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Review: Declan McKenna @ Bristol Beacon

Enigmatic, idiosyncratic and at times pure magic, Declan's latest effort was transformed into a set full of energy and joy.

By Jake Paterson, Music Editor

Forever a teenage darling in my eyes, having seen him six times prior to this show and the first being in 2017, it was a joy and pride to watch such a full and well oiled machine produce a spectacular performance that could tour the world. Never far from turning political turmoil into tunes set for dancefloors, his third album has turned him into a true mainstay in the magic British music machine. 

Having said goodbye to old touring musicians (gone but never forgotten) William Bishop, Gabi King and Nathan Cox and now having a stage full of musicians to flesh out the sounds of the new record, it was a behemoth to watch. Far from scratchy small venues nowadays, where the odd mistake wouldn’t be heard over the crowd singing the words back, the set was inch perfect.

Declan’s cult following before the pandemic expanded massively through and after the pandemic thanks to ‘Brazil’ hitting a billion streams online. Having seen Declan promoting the new record over two intimate gigs, with most of the crowd turning up really only to hear that track and leaving a little sullen, I was hoping for more for the full band to bring the full scope of the audience. 

These new diehards were evident from the fact that many had been queuing from 10am. Loads of them were just kids, coming out for one of their first gigs. There were plenty of boyfriends tagging along with keen girlfriends, checking the Champions League scores between tracks, but investing full attention to some of Declan’s biggest hits. By the time we arrived the stairs at the Beacon were packed out and a long snaking queue formed out the front. From barrier to the back of the room, the place was full long before the support had taken to the stage. Full of Tottenham and Brazil football shirts, the fanbase had arrived in full. 

Supporting was Wunderhorse, the nation’s answer to 90s grunge for a new generation of teenagers. The lead singer’s northern drawl really drew you in and whilst they played some absolute bangers, the crowd really didn’t take to it. They were nowhere near the girlypop level of excitement that we needed, which was provided by ABBA and Madonna on the pre-show playlist. 

Designed as a mountain range, the set staging left us asking literally: what happened to the beach? Geography hopping and listening to a radio version of Springwatch whilst walking on stage, the band brought the sublime with them in bucketloads.

Opening the set with the lead single ‘Sympathy’ Declan had us in the palm of his hand. Its glittering and wonky chorus infected watchful mums and security guards alike. He flattered them further with old tune ‘Why Do You Feel So Down?’; its pop tendencies and nostalgic touches warming the venue one touch higher. 

Earworming us with ‘Mulholland’s Dinner and Wine’, Declan took us through cuts from the new record including ‘Honest Test’, ‘I Write the News’ and the glittering ‘Elevator Hum’. Whilst his glam rock tendencies have definitely taken one step to the side, he has let the 70s classic rocker waltz straight in. The slick and low-slung live versions of some of the album tracks were notably more captivating and bathed us in a wall of noise. 

The exception being ‘Breath of Light’. Definitely one that I was unsure on upon first listen to the new record, the live production of the track expanded it for sure, but put him a few steps behind the energy and momentum of the audience. 

It took him needing to play ‘Brazil’ as a tonic to press play once more. The mountains lit with a paper flame tone, the atmosphere was tender and the audience loud in response. He dialled into the nostalgia further with the cathartic ‘The Kids Don’t Wanna Come Home’. A real pool to bathe in, the adolescent themes felt as alive today as they did nearly a decade ago when it was first written. 

For the first time in the UK tour we got ‘Daniel, You’re Still a Child’ that saw Declan climb the mountains to play the keyboard. It’s synthy heaven reminded us of his previous cosmic explorations through the stratosphere that was his second record Zeros, and he followed it with the anthem ‘The Key to Life on Earth’ and a energy-filled version of ‘Mezzanine’. 

It sparked something in the crowd that the band capitalised on in perfect form. ‘Isombard’ met ‘Nothing Works’ which met ‘Beautiful Faces’ and ‘The Phantom Buzz (Kick In)’. Mosh pits were in the works for nearly twenty minutes straight, pouring energy into every crack and crevice that the Beacon exposed. 

With an encore consisting of two heartbreakers, ‘Listen to Your Friends’ and ‘Eventually, Darling’ we were swooned under tender lights. For an audience that must have been turned onto Declan after his hits went viral, it was beautiful to hear the crowd singing the bridge of ‘Listen’ back in full. Somehow, after all these years, not having adequate public transport prices for students still hits just as hard.

The best things to come out of the UK arms trade, Declan’s song ‘British Bombs’, closed the night in pure joy. As he takes on London’s Alexandra Palace in two days’ time, I can’t wait to see what larger stages await him, and couldn’t feel more pride. 

Featured Image: Jake Paterson

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