Saturday, 6 October 2012

GIG REVIEW: SBTRKT @ Shepherds Bush Empire, London, feat. Kwes & Oneman - 5/10/12

I had a brief preview of SBTRKT's live act at Bestival 2012, and I have to say my enthusiasm for this later London show subsequently began to waver. SBTRKT's live drumming and Sampha-vocal-heavy set seemed to overshadow a quiet and strangely unimpactful mix. But a 9pm festival slot is different from a London venue headline slot, so I turned up as if this was my first SBTRKT- Live experience.

Shepherds Bush Empire looks like it should have a better sound than it does, and if you are anywhere apart from the centre of the dancefloor, the speakers can sound oddly muted. Warm-up DJ Oneman plays some great tunes as the venue slowly fills, but even as the night advances past 8.30, his sets beg to be turned up. Otherwise why put him on the line-up at all?

Although sad at missing a support slot from Disclosure the night before, I was still interested to see the main support act Kwes, a producer and singer/songwriter whose latest EP Meantime was a cute little oddity, a messy yet engaging mix of Frank Ocean-esque R&B and fuzzy electronica not a million miles from the likes of Flying Lotus. Performing with a drummer and keyboardist, Kwes himself plays the heavily distorted bass that is his latest EP's calling card. Yet live, Kwes' act was less engaging, and more messy, much too messy in fact, the overly stripped down arrangements sounding unrehearsed and muddy. It could've been down to neglectful sound engineers or a stingy soundcheck, but nevertheless, the magic-on-record of numbers such as "Honey" and "Igoyh" did not translate tonight. Yet the band themselves chat lazily and casually with the crowd, and with each other, and don't seem to notice.

Luckily Oneman has some big bassy tunes up his sleeve that keep an impatient crowd dancing as the stage is prepared for SBTRKT. Although running about 15 minutes late, a curtain with the unmistakable SBTRKT owl hat finally drops in front of the stage, and SBTRKT, with Sampha and, surprisingly, a mask-donning string quartet make a magnificent entrance as light illuminates them through the curtain. "Never Never" is almost completely performed live, the strings giving the track a warm tapestry for SBTRKT's own live drumming to paint over. Sampha sounds great too, and luckily, the bad sound that plagued Kwes has alleviated. Funny that.

"SBTRKT - Live" as it's donned by the man himself is indeed a very different concept to the quirky, dark productions of SBTRKT on record. There are a lot of idea flying around, most of them great. The somewhat limiting sound of the live drumming I witnessed at Bestival is non-existent here, the drums provided just as much power and impact as the drum machines. "Heatwave" comes next and SBTRKT and Sampha's love of crazy sounds becomes apparent as said track is an onslaught of tribal drumming and flittering synths and vocal samples. The gig quickly escalates into something approaching a celebratory carnival, limbs flailing everywhere.

At times however, the gig seems a little too eager to try everything. Whilst "Hold On" and "Something Goes Right" are crowd pleasing singalongs, some instrumental numbers seem indulgent and overlong in comparison, despite all the creative flairs. SBTRKT - Live isn't sure whether it's a pop concert or a rave, and whilst the two can be easily combined, the duo haven't quite nailed down the perfect formula yet. The mix of live performance and recorded sound is a double edged sword; whilst live drumming stunts a disappointing "Pharoahs", the majestic "Go Bang" is enhanced by the warmth of the string quartet, one of the best instrumental numbers of the night.

On the whole however, when a high is reached, it hits it out of the ballpark. Closer "Wildfire" is simply exquisite, and its bass-heavy breakdowns and vocal mash-ups simply set the dancefloor alight. It is followed by a rave-heavy encore, ending with the pulsating 2 step of "Right Thing To Do", which despite no appearance from Jessie Ware, ends the gig on a high, almost half an hour after the stated finishing time, 2 minutes shy of the venue's curfew.

Credit must be given to SBTRKT, for turning one 40 minute album and a handful of EPs ("Living Like I Do" makes a welcome appearance, although "Nervous" would've been more welcome) into an 90 minute set. Another album down the line, there is no doubt that SBTRKT will be able to fill 90 minutes with ease and with no, absolutely no down time.

- Joe Copplestone, 06/10/12

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