Monday, 28 March 2016

RETROSPECTIVE REVIEW - Bob Dylan and his Band - Grizzled Old Dog Can Still Pull Off the Odd Trick - Manchester Evening News Arena, Manchester, 10.10.11

“This is an old simple love song,” Bob Dylan murmurs softly into his microphone – or at least, that’s what it sounds like. He speaks in a low, quiet, languid tone, all sharp edges and gravel. The cavernous Manchester Evening News Arena seems an odd place for the seventy-year old Minnesotan, a monolithic structure more accustomed to hosting corporate pop shows than septuagenarians. But Dylan is no ordinary folk singer-songwriter; he is arguably the folk singer-songwriter, in addition to being the architect of a canon of songs enshrined in musical history. It’s difficult to think of another individual whose craft possesses such a far-reaching legacy.

Robert Zimmerman, as he is legally known, is making his biannual visit to the UK, as part of the latest leg of his Never Ending Tour (the name of his constant touring cycle since 1988 – tonight’s show is his two-thousand, three-hundred and fifty-eighth performance in twenty-four years). It’s not a solo show either; he is accompanied by former producer Mark Knopfler, perhaps better known as the frontman of eighties rock juggernauts Dire Straits, in the position of co-headliner. On paper, it’s a tantalising double-bill for fans of roots rock, electrified country and folky blues, and there is a clear mutual respect between the two artists, despite never sharing the stage.
Bob Dylan performs live in Milan in 2011.
(Courtesy of The Midnight Cafe)
Knopfler hasn’t been idle since the dissolution of his former band in 1995, with six albums to his name and the seventh, Privateering, due imminently. He chooses to eschew the bigger hits in his arsenal, instead settling for a rambunctious seventy-minute Celtic-rock ramble through his solo catalogue. He debuts two new songs – including his upcoming title-track, all sea-faring accordion and rattling acoustic guitars– and otherwise focuses on folk-stomp throwdowns like Why Aye Man and the delicately-strummed gems of Hill Farmer’s Blues. After an elongated rendition of grave-song Marbletown, he makes a concession to Dire Straits to finish, delivering a magnificently haunting Brothers in Arms, all poignant trembles and mournful guitar tones. It’s beautifully atmospheric, shiver-inducing and perfectly executed.

But Dylan is the main attraction, and after a short interval, he shuffles unassumingly onstage and takes up position behind an organ. Illuminated in warm shades of honey yellow, his brimmed hat casting shadows over his face, he looks exquisitely dapper, like the mysterious man at the end of a dive bar who doesn’t really belong there. Joined by a five-piece band, they rattle through a sleazed-up Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat and a jaunty take on old favourite Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, augmented and beefed up on a bed of lap and pedal guitar.
Bob Dylan performs live at Bluesfest in 2011.
(Courtesy of  Torsten Blackwood)
There are obvious flaws though, and they’re pretty big. Arena sound is a refined art and years of touring theatres and outdoor venues across the world renders Dylan’s mix imperfect in the cavernous bowl. It echoes drearily on the quieter numbers, such as Tangled Up in Blue, and drowns out Dylan on Honest With Me. The latter is arguably a blessing in disguise; withered by time, Dylan’s once elastic whine has been reduced to a hoarse rasp that fails to wrap itself around the vocal lines of A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall and grizzles through Highway 61 Revisited with a flat, pained growl.

But sometimes it works unexpectedly well. That “old simple love song”, Simple Twist of Fate, sounds more careworn, more resigned, to touching effect under the plaintive imperfections. His band are superb too, in particular guitarist Charlie Sexton, who adds grit to the rolling Thunder on the Mountain. Dylan himself also performs ably; he hammers the keys with a surprising ferocity on set closer Ballad of a Thin Man, and improvises on Like a Rolling Stone, his vocal rising to a howl as he delivers kinetic blasts of organ. In this mode, his deficiencies suddenly don’t matter; he captivates his audience in a burst of animalistic snarling passion. They conclude with a crunching run through All Along the Watchtower, brutally recast in the vein of Hendrix, and with a quick wave, Dylan and band slip off as feedback fades into the background. He may be vocally spent, but The Voice of a Generation is an old dog who can still pull off the odd trick; when he does, it’s thrilling to watch.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

a-ha - Cool Scandinavian Pop Still Ignites Warm Flames - Manchester Arena, Manchester, 25.03.16

