Saturday, 27 October 2012

Gig Review: Kosheen at the O2 Academy Islington, 17/10/2012

Only two weeks after the release of Independence, Kosheen kicked off their 2012 European Tour with the sole UK date, at the O2 Academy Islington in central London. So just a day after trekking into the Big Smoke to see John Dies at the End I hopped back up to see one of my favourite bands for the first time since 2004.

My feelings of anticipation prior to this gig were tinted with a little trepidation, as with Independence. Would the band that impressed me so much live after the release of Kokopelli still have the same stage presence and anthemic sounds two albums and a lot of years later?

Well as it turns out, yes. The live Kosheen this time around consisted of almost same line up as their 2003-2004 tour - singer Sian Evans, guitarist and keyboardist Markee "Substance" Davies, keyboardist Gary Eccles and drummer Mitch Glover, with the only absence being bassist Darren "Decoder" Beale. His omission from this line up was a bit perplexing given that he is one of the band's three core studio members, but judging from the band's performance they seem to be able to carry off pretty much all of their tracks without him.

First, the setlist. They played a pretty full set, running up just under two hours, and played songs from all four albums. I did wonder if the diversity of styles this required would lead to a confusing gig, but actually it did not. Rather than jumbling the tracks up, Kosheen kept the tone more or less consistent for a few songs before transitiioning to something different, and then doing the same again several times - this kept the gig interesting and meant that whatever you like out of Kosheen's back catalgoue, it was presented without being oddly juxtaposed between two completely different songs. They began with a batch of songs from the newest album, some of which I knew would go down well live ("Belladonna" and "Get A New one") but others I wasn't so certain of ("Addict" and "Tightly") and thankfully they all sounded good. Sian got right into these songs, and the dance focus of these was carried very well by the band - using live synths and pre-programmed recordings but thankfully enough was played genuinely live that none of these songs sounded like carbon copies of their recorded counterparts. This was followed by a few from Damage (including "Damage" itself, "Chances", and a slightly up-tempo "Overkill "more reminiscent of how it sounded in 2004 than the album version). Now aside from early versions of Overkill and Guilty, I'd missed out on hearing the Damage tracks live, so I was very happy to hear them this time. Markee used his guitar on a few of these which I didn't quite expect, but the performance of Sian is what always sells me on this band and there was nothing wanting from her delivery here. "Chances" was a great song for her, and the much slower and more tense "Damage" got a good performance from her too and a very tight showing for the rest of the band as well.

"All In My Head", one of my all-time favourites, was delivered with less acoustic guitar this time but with all the emotions it needs. It was the only song from Kokopelli to be played, with the more electronic tracks supplanting all of the guitar-driven album's other song from the setlist - as much as I like some of them, this is a sensible choice given the mixed reception that album had and how difficult it would be to blend more rock into the mix in this show. The latter half of the gig brought in some more from Independence including "Something New", to which Sian added additional prechoruses but I was surprised how little weight that bassline had live - not as much energy behind this one as I had expected, which means it was probably the weakest of the bunch in this otherwise strong set. Also in the second hour were a satisfying amount of tracks from Resist - including all four of that albums DnB tracks, Hide U, Suicide, Empty Skies and even Pride (which I don't think I heard when I saw them last). These were a real treat, I have to say, and I think the crowd agreed - this is what brought people to the band to begin with, after all. The band did them justice, Sian was on form, Markee made good use of guitar for "Pride", and Mitch really was in his element with these tracks. "Suicide" and "Hide U" are my gateway drug for Kosheen, and to hear them hit this hard and be with a crowd bouncing to them after so long was immense - I still remember waking up to "Suicide" one morning in 2000 and this brought that feeling right back. Finally the encore brought us "Dependency" and "Catch" - the best song from their newest album and arguably the most famous track from their first. "Dependency" might not be a Sian-dominated track but it gives the instrumentalists plenty to show off with and it sounds just as good live and when Sian joined for the verses she made the lyrics sound even better - slightly more plaintive, somehow and less euphoric, which was an interesting contrast to the warmth of the chords that back up the song's breakdowns. As for Catch, it always got a great response before and it did this time too, deservedly so -  a fitting end to a very fun night.

All four band members were impressive at this show. Gary is a bit of a dark horse really and I don't know much about him as he only appears live, but he's integral to the band's performance especially when Markee is on guitar. Markee seems to have got a bit more used to guitar since 2004 - as the band didn't perform a lot of songs from Kokopelli he doesn't need to use it as much but when he did, it fit right in. Both Markee and Gary didn't make any cock-ups on keyboard, it was a pretty slick show all round as far as electronics were concerned. Mitch Glover is a force of nature on drums. The three shows I saw in 2003/2004 had him behind a glass screen because back then he hit everything so hard they had serious mixing problems with his drums - he doesn't seem to be quite as nuts these days but he's still pretty loud, and more importantly he's right on time, all the time. This is true in a rock track like "All In My Head", the less drum-intensive electronic ones like Damage and even in ones where he provides more flourishes at a breakneck speed like Suicide. I think Mitch's contribution to this band's live appeal can't be underestimated. Without this braided-mohawked powerhouse providing the beats I think the dynamics of the band would far less impressive live - there's only so far sequenced drums can take you, and Mitch's aggressive but precise approach is exactly what a lot of Kosheen's songs need.

Especially when you consider he has to keep up with Sian. I criticised Independence for playing her down more than any of the other three albums, but live she's kept up in the mix and she can rise to the task of being the focus of the audience spectacularly. I've heard Sian waver on some higher notes and some long sustains in previous gigs but she surprised me a this one because she had no trouble at all - on the really tricky ones like "Empty Skies" and "Belladonna" especially, as "Empty Skies" definitely seemed to have challenged her vocally before. No such issues here, and her interaction with the crowd (which I was only one person deep into and I had a pretty good view) was, as ever, pretty good - she never seems disinterested or distracted and the enjoyment she was clearly having from performing not only the classic material but also the very new songs was a massive reassurance to me, having wondered how strong an influence she had been during the making of Independence. Sian stays right in the First Class of singers in dance music and near the top of my list of favourite singers of all time.

Live concerts are usually something I go to expecting to have a pretty good idea of what to expect, but on quite a few occasions I've been surprised by how good they turn out and how well the artist's materials translates to the live experience, and how well suited the band is to performing, not just recording. Kosheen were a known quantity to me eight years ago, but nevertheless they managed to surprise me this time too, and any doubts I might have had proved unfounded. Faithless are the only other dance band I've seen to have had a show comparable to this, with the mixture of played and sequenced sounds combined with a strong personality and presence from an unmistakable front man/woman being the key similarities between these two bands. Kosheen are an electronic act, but they are a "proper" band and they can put on a show that rivals Faithless and make most other dance bands look clinical and sterile by comparison. It may have been eight years coming for me, but this band have got better with time and they deserve to more well known than they are If they come to a city near you (which means you're probably Central European) you should go and see their show. I'm certainly glad I did.

I should also mention the support, Viva City. Rather appropriately for billing with Kosheen they are a dance/rock crossover act with a pretty good live drummer. They sound less techy and gritty and more bright and poppy, and their singer sounds a bit like Liam Gallagher. I thought they were decent although I don't think there was much depth to their more synth-oriented songs - the more guitar focused tracks seemed to have more kick to them in this gig. Worth a listen, I reckon, but they didn't make an immediate convert out of me.

Check out Michael East's photos of the gig on Flickr, here.

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