The protagonist in Ben Brook’s 2011 novel Grow Up is snotty, brattish and a bit of a mess. He’s hormonal, sensitive, at times vile…he’s also a Los Campesinos! fan (the book even opens with lyrics to We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed) Over seven years and four albums, they’ve collected a fan base like few others; like Brook’s Jasper, they’ve grown up with this band, whose melodramatic, hormone-injected songs of lust, confusion, rejection and drinking speak to them in a way that no other music will do so again. As a result, the small crowd which makes up a capacity audience at the Assembly Halls, sing the words to every song like it’s the last they’ll ever hear. They bounce up and down, making the sprung dance floor move in waves, and everyone has a permanent grin on their face.
This reception is extended to tonight’s support bands – Los Campesinos!’s keyboard player Rob’s side-project, Sparky Deathcap, and fellow Cardiff band Among Brothers. The first was always going to get a warm reception, and the latter win the crowd over with a Los Camp-style interpretation of chamber pop. The six-piece tap into the likes of Grizzly Bear and Meursault for their earthy, warm sound, with layer upon layer of instruments jostling for attention; there’s trumpets, violins, handclaps, even chains clunked together in search of the exact sound they’re after; it’s fascinating stuff. Singer Jonathan Rees is what both makes them and lets them down. Rather than the grandiose, dominating baritone you might expect to guide the way through such cluttered sounds, his is rather more…well, Los Campesinos!; shouty and far from classically trained. On their double Aside single, I Am Certain/I Do Not Believe, it works a treat, adding to the chaos, but there are times when the lack of a strong voice leads the songs to flop – they don’t seem to quite get going. Not that the crowd mind – after all, every song down is a step closer to the main event.
It’s a big night for Los Campesinos!; not only is it being recorded for a live album, but it’s their last gig before they go off to burrow themselves away and work on album number five. It’s also bassist Ellen’s last ever show with the band, and we’re promised that it’s going to be the longest set they’ve ever played. The latter may be true, but it’s hardly epic and certainly won’t worry Springsteen; the show clocks in at around 90 minutes, but its strength lies in its variety. They delve into every corner of their back catalogue, dusting off rarely-aired album tracks and live favourites in equal number. From early track Death To Los Campesinos! to Hello Sadness from their most recent album, via There Are Listed Buildings, In Media Res, My Year In Lists and, of course, You! Me! Dancing!.
At times the leaping and bouncing in the crowd get a bit too much for frontman Gareth, who pleads: “Please just be good to each other out there,2 before adding “The front row is made up of pretty girls – the same girls you’re going to try to pull later.” But for the most part he eggs the crowd on, hammering into the glockenspiel, pointing his mic at them and punching the air in their direction; the energy that hums through the room is a two-way thing, and it’s hard to tell which side are enjoying themselves the most.
As Ellen gives a farewell speech, she’s joined on stage by ex-member Alex who stays on stage for final song, Sweet Dreams, Sweet Cheeks, which descends into a brilliantly distorted ball of fuzz, as they drag out the final notes before huddling together for a group hug – which much of the audience replicate too. With no new album to plug, tonight was a timely reminder of what a strong set of songs Los Campesinos! have amassed over the years. Whatever happens next, you can guarantee there’ll be a hardcore band of fans there to sing along.