About seventy-five minutes into a-ha’s show at Manchester Arena, there is the sound of gently-plucked acoustic strings echoing across the open space. Frontman Morten Harket looks out at the relatively intimate crowd gathered at the barrier and smiles coyly, a demure expression playing across his still-youthful visage. “There’s quite a lot of you out there,” he notes drily. “Let’s hear you.” He stands back from the microphone, and for a minute and a half, as the band play softly around him, four thousand voices carry the refrain of Hunting High and Low together, like a celestial chorus above hushed strings and low-key drums, eliciting shivers in breath-taking fashion.

It’s a staple of big pop-rock shows, to hand over vocal duties to the audience, but by no means does it diminish the effect. There had been raised eyebrows when, after a retirement of only five years, a-ha ventured out of Norway again, new album and tour in tow. But on a live circuit populated by nostalgia, it is hardly surprising. It helps that latest effort Cast In Steel is an impressive return to form for the Scandinavian new wave trio, reaching #8 in the UK and justifying their re-emergence onto the scene.
Morten Harket and Pål Waaktaar-Savoy of a-ha perform
live in 2010. (Courtesy of Youtube)
They lean lightly on new material though, at their first full UK show since they bid farewell in 2010. Instead, they stick to an impressive array of hits and fan favourites that span their entire thirty-year career. Entering to graphics of windswept roads, rendered in foreboding monochrome, they strike up with a strident run through I’ve Been Losing You and Cry Wolf, all strobe lighting and crunching guitar. Live, they pack a broader punch than on record, more urgent and weighty. Dressed in leather jacket and shades, Harket cuts an enigmatic figure to begin, leaving chirpy keyboardist Magne Furuholmen to introduce the four-piece backing band who accompany them, though after he swaps his glasses for a rectangular frameless pair, he takes on the air of a debonair Specsavers model.

Unfortunately, he suffers vocally early on, though his range is magnificent; during the sweeping icy synth-orchestral grandeur of Stay On Those Roads, he hits the highs with a graceful ease. It’s the power behind his voice that is Harket’s weakness; there isn’t any to start with. Hit Move to Memphis sees him trill tremulously over Edge-like guitar work, whilst We’re Looking for the Whales is hamstrung by a lack of clout. But he gradually improves; The Swing of Things sees him project finely over swelling strings, whilst Crying in the Rain sees him harmonise with his female backing vocalist with an elegiac strength.
Magne Furuholmen of a-ha performs live in
2016. (Courtesy of
“We didn’t honestly expect to see you again so thank you for having us,” he states to cheers from the middle-aged collective of women near the front. All seem pleased to be on stage, even if Harket is more reserved than the others. Guitarist Pål Waaktaar-Savoy sports a grin every time he wrenches a bolt of noise from his guitar during the ominous, creeping Sycamore Leaves. Furuholmen looks even more excitable; during an acoustic version of Lifelines where he sings lead vocals, he flubs his second line and swears cheerily for the rest of the first verse, whilst during the urgent dance-rock of Foot of the Mountain, he dad-dances, throwing amusing shapes to the delight of onlookers.

Closing with the jittery synth-pop of Scoundrel Days, they return to encore with a pulsing, driving The Sun Always Shines On T.V., all clattering drums and snarling fretwork. They dial down for an acoustic take on new Radio 2-friendly single Under the Makeup, before leaving with the deliriously kitsch funk-pop of their James Bond theme The Living Daylights, its brass flares backed by graphics featuring silhouettes of scantily-clad women in a winking reference. They exit again, but the crowd remain on their feet, hollering, until the drum intro of Take On Me bursts into life, its euphoric keyboard riff signalling another mass-singalong. As Harket nails the high note to wild applause, there’s a tangible warmth to this mass act of musical communion. It seems, that after thirty years, this cool Scandinavian trio can still ignite the flames of excitement – and there are many only too happy to fan them higher.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Simple Plan - Happy-Go-Lucky Bubblegum Punks Possess Hidden Musical Depths - O2 Ritz Manchester, Manchester, 23.03.16

