Joe Nawaz finds his gig of the year 'a mesmerising performance from a band who should and will be huge'
Back in the silly, giddy old days of Britpop there was a guitar band called Geneva. For about two weeks in 1997, they were championed in Melody Maker as the next great thing, principally because the lead singer, a former choirboy, sang with a cod-operatic falsetto so glass-botheringly shrill it made deaf dogs weep. Their fatal flaw, alas, was that they had forgotten to write any tunes to equal the giddying heights of said singer’s range. In short, they were Cast fronted by Aled Jones.
No such ignominy for Wild Beasts, who make it to Belfast for just the second time in their brief career. Singer Hayden Thorpe may possess a voice so ethereally high you’re checking for an Adam’s apple, but luckily they’re also in the habit of making wildly brilliant, eccentric, playful and bloody irrepressible music - it's more Sparks than the late unlamented Geneva.
And Thorpe isn’t even the principle singer in the band. Bassist Tom Fleming’s rich tenor occupies as much vocal space as the cracked castrato contrivances of his co-front man.
Wild Beasts always had something about. Their first single back in the dim foggy days of 2006 was ‘Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants’ – as ridiculously enjoyable as the title suggests. Think Talking Heads fronted by Anthony Hegarty.
Amazingly this was no fluke. They’ve been on an upward creative trajectory ever since, as evidenced by a stream of stellar singles. Latest album Two Dancers was trailed by the brilliant 'Hooting and Howling' and the even more brilliant 'All The King’s Men'. The album itself is a massive creative leap from their very good debut Limbo, Panto.
Tonight at the Limelight they take to the stage following a sprightly opening set from local pop tartlets Cutaways, a band possibly destined for big things themselves.
I'll say this straight off: The Wild Beasts are a brilliant live band. On stage the layered textures of their studio work is imbued with a power and clarity that fixes you to the spot. Chris Talbot’s hypnotic Burundi-style drumming patterns and the impossibly young looking Ben Little’s crystalline guitar underpins everything, leaving the two singers to exchange vocal and backing vocals in a set of songs that are loaded with more twists and turns than an MP’s expenses justification.
Visually it’s the 'we’re just four earnest blokes playing live' ethos that seems to pervade rock performance these days, but the power and quality of the songs is such that it’s quickly overlooked. Substance’s triumph over style has seldom been sweeter, or as complete.
There’s also a sense of fun at the core of their work (both musically and lyrically) in a way that contemporaries such as the more successful Maccabees wouldn’t or couldn’t dare to try.
In nonsensical alliterative delights like ‘Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants’ or ‘All the King’s Men’ - with its winking tribute to 'Girls from Rodean, girls from Shipley, girls from Hounslow, girls from Whitby' - they aren’t anguishing over some laboured cliché or other of longing. Instead there’s a feeling of playful abandon that comes with supreme musical confidence and intelligence.
Tonight’s show-stopping version of older track ‘Devil’s Crayon’ merges the disparate elements of the Wild Beasts’ sound perfectly and is simply hypnotic; polyrhythmic beats, soaring vocals, stratospheric backing vocals and flourishes of joyous punch drunk high-life guitar all falling over themselves to create a kind of peerless and emotive bourgeois funk.
It’s a measure of how good the Wild Beasts are that people I speak to who came here on the strength of the new album are equally transfixed by the older ‘obscure’ stuff. If this seems like an exercise in unrelenting hyperbole, I offer this token caveat: Apart from wearing a lot of plaid, they also came on way too late – 11 as opposed to ten – thereby leaving me slightly more drunk on a school night than originally anticipated. But that, as I say, is a token caveat, a personal gripe about an otherwise mesmerising performance from a band who should and will be huge.
Returning home, I see the good burghers of Belfast Council, in their infinite and unquestionable wisdom, have decided to erect happy new year banners on the Dublin Road. Aside from my sense of awe at the timing, it also stirs me into the realisation that my nomination for gig of the year has finally arrived in November. And not a moment too soon it would seem.