Imakr 3D Printing Store, Clerkenwell – 25th January 2016
As the customary array of London hipsters cram themselves gracefully into yet another impromptu performance space, provided courtesy of Clerkenwell’s 3D printing studio Imakr, the air of anticipation is even more palpable than usual. It is a rare occurrence that Sofar Sounds, a pioneering movement synonymous with supporting unsigned and lesser known acts, flirts with the mainstream. And yet as the trendy crowd – a sea of rolled up trousers and bare ankles – perch themselves on picnic blankets and, for the lucky few, a lone sofa, the air is abuzz with rumours that this evening’s show will feature a headline slot from a band who have released five studio albums, scored a string of Top 40 singles and sold out arenas across the country. As if to nonchalantly confirm the social media gossip, Mystery Jets bassist Jack Flanagan reclines casually on the aforementioned sofa, grinning and laughing as though he’s kicking back in his own front room. Tonight, Sofar plays host to Indie rock royalty.
Kicking off proceedings is former Tribes frontman Johnny Lloyd, all long hair and bright, dreamy eyes. Fresh from touring with indie rock darlings The Maccabees and soon to head off on the road with tonight’s headliners, he hits his stride quickly, his warm folk-pop hooks going down smoothly on this chilly night in the capital. Comprising a black clad, leather jacketed trio, Lloyd & co deploy some sumptuous vocal harmonies while the subtle use of an Ebow on the guitar gives the set an Americana flavour. They set out their stall with the wistfully melodic Dreamland, while the Blaine Harrison-produced Pilgrims is undoubtedly a standout. The extensive assortment of models and objets produced in the studio, which line the numerous makeshift shelving units, watch on in reverent silence.
Next up is the immediately endearing Marika Hackman, whose opening remark about having no on stage banter quickly seems untrue as she jokes about “fucking up” new songs and laughs infectiously when she hits a bum note in the opening bars of a composition which her housemate “has had to listen to her practice all day”. Deliberately understated in jeans, converse and baggy t shirt, and coupled with her shoulder-length blonde hair, she uncannily resembles a female Kurt Cobain, while her music lands her somewhere between Laura Marling and Joni Mitchell. In a set as stripped back as it’s possible to be, her unadorned voice fills the hushed room and there are times when the finger picking of her guitar sounds almost painfully intimate in tonight’s cloistered surroundings. Yet she loses none of the dark melancholy that has marked her apart from the swathe of ‘nu-folk’ acts to emerge over the past five years, and songs such as Ophelia and Drown show that she’s well worth ever-growing the hype.
By the time she bids a fond farewell, the beer bottles littering the hardwood floor have become notably more numerous and prone to accidental assault as the problematic journey to the toilets across a throng of hunched bodies is made with increasing regularity. In the midst of this faux house party scene, the Mystery Jets race through what has to be one of their more rough and ready sound checks in recent memory.
For a band who have become accustomed to playing the city’s most iconic venues and slotting in to festival line ups with some of the biggest acts in the world, they look effortlessly at ease in the somewhat less grandiose confines of the Imakr basement. Frontman Blaine Harrison presides cooly over proceedings from his seat behind a two tiered keyboard, bemoaning at one point the “ridiculous” tiny Casio instrument he’s been lumbered with tonight, prompting his bandmates to start delightedly playing with the preset demo drumbeat which in turn induces a comedic drum off with drummer Kapil Trivedi, who is quick to match the synthetic beats of his electronic rival. “At least we don’t have to pay the Casio”, quips guitarist William Rees.
A brief but varied set ensues, in which they take full advantage of the opportunity to debut new material from their latest album Curve of the Earth, released earlier this month. Atmospheric new single Telomere, driven by frenetic acoustic jangling and bold keyboards, showcases Harrison’s increasingly dynamic vocal range and sits comfortably alongside a score of old favourites.
Aside from the songwriting, which has become yet more sophisticated with their most recent LP – described by NME as a “boldly British album” referencing greats such as Rick Wakeman, ELO and The Beatles – part of Mystery Jets unique appeal lies in their natural ability to create an atmosphere of hilarity on stage that is as contagious as it is genuine, doing so with an ease that other bands can only dream of. Newest recruit Jack Flanagan is at the heart of much of their frivolous banter, a cheeky grin permanently plastered across his face under a mop of bleach blonde hair. During sentimental new album closer The End Up he remarks mid-song that “this one always gets me”, with a cheeky glance to Rees, who takes up lead vocals for the track. “This one’s for you, Jack”, he wryly replies, before embarking on a repeating vocal refrain of “I hope I end up with you”.
A pop quiz on David Bowie’s five number one singles precedes the night’s final song, as the band coax audience participation as if they were question masters down the Dog & Duck on a Sunday night, while also making full use of the Casio’s auto beat drumming, the tempo of which Flanagan gleefully cranks up following each successful answer. As self-professed Bowie fans, the set fittingly ends with a rousing tribute to the great man. Steering clear of his innumerable radio singles, they opt for a moving rendition of Ziggy Stardust opener Five Years, during which Rees and Harrison interchange lead vocal duties as they build towards a powerful crescendo that perfectly closes out what has been an expert lesson in the art of the Low Key Gig.
Once again Sofar effortlessly raises the bar and continues to redefine the live show in a challenging and impersonal era. With the organisers’ impassioned appeal for fans to continue supporting live acts and local concerts in an age where classic venues are closing and enthusiasm for the intimate musical experience sputtering out, they can be content that they at least are leading the charge for something better, bolder and more authentic.
Words: Henry Wickham