“Are you guys ready to party?” Simple Plan frontman Pierre Bouvier shouts at the crowd squeezed into Manchester’s O2 Ritz. Mainly consisting of flame-orange and neon-blue haired women in their early twenties, they scream back incoherently at the French-Canadian’s question. He grins and follows it up with a second query. “Are you ready to jump?” he asks, before the band behind him bounce into the deceptively ebullient suicide cry Jump, a song that goes as far as to lift its title from a Van Halen song that covers the exact same subject manner.

On the nose, definitely, but Simple Plan were never exactly renown for musical or lyrical subtlety. In their line of work, the heart-on-sleeve approach is the default setting; big, chunky riffs revolving around a collection of four chords and stories that probe the general teenage mindset; broken hearts, individualism, outsider status, the unfairness of life, of losers and freaks. It’s a tried-and-tested format, steeped in rock cliché before bubblegum punk took it as a template. Veterans of the scene, they are in Manchester touring behind their fifth record Taking One for the Team. On a stage decked out with senior-prom banners and white amps, they look comfortably at home, in this facsimile of American teenage fantasy; it weirdly suits them, and the eighty-five minute set of power-pop-emo they subsequently roll out.
Simple Plan performing live in 2016. (Courtesy of
On the surface, it’s all a bit too familiar. Handclap drum beats, softer verses, anthemic choruses, on-stage jutting; they rattle through the textbook of pop punk tropes at an alarming speed. There’s the obligatory sex joke about old people. Bouvier introduces half the songs by dropping their titles into contrived anecdotes. Bassist David Desrosiers and guitarist Sebastian Lefebvre even trade instruments during one song. Unoriginal stage patter? Most certainly. But what elevates Simple Plan above their contemporaries in performance is the fact that they are a buoyantly joyous live force who possess hidden depths.

Their opening salvo of the surging pop-rock cut Jet Lag, the aforementioned Jump and old school throwback I’d Do Anything is a kinetic blast that sets the tone and pace for the rest of the evening, all three built upon drummer Chuck Comeau’s dynamic speed and sly fills. Seminal emo-pop anthem Welcome to My Life sees Derosiers delay his bass marginally, producing a neat John McVie-esque tick to the melody. A brief cover of Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk allows lead guitarist Jeff Stinco to layer dirty chicken-scratch over the rhythm section in lizard-like fashion. The high point is the calypso-tinged Summer Paradise, the song furthest from their typical sound, all Hawaiian tones and reggae-edged hooks as the band boot inflatable beach balls into the crowd. Lyrically it’s much of the same; but they resonate strongly regardless. The band speak to-the-point on universal themes and never stray into puerile topic territory. Simple Plan understand and sympathise, but wrap it in three minutes of exuberant pop rock each time. It’s catharsis in its base form and highly effective fun.
Pierre Bouvier of Simple Plan, live in
2016. (Courtesy of
Bouvier takes a few songs to ease into the show, but is vocally superb from the off. He defiantly encourages rebellion with a playful wink on The Rest of Us and sears through Crazy with an emotional intensity that prickles gooseflesh. He goes one better in the encore, invoking lighters for blunt-but-effective ballad This Song Saved My Life and leads off encore closer Perfect with an acoustic guitar. “There’s only one reason a band like us can still be around after fifteen years,” he speaks earnestly near the end. “And that’s you.” It may be a well-worn gesture to make; but in doing so, Bouvier brings himself that bit closer to his fans in acknowledging their everyday struggles.

