A fortnight ahead of their second album Red’s release, Guillemots are easing themselves back into playing live music with three consecutive dates, road testing their new material. Anyone familiar with the band’s quirky stage shows of old, and expecting more of the same, could have been forgiven for leaving the Shepherd’s Bush Empire a little puzzled, however. Tonight was, for several reasons, just a little… well, odd.
There was no brass section parade through the audience. No ornate wooden throne for front man Fyfe Dangerfield to chairdance on. No box of toy instruments to get spontaneous with. Even the audience looked very different; older, perhaps. And there’s Fyfe on stage, in a sensible red cardie and sporting neatly styled hair. Doubtless, matriarchal dinner tables would thrill to the presence of this particular seabird.
Opening with the first of the new record’s tracks, Kriss Kross, it was immediately apparent that the densely intricate production and arrangements of the new album was nowhere in evidence either. Instead, this sounded like a rather similar musical set-up to last time we saw them, albeit with excitement replaced by sobriety. There’s also a section of this song that sounds like it was ripped straight out of Elton John‘s I’m Still Standing. Make of that what you will.
Kriss Kross had been offered as a free download, so at least the decidedly drivetime audience seemed to know that one. The same couldn’t be said for the smattering of other Red tracks in a set that bizarrely looked backwards rather than forwards. Extraordinary, then, that Clarion and Cockatiels, two of the new record’s strongest numbers, were omitted in favour of tracks from the Mercury-nominated debut Through The Windowpane. Was there insufficient time to prepare new live arrangements? Were the band scared this rum bunch wouldn’t like their new material?
What was played was made to sound effortless, and Guillemots music is anything but – a state of affairs that testifies to the band’s innate and immutable raw talent. Dangerfield’s voice is perfectly suited for swooning, crooning romantic adventures in song and he unleashes it tonight alternately from behind a single keyboard or at the front of the stage with an acoustic guitar. He seems less the fevered Jarre-like figure of old, who was given to huddling behind his bank of keyboards like some day-release autistic genius, and more… ordinary.
Guillemots, on this new record, do have some stunning tunes to their name. The chugging glam bassline and Beach Boys-like “whoo-hoos” of current euphoric pop single Get Over It went down a treat, Aristazabel Hawkes fetching out some additional drums to thunder away on. Dangerfield’s mid-set unplugged solo moment of We’re Here worked for different reasons. “If you want to gabber away, fuck off to a pub!” growled a fan close by at the unaccountable freaks around us, who seemingly only showed up so they could test their braying voices and limited lexicons against Guillemots’ decibel levels. For the first time in the evening, the audience’s full attention was where it should have been.
Less impressive was diminuitive, leather-jacketed support act Ida Maria, who looked irretrievably lost as she fronted the band for Words, a song nobody seemed to know. Whirling her arms around, the Norwegian singer tried her best to fill the space that suddenly seemed so vast, but Dangerfield’s backing vocals all but drowned her out. She was politely applauded away.
More Windowpane material followed. Annie Let’s Not Wait remains a treat and was followed by that other Guillemots set stalwart Trains To Brazil, arguably the first record’s standout track and a past single. But it sounded like a last attempt at jollying up a party that had already died.
Right at the end of an extended version of Sao Paolo, Fyfe brandished a dustbin lid and hammered on it. Like a reminder of what was, it did little to offset concern that as a live act Guillemots seem to have either temporarily forgotten, or purposely left behind, that which made them such a rollicking prospect in the first place.