The People Versus @ The Bullingdon (Oxford) 2022-11-04

Live gig review

It’s the busiest I’ve ever seen the place. Surely this audience size is far beyond safe capacity, and that seems odd: aren’t half of Oxford meant to be in the New Theatre tonight, watching Dylan? At least that explains what’s happened to the bar staff (the full-to-bursting room having only been assigned one bartender)… but I finally lay hands on a plastic pint of refreshment, wade through the ruckus of revellers, and settle into a nook amidst the legion of TPV fans. They’re easy to spot: this band is known for its glittering, gold-bedecked, merch-adorned adherents, who don’t just know the words but seem to know the moves also. There is a veritable army of maenads assembled here, ready to rave.

But oh, cursed be those West Oxfordshire bus services and mid-November squalls, for preventing me seeing one of my all-time favourite local acts! Having arrived just as support act In-Flight Movie was wrapping up its final, glorious number, I’m feeling robbed. Catch them again if you can, though they’ve no gigs currently listed. Maybe they can respond to this review letting us know their touring schedule.

Instead I get to witness first-hand the lightning-fast changeover that TPV have honed over the course of their blitzkrieg 2022 of hard touring. They’ve gigged up and down the country, honouring the numerous bookings made before or during the pandemic, playing three years’ worth of shows in the space of one. This has made them a lean, mean, hook-laden, hard-rocking machine, and in sixteen minutes flat they have laid out a full rig of instruments & in-ear monitors. This precision is remarkable from a band whose songs so languidly celebrate hedonism and having-your-head-in-the-clouds. Dionysus clearly walks among us once more, but souped up; borne by an exoskeleton with X-ray vision and laser sights, he assembles the thiasus in far less than the seven years it took in antiquity, and the 25 slouching minutes it takes most Oxford bands at a similar stage in their careers.

With change-over now completed, the musicians mount The Bully’s wide, shallow stage: dimensions well-suited to a 5-piece backing band draped in pastel suits. They’ve made a smart move in nabbing The Human League’s dry-cleaning, and they look sharp as nails. The vanguard assembled, singer Alice finally ascends to raucous applause, taking centre-stage with a Gwen Stefani smile. Considering they’re without much lighting tonight (beyond the standard haze and roving disco lights: this band is too new to afford their own lighting engineer), the iconic visual effect of Alice’s gown & tiara is extremely effective. A strong aesthetic, an instant classic: there’s something enchantingly & powerfully good here, but with a seam of threat woven in.

They launch into “Pretty Words”, whose (guitar vs bass) D-string duelling pricks the ears of several math-rock purists strewn across the room. I recognise these audience members, having pogoed happily together in the early days of Foals’ ascent from noodling over edgy beats in The Cellar (RIP) to roaring their anthems in the Royal Albert Hall. The math-ers seemed to have been on their way out after the support acts but, apparently convinced by the song’s head-banging chorus, they buy another round and remain with us to find out where this is all headed. There’s a squirming angst in the song, and it’s a great revver-upper for this audience: we’re trundling along in 1st gear with the top down. But within 5 more minutes, the band have block-changed us into 4th and we’re suddenly at the first bridge of early single “Again And Again”. This is a gut-wrenching moment and the crowd is now absolutely racing, as they intone:

“…spin around;
I thought only lovers would ever be so happy as I am.
I thought only lovers would feel complete.
I’ll meet you again…”

Danny Evans’ vocal descant in the final chorus gives us that final lift and we’re up into 6th gear, cruising now with the crowd’s arms all in the air. The applause after this number is so loud it drowns the between-song banter, and they launch into “Witch” (a nod to last weekend’s Halloween?). Crowned and silhouetted against the haze, not just from the smoke-machine but also the humid, densely packed mass of jumping bodies, Alice is now a downright deity, the room wrapped around the little finger.

But every audience needs its breather, and TPV give this to us in the shape of “Ground Opening”. We meander through the garden & spells of this paean to mysticism, with echoes of Fleet Foxes’ “Heard Them Stirring”. In the sparser arrangement of the quietest of TPV’s songs, there’s space to admire their jaw-dropping vocal blend: note-perfect four-part harmony is no mean feat.

“Dandelion” puts us in mind of Ladysmith Black Mambazo with its deep Disneyfied harmonies. This one isn’t released yet, we’re told, but is a fan favourite (judging from tonight’s singalong throng). As the lyrics draw to a close, the voice and cello share a boldly close melodic range; they are so impeccably tuned that the effect of both is not quite “soaring” but instead “searing”. They lilt out at us from the crystal-clear mix (kudos to the bouncing sound engineer who seems to be getting one hell of a vibe from these tracks, even the quiet ones). It’s also the perfect uplifter to take us back up a gear, segueing into the latest single…

“Lonely Teen” is a song about mental health, even explicitly discussing suicide. Appropriately, the band precedes it with a call-to-arms about “coming out” and how difficult that can be for young people finding their place in the confusion of modern times. They’ve marketed it suitably, with AI-generated lyric video released in October to coincide with World Mental Health Day. The words reference how easily one can become lost in today’s noise of technology and content:

“… everybody here has more heartbreak than you know.
But last time I saw you, you seemed down. You don’t have to be here
Baby, let the words out. A hurricane of thought (and it’s all very loud);
I see the waves you made just to be here now!”