That is perhaps the key to Simple Plan. Critics may snort and deride them, and pop punk, as an out-of-time musical fad that trades in cliché four-chords and lyrical trivialities – but they’re obviously not in touch with their younger side and thereby missing the point. Simple Plan speak to teenage generations in a timeless, accessible fashion; they connect with the “losers” and “freaks” and understand them, yet still have fun. There are no losers here; for a moment, everyone is a winner, and that’s something to celebrate.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

RETROSPECTIVE REVIEW - Iron Maiden - Heavy Metal Masterclass With a Sense of Fun - Motorpoint Arena, Sheffield, 24.07.11

“Heavy metal is a family,” Bruce Dickinson announces halfway through Iron Maiden’s near-two-hour set at Sheffield’s Motorpoint Arena. Dressed in cargo pants, black vest and beanie hat, he doesn’t look particularly heavy metal; but regardless, he holds a screaming sell-out crowd in his palm. He waves them down after a moment and looks uncharacteristically serious.  “Family looks after our own. There’s been some tragedy this past year. Christchurch, Japan, Egypt… Norway. There’s been Iron Maiden fans caught up in all of that. So tonight, we’d like to send this one out to them.”

A solemn prologue to their 2000 reunion epic Blood Brothers but that reflection elevates it as the band – long-term veterans of the scene – deliver with an elegiac grace that showcases their brilliant understanding of sonic textures. Iron Maiden may have become known as merchants of taut, punchy metal anthems but bassist and main-man Steve Harris’s roots lie with Genesis. They have evolved to finest purveyors of prog-metal; but it’s hard to deny they are riotously exhilarating and exciting.

Iron Maiden play live in 2011. (Courtesy of Blogspot)
Touring behind fifteenth album The Final Frontier, Maiden are winding up the final leg, a homecoming in big British venues, having conquered four other continents on their jaunt across the world in custom Boeing-757 Ed Force One (piloted by their frontman, who is also an Olympic-class fencer and novelist). Thirty-five years into their career, they could treat it as an extended victory lap of classics; but Maiden have unshakeable faith in their new material and so split the setlist fifty-fifty between older hits and songs recorded since Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith rejoined the band in 1999.

On paper, the chosen songs represent a superb set; in practice, they appear to misstep early on. Of the five songs they cull from The Final Frontier, all but one feature in the opening half-hour. The title track packs the pugilistic clout of their eighties heyday; lead single El Dorado insistently gallops off in classic Maiden fashion around the snarling guitar licks of triple-six-string threat Smith, Dave Murray and Janick Gers. But reception is lukewarm from their audience, and when it doesn’t improve after anti-war anthem 2 Minutes to Midnight, alarm bells start ringing.

But Maiden pull it back in style. The twisting-prog of The Talisman is superbly rendered, all Celtic-lilts and full-tilt driving bass. Power ballad Coming Home elicits lighters in the air, in a proper heavy-metal throwback. Then comes the breakthrough; a one-two of the gothic Dance of Death and The Trooper, the latter seeing Dickinson prowl the stage in a red military jacket waving a Union Flag like a man possessed. Sheffield erupts into a moshing frenzy and never lets up for the rest of the night.

Bruce Dickinson performs live with Iron Maiden
in 2010. (Courtesy of Wikipedia)
Arguably the best frontman in rock, Dickinson never falters, an energising presence that brings out the best of the crowd throughout. “Scream for me, Yorkshire!” he hollers, before sprinting across the stage, wrestling his microphone during The Wicker Man, his vocals coiled around sharp, brutal riffs. He bleeds passionate sincerity; on sprawling apocalypse opus When the Wild Wind Blows, he is mesmerising. He professionally duals an animatronic Eddie, the band’s iconic mascot, during The Evil That Men Do. He sometimes strains with the higher notes but during closers Fear of the Dark and Iron Maiden, he rises to the occasion with aplomb, perched upon the stage set (made up like a disused space station) as a giant Eddie head looms ominously behind him.

