British Sea Power

The mighty British Sea Power light up Queen's Student Union

Great gigs seldom start out as inauspiciously as this. A wet Tuesday in Belfast, a show downsized from the Mandela Hall to the Speakeasy due to poor ticket sales and a PA that sounds positively tubercular as it struggles to support opening act the Panama Kings.

On such nights most bands in the midst of a major tour would be content to dash off the hits and be back in the van before breaking sweat. But nothing seems further from the minds of Brighton-based indie rockers British Sea Power who put in a sparkling performance that perfectly combines boundless energy, savvy pacing and a small arsenal of cracking tunes.

In the five years since the release of their debut record, The Decline of British Sea Power, BSP have specialised in arch laments for an apocryphal bygone age of TS Eliot, Woodbines and Field Marshal Montgomery, delivered over a curious mix of jangly Mersey beat pop and darker, more experimental soundscapes.

Live, BSP do nothing to dispel their carefully cultivated image as purveyors of unbridled English eccentricity. Frilly shirts and hob-nailed boots abound as the band perform amongst wooden owls, leafy branches and flags of non-existent countries - all the while a projector plays black and white films on the back wall.

After opening with the melodic ‘No Need to Cry’ from their latest release, the Mercury nominated Do You Like Rock Music?, the early portion of the set weaves old and new songs. ‘Waving Flags’, a paean to Eastern European migration delivered over swooning guitars, sits well alongside numbers like ‘Carrion’ ‘Remember Me’ and ‘North Hanging Rock’ – which the band admit to not having practised in months.

Given their arch lyrics, literary references and idiosyncratic appearance, it’s hardly surprising that BSP have built up a cult following among their reasonably small but, on tonight’s evidence, dedicated fans.

Large sections of the crowd mouth every word, and halfway through twigs – probably nicked from the trees outside the union – begin to appear at the front. Elsewhere, a homemade flag declaring ‘the Rise of Irish Sea Power’ is unfurled to the delight of many.

The highlight of the set, a stirring cover of Boston band Galaxie 500’s ‘Tugboat’, is as unexpected as it is welcome (well by me and my girlfriend, at least). Where the original was sparse and pared down, BSP’s version oozes verve, and judging by the look of barely contained glee on vocalist Yan’s face when he sings its chorus of ‘It’s the place I want to be, it’s the place I’ll be happy’, he’s found his tugboat captain.

By the time the encore – which is to last over half an hour – starts, it’s clear that the band have been pacing themselves. Where they appeared distant and detached at the beginning of the set they are now animated and alive.

As ‘No Lucifer’ opens with its football terrace chant of ‘Easy, Easy, Easy’, a klaxon is wheeled to the front of the stage – but tonight its whirring call is not to the air raid shelter, but a signal for BSP to really let loose.

Simultaneously singer Yan and guitarist Noble climb the speaker stacks on either side at the front of the stage. Despite their best efforts, the bouncers – shock and bewilderment etched on their faces – are powerless to prevent Yan grabbing hold of the rafters, shimmying out into the middle of the beam and dangling his wiry frame above the crowd before walking – literally –across the audience.

Amid a wall of distortion and guitar fuzz, the band still manages to keep up a refrain of ‘well I hope you enjoyed the show’ as they begin to wreck havoc.

The bouncers are soon sent scrambling up the opposite speaker stack to prevent Noble executing what appears to be a handstand. Although they succeed, it isn’t long before both men are surfing across the crowd - the gig ends with both diving into the mass of people below.

Despite inclement conditions, the awesome might of British Sea Power has lit up the Speakeasy, as it doubtlessly will venues all across the empire.

Peter Geoghegan