The song gets into its stride with the pogoing groove of verse two, followed by the 2nd chorus “sneak drop” (that missing first beat, familiar to fans of Clean Bandit). We’re left a little saddened by the song’s content, but warmed by its upbeat arrangement.

“Ocean Family” hits next, with its immediately-upbeat jagged guitar signalling the mood change. Like something out of Paul Simon’s “Graceland” but with a nonchalant call-and-response putting us mind of Prince’s “Hot Summer”, by this point in the set it’s no longer debatable: we’ve backed a winning horse. Each time I’m given a moment to doubt the sense of a choice in instrumentation or groove, seconds later the tension is resolved and I’m elevated to a new plane of musical understanding. Indeed, “Calypso” at first sends a wobble through me with its rather fay, whimsically syncopated and over-jolly piano stabs. And those very plain, un-inverted chords, in a simple 1-6-3-5 chord sequence. But oh sweet lord, when they hit the subdominant and launch into THAT chorus over the 4-1-5…

“I hear you talking about me (you know she sits a little too close).
And you could go on without me (you know she sits a little too close).”

… which then makes sense of the second verse, giving it a new dark undertone… the mind is blown wide open. For fans of Eurythmics, your closest reference is “when tomorrow comes”. I’m thinking “Oh please don’t let it end”. A similar effect is attained by “Barefoot” in which they step back the energy to give us another brief breather. This song rides that risky edge which must be so delicately trod by any swung groove: too deliberate and explicit in your swinging, and it’ll become facile. Too sparse and onbeat-focussed, you’ll make it impossible for the listener to detect a swung beat in the first place. It’s just as I’m fearing they’ve veered too much to the over-swung extreme, when Benny takes the reins with some expertly-executed cello insanity and, over a lovely couple of drum fills from Owen to keep us chugging, the song wins me over. It’s each individual’s to shine, as bassist Cathy’s vocals kick in too, beautifully stealing the limelight for the closing chorus.

“Little Bit of Love” takes us careering once more into New Romanticism as the Boy Georgian hook on Danny’s synth interchanges with some very dynamic electric guitar (swapping from palm muted “covert chops” proto-funk to proud, crunchy strums in the choruses, before handing off to the cello). There is a hypnotic, melismatic closing vocal line from Alice. The whole band is gelling wonderfully by this point and audience members are getting bolder in their wild flailing; safe in the hands of such a tight-grooving gang.

“Driftwood” is the song that most benefits from this, with its bum-wigglingly stop-start verses and heavy pumping chorus:

“Maybe without you I’m as good as driftwood:
Spat upon the beaches, sitting rotted and alone […]
A sailor boy’s salvation, a shipwreck’s journey home?”

From there we’re treated to a second verse of rollicking & rolling on the high seas. One complaint occurs to me at this time: the pre-song banter had made mention of SparkNotes (an exam revision app) and this doesn’t add much to the story of the band, or the song. Just makes me wonder whether they might all still be at school. Although… could it be an extremely wry nod to the very Nobel Laureate who, playing across town tonight, was famously found-out as a SparkNotes plagiarist when publishing his Literature Prize acceptance speech back in 2017? In which case the mention on this occasion is perhaps justified, but I’d recommend against repeating it for audiences in general. They’ll be wanting to envision their newfound favourite band not as crammers, but as glam-ers (quilling gorgeous lyrics on parchment with a lightning bolt, rather than ballpoint-ing an essay on foolscap against the clock). Keep up your mystique, I say!

“Driftwood” ends and we’re plunged into the depths of closer “Charybdis”. This put us back in math-rock territory for the opening, meticulously riff-driven refrain, but bouncing over the top is a mesmerising cello arpeggio, harmonics in the 2nd inversion. Something mechanical and clock-like about the tick-tocking rhythm here, gets the audience bouncing on the balls of their feet, upright as meerkats & alert for whatever might come next. There’s a step back in texture for the bridge, in which Alice directs the front row to squat lower & lower til they’re as good as kneeling. Then a break for the upbeat and, at the crucial moment, they jump as one! Launching into the cacophonous

“You give me weight! I give you falling down!”

There is a profound sense of unity in this room, as more than two hundred enthralled fans (some devoted long before tonight; so many more newly won-over by the charismatic performance they’ve witnessed) perform this same routine three more times: dipping then jumping, each time the bridge-chorus combo comes around again. It’s a spectacle, especially coming from a band who (once the show’s over and the bouncers so earnestly begin shepherding us to the exits) revert into being the most humble, down-to-earth, approachable folks with seemingly none of the aloofness you’d expect from a group who so effortlessly have held an audience in the palm of its hand.

It takes sublime talent to execute the kind of entertainment we’ve just seen; it takes a rare humanity to do it with such humility. I’m hooked and can’t wait to see them again.


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