Absolute showmanship is hard to find, but Dickinson taps into a rich seam that is thrillingly entertaining, delivering fire on quintessential Maiden track The Number of the Beast whilst the pummelling drums of Nicko McBrain, kit adorned with Sooty puppet, drives magnum opus Hallowed Be Thy Name forward. They finish with Running Free from their self-titled debut, a rollickingly fun rock-and-roll number. And that’s the key to Maiden’s success; as the house lights come up and Monty Python’s Always Look on the Bright Side of Life blares over the PA, there are mile-wide smiles plastered across the faces of the audience as they head for the exits. They may have transformed to prog-metal masters; but Iron Maiden know how to have fun. And that’s something music will always need.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott - Droll Masterclass in Exquisitely Realised British Pop - First Direct Arena, Leeds, 19.03.16

The pre-show build-up at Leeds’s First Direct Arena for Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott is a quirky affair. Dream-folk covers of Springsteen songs drift across the PA as images of Esther Rantzan, Chief Wiggum, and various footballers flash on large screens on a two-minute loop. There is no discerning theme to it; but then perhaps, that’s the point, the showreel an allusion to the attention span of modern culture. It’s clever, wry and acerbic; much like Heaton’s own musical sensibilities.

It’s been an impressive comeback for the Sheffield-raised singer-songwriter. The Beautiful South disbanded in 2007, citing “musical similarities”, and Heaton’s subsequent work has never really troubled the charts. But his 2014 reunion with Abbott brought him arguably unexpected commercial success, prompting multiple sell-out tours in increasingly larger venues. This sold out show is a significant step up though; having toured medium-sized venues only previously, this is their debut arena show. With the pressure of their biggest headline gig to date, a few errors could be perhaps expected and forgiven.
Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott perform live on
TFI Friday in 2015. (Courtesy of Zimbio)
Instead, they sound and perform flawlessly, delivering a droll masterclass in exquisitely realised British pop. Heaton is probably one of the country’s finest songwriters, his genre-straddling compositions woven into the cultural tapestry, and the setlist draws from all of his musical eras. Opener Wives 1, 2 & 3, taken from his and Abbott’s second album Wisdom, Laughter and Lines, is filled with the darkly humorous lyrical insights into normal life that are his bread and butter, wrapped in a lithe, shuffling pop number. The Queen of Soho is built on Sixties-flavoured guitar that was probably never paired with tales of drag queens back then. The Horse and Groom delves into Killers-esque heartland-synth-rock, complete with cowboy metaphors. Older track Pretenders to the Throne is joyous in its melody, riding upon stirring piano, whilst the musically-sunny, lyrically-downbeat Old Red Eyes is Back feels like an inappropriate celebration. Heaton has a gift for tapping into the public consciousness and it serves his songcraft resplendently.

“It’s odd that there’s so many people here,” he comments, visibly surprised, whilst thanking the crowd for coming, before he namechecks the local Jumbo Records and makes a quip about “deleting browsing history”. Though not a natural showman at first glance – stood behind a lectern, dressed in glasses and steel-grey cagoule, possessing the air of a bemused teacher on a field trip – his savvy delivery is bursting with its own charm that lends itself to his performance, particularly on Housemartins cut Anxious. Vocally, he is faultless, his voice well-preserved and mellifluous; his beautifully affecting rendition of I’ll Sail This Ship Alone prompts a standing ovation that is only cut off when the band starts the next song.
Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott perform in Hull
in 2016. (Courtesy of Ian Rook)
Abbott only speaks on occasion but as the co-performer of some of pop’s most enduring creations, she lets her vocals do the work. Silky-sweet with a bitter venom underneath, she offers a perfectly-harmonised counter that snakes around Heaton’s own voice, such as on the achingly beautiful Prettiest Eyes and the jaunty Good as Gold (Stupid as Mud). When she steps up to the plate solo, she nails it too, conveying resigned loneliness superbly on Sundial in the Shade, and the gentle ebb and flow in Rotterdam as glitterball lighting illuminates the auditorium in kaleidoscopic refractions. Neither vocalist is flashy, though the latter does “dad-dance” throughout; but they remaining captivating performers who command attention.

The last forty-minutes is a near-total hit-storm; the punchy power-pop of Happy Hour, a radically-recast Perfect 10, transformed into a driving rock anthem, and the acapella Caravan of Love close the main set, the latter spine-tingling as ten thousand voices join in unison to form the backing for Heaton’s soulful delivery. A double encore follows; first, a cod-regaee take on A Little Time and Don’t Marry Her, complete with large inflatable beach balls descending from the rafters, before they return to deliver the Soviet-influenced Heatongrad. They finish off with You Keep It All In, signalling an outbreak of dancing in the aisles as gold confetti cannons erupt stage-side. As Heaton and Abbott wave farewell, they both blow kisses to the crowd. After such a wonderful live performance, it’s highly unlikely that they’ll be saying a permanent goodbye any time soon. 

