Review: The Dears (Oslo, Hackney)

IMG_20171007_210601.jpgMy photo.

Of the three gigs in the one week (I am so behind on writing things up!) this was the one I was looking forward to most. Yep, the somewhat niche Canadian indie band, not the folk legends or the superstar singer-songwriter. It didn’t disappoint, thought I find it hard to articulate why I love their music quite so much; as with Maxïmo Park I just can’t figure out why more people don’t love them. Well, Hackney certainly loved them at least, in that somewhat too intense middle-aged hipster way, but it was still quite nice to be part of, at least until the shoving and the guys lining up in the front row for the encore, blocking the view of all behind them… but this is a review of the music, not the crowd.

The Dears were a kind of recent re-discovery for me. I think I was vaguely familiar with No Cities Left and Gang of Losers at the time of release (back when I bought the NME), but never owned copies. I remembered Murray Lightfield talking about Blur’s influence on him, though from Wikipedia it seems he eventually got a bit fed up with the Damon Albarn and Morrissey comparisons. Quite right too: he’s got a stunning voice of his own, with a broader skill set than Albarn or Morrissey’s vocals. Happily, He Judges has good taste in these matters, and owned both of those Dears albums, which I’ve had on my regular playlists for a few years now. A few months back we came across Degeneration Street, which is also an excellent album, and discovered that they would be in the UK this autumn, having released two albums since Degeneration Street.

Oslo consists of a club space above a bar/kitchen, and the whole thing is really very Hackney. Happily, it’s not quite as expensive as the city it’s named after, and it was a great little venue to see a band we knew this well in; I imagine that it’s like seeing British indie bands who I became familiar with at the same time on tour in North America, where they still play smaller rooms with low stages and no barriers. And here we got two very different support acts too, each with a decent length set.

The first was Lou Canon, another Canadian, who played Björk-esque dubsteb beats from her keyboard, projected creepy blinking eyes behind her, and sang in powerful, lilting cascades. Phildel is the closest comparison I can think of. Considering how small the audience was at that stage of the night she inhabited the space well, keeping up a consistent barrage of fairly catchy tracks that I’m looking forward to finding online and recommending to all my synth-lady-loving friends. Following her was Fabrizio Cammarata, a rather intense Italian with an acoustic guitar. I liked the Spanish-language track he ended on, and his percussive guitar-playing, but most of it was rather too po-faced and over-wrought for me, all too highly-strung and trying terribly hard. I might get suckered in by an album of it, but it wouldn’t be something I’d normally seek out to see live.

After the two support acts’ sets, The Dears themselves had well over an hour in what was by then a very warm, very crowded room. The only members from The Dears of those albums I’d first heard over a decade ago are the now married duo Murray Lightfield and Natalia Yanchack, whose vocals and interweaving keyboards and guitar define the sound of the band. Although their music wanders through a number of genres it’s the sound of Natalia’s light, sweet vocals (well yes, quite like Amy Millan of Stars, though The Dears did form first) and Murray’s rich, versatile range that keeps it all consistent. Whether more synth-heavy, more soul-inspired, or driven by the rhythm section, the material in their set — spanning their twenty years together — flowed together seamlessly. There were a lot more tracks from No Cities Left and Gang of Losers than I expected, and these tracks still definitely went down best with the audience, despite the high quality of the more recent albums. Well, if I get to see them again I’ll cheer just as loudly for tracks from Times Infinity, which we bought on the way out…

Still, it was fantastic to hear so many tracks from Gang of Losers (though no ‘Ballad of Human Kindness’!). And the irony of hearing ‘Whites Only Party’ in a largely white crowd of Hackney hipsters was heavy, but we all danced anyway — it’s irresistible when you hear the rhythmic opening. Throughout the set Murray said very little, hidden behind a pair of sunglasses and presumably sweltering in a black jacket and turtle-neck as he dashed from guitar to guitar to keyboards. He was more playful when he came out for the encore though, a smug grin on his face as he hefted his acoustic guitar and told an audience shouting out various requests: “I’m gonna play what I wanna play!” before giving us a lovely acoustic version of ‘Ticket to Immortality’.

I’ve found it quite hard to have much to say about this gig, just because it was all something of a blur of enjoyment — a really substantial set, excellent sound and performances, tight and professional and full of familiar favourites as well as great new tracks. I’d love to see them again, I’m really enjoying listening to Times Infinity parts one and two, and it was a great way to round off a very busy week. I’ll not let them slip off my radar again.

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