes the mic her voice is fed through enough delay to reproduce the ethereal sounds on their album. But there is a question mark over how much she is signing live. More than once the mic falls away from her mouth and backing vocals can be heard. However, ‘Frost’ and ‘Redlights’, two of the tracks she performs on, are highlights of the night. Where some songs seem to have something missing and fail to carry the weight of the recorded versions, these and also ‘King Night’ fill the room and feel like sonic recreations of some kind of jet-lagged dream.

What is surprising is not that their live show fails to live up to their record or that they use pre-recorded material but that they often look unsure of themselves and awkward. Perhaps it is that they are still inexperienced musicians or lack confidence in their performance, although with the ambivalence they have shown in some interviews you would think that they would not care about these things. I wonder if it actually reveals some of the intentions behind their music, to express their fragility and vulnerability.

This show isn’t so much a disappointment as a confirmation of where Salem’s strengths lie. They have clearly come a long way since SXSW and I hope that are able to develop a live show that mirrors the achievements of their recorded work. But they have set themselves a hard task by releasing one of the most impressive debut albums of recent years.

Tags: SALEM, Features

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