Thursday, 17 March 2016

RETROSPECTIVE REVIEW - The Human League - Copper-Bottomed Synthpop Hits Frustratingly Served Cold - Victoria Theatre, Halifax, 30.11.10

“I just peeked a look outside,” announces Phil Oakey as he returns to the stage for the encore at Halifax’s Victoria Theatre. “I don’t know if it was forecast to, but it’s snowing. Heavily.” He grins wryly, a touch of irony colouring his tone. “If you’re going home on public transport, good luck. You’re going to need it.”

There’s a distinctly Northern warmth to Oakey, something that can surprise initially based on previous conceptions. After all, his band The Human League spent the eighties as one of the coolest groups on the planet, their machine-tooled synthpop heralding the second British musical invasion of the USA. A large part of their success lies with the androgynous Oakey, his slicked long black hair and smudged eyeshadow predating Robert Smith’s adoption of such a look by half a decade. The rest is indebted to the arsenal of copper-bottomed pop classics that matched his look, and that of dual female vocalists Joanna Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley.

The Human League live in 2010. (Courtesy of eFestivals.)
The three remain the only members of the band that conquered both sides of the Atlantic after tension and in-fighting drove away original members. It’s been so long since their heyday, it’s hard to honestly say if absent members are missed; for many, The Human League is the trio that steps out on stage tonight, accompanied by a quartet of backing musicians and a Doctor Who stage set of white podiums and dry ice.

Support comes from synth-rockers Performance, who deliver a mature set that blends juddering bass and electronic pop under frontman Joe Cross’s plaintive vocal cries and heart-on-sleeve lyrics, before they give way to the main attraction. Long since a touring band, The Human League’s current tour is in support first-album-in-a-decade Credo, from which they cull the rather rote opener Electric Shock as Catherall and Sully, in sequined mini-dresses and Star Trek haircuts, clutch their microphone stands as Oakey, dressed under a black hood, draws out a low falsetto over the rhythm. They are no fools though and know what the vast majority of middle-aged punters are here for; the hits.

And so, duly, they deliver, in a set that spans eighty-five minutes and the breadth of their entire career. Oakey is the clear-cut showman amongst them; whilst Catherall may do a twirl and Sulley a small wiggle, it is the now-bald Yorkshireman who marshals his band through energetic renditions of Open Your Heart and Louise. Against a backdrop of cyclists, he preens during Mirror Man, and ignites hand-claps for the bombastic Love Action (I Believe in Love). He delivers his strongest performance on the lyrically-atrocious but musically-awesome The Lebanon, an anti-war anthem that packs a meaty guitar riff to set it apart from the synth-dominance across the rest of the material.

The Human League live in 2012. (Courtesy of Leeds List)
But there’s a definite feeling of going-through-the-motions. Oakey’s exuberance at points highlights how he sometimes seems to be the only person on stage having any fun – and even then, he flags on occasion, his vocals strained by time and age. It bleeds into the crowd too; during Being Boiled, a low murmur of chatter moves across the auditorium as Oakey snarls the words in his most punkish drawl. The sound wildly fluctuates too; The Sound of the Crowd sounds far too quiet, whilst new track Night People blares at its audience in an obscenely loud fashion only minutes later. At times, it doesn’t feel alive enough, disconnected and cold as atmospheres go; a shame as Oakey often seems to be busting a gut.

Of course, the whole building lights up when the distinctive intro to Don’t You Want Me erupts from the keyboards, and Oakey’s resulting smile is wide, with a tinge of relief and frustration. Their encore ends equally voraciously as the band tear into a heavier take on Oakey’s solo hit Together in Electric Dreams, long adopted as a setlist staple by the band. It feels like a crescendo, as the Victoria Theatre raises to its feet to dance along and sing, but perhaps not one earned by the band. Oakey is engaging as they come; but perhaps that cold snow outside could be an apt metaphor for The Human League – rather beautiful to look at, but cold to the touch.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Grimes - Chameleonic Style Can't Mask the Flaws - O2 Academy Leeds, Leeds, 07.03.16

There’s a kaleidoscopic element to Clair Boucher’s audience at the opening night of the UK leg of her Acid Reign Tour at Leeds’s O2 Academy. Predominantly students, but with a smattering of younger teens and considerably older patrons, the vast majority are drenched in neon and glitter, with wildly colourful hairstyles in shades of blue and orange. It carries echoes of the emo trend in its DNA but owes itself to rave and punk sensibilities in equal measure.

The same could be said of Boucher, better known by her stage moniker Grimes. The discography she possesses – four albums, a pair of EPs and a few guest spots – is difficult to categorise beyond the broadest strokes of pop, an ambient chill, proto-industrial noise encompassing everything. As an individual, she is equally chameleonic, with no look or appearance ever the same. In a world of processed, packaged corporate artists, from Rihanna to Imagine Dragons, she holds an outsider authenticity that appeals to the weird and wonderful on the fringes of the mainstream.

Grimes performing live at Laneway  Festival, 2016. Courtesy of Getty.
For how long Grimes remains there is another question. Fourth album Art Angels took her into the UK and US Top #40 and was named as one of 2015’s finest albums by numerous publications. She’s just signed up to front Stella McCartney’s latest range. This is a record that brazenly beckons the charts; this concert had to be upgraded from the neighbouring LBUSU, such was demand. Boucher is on a rapid ascent and it shows in her music.

Opening track Genesis, from 2012’s breakthrough Visions, is defiantly old-school Grimes, all hi-def chiptune video game melodies, a dream-pop number that seems straight out of Final Fantasy X. But what immediately follows is a roll through Art Angels’ sleeker, polished sound, indebted to eighties new wave more than floating trip-hop lullabies. Stock Aiken Waterman horn breaks herald the arrival of REALiTi, in the vein of early Whitney Houston. Lead single Flesh Without Blood spins fuzzy guitar under hi-NRG synthesisers and an insistent drum track. Album closer Butterfly is a highlight, its oriental riff and geisha-like vocals weaving over euphoric synthpop.

“Normally this is where I’ll ask you all to dance but you’ve already been dancing,” gabbles Boucher at one point, introducing the floor-filling Venus Fly, a driving dance-rave that periodically clatters to a standstill in a cacophony of drums. You expect her to be poised and icy; rather, she’s a bundle of nervous energy, unfailingly excitable and polite, pink hair pulled back and dressed in a neon blue sports top. Vocally, she is solid, recalling the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser in register, though there often appears to be an abundance of backing on the multi-layered tracks that can deceive her full contribution. On the harrowing SCREAM, she struggles to replicate its histrionics live, though her writhing on the floor is alarming, her jerky movements drawing images of a manga gender-swapped David Byrne to mind.

Grimes performing live in Seoul, 2016. Courtesy of COS.
Vocals are not the only issue; the sound mix fluctuates wildly throughout too. Some tracks, like latter highlight Go, sound superb, an electro-freak take on Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. But Flesh Without Blood’s bite is lost when Boucher’s guitar and vocals are buried too deep. The setlist is short too and geared towards only Visions and Art Angels. And every song seems to dissipate into squealing electro-feedback; good once, but not so much a dozen times. It feels churlish perhaps, when the reception for her every move is delirious, to criticise, but it often feels incomplete.

But her presence is magnetic; backed by a trio of dancers set against a honeycombed net that fractures lights and lasers galore, Grimes is mesmerising to watch even when the songs aren’t. And a closing run through old favourites – Symphonia IX and Oblivion – is refreshingly ethereal and pleasing. “Do you mind if we just do our encore now?” she coquettishly asks as she reaches the hour mark and with a roar of approval, bursts into the bubblegum synthpunk standout Kill V. Maim. Whatever way Boucher goes from here on in, you can’t say she’s not giving it her all. Rough around the edges still, with kinks to be ironed out – but Grimes knows how to play them as well as the rest.