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Review: Keaton Henson @ Thekla

Ella Woszczyk reviews Keaton Henson's latest gig at Bristol's Thekla.

By Ella Woszczyk, Co-Deputy Editor 2023/24

Keaton Henson is perhaps an artist you know very little about. To summarise Keaton in an objective sense, he is an English musician, specialising in slower-paced folk/rock songs. He is also a visual artist and has released books of his own poetry. What has always stood out about Keaton for myself is his  hauntingly unique voice and the potency of his lyrics in communicating the universal grief which comes from heartbreak.

‘If you must die sweetheart, die knowing your life, was my life’s best part’ – ‘YOU, Birthdays (2013).

You will notice that the ‘About’ section on Keaton’s website is extremely brief, for Keaton is someone who ‘doesn’t like to talk about himself.’ It is precisely this disinclination which made his Thekla performance on June 9th so special. Keaton has always been open about his struggles with chronic anxiety and this recent tour was a compromise for it allowed him to perform at much smaller venues.

To set the scene: the intimate boat venue at the height of an early summer heatwave and at maximum capacity from sell out was sweltering hot. People were bustled together in the anticipation of seeing a favourite artist whose last official tour was six years ago in 2016, and truly, the heat was so uncomfortable it was a question of whether we could endure the entire performance. By the end of the first hour, it was impossible to know whether the crowd were wiping their faces from sweat or from tears. The music was so utterly beautiful and crowd so supportive in cheering Keaton through what was clearly an incredibly challenging public appearance.

Credit: Ella Woszczyk

Though debuting his new album, House Party, Keaton organised his set list by smattering his new songs amongst the fan favourites. Opening with his new single ‘Envy’, Keaton introduced the audience to the familiar yet more bluesy sound of his most recent project. Still fraught with deep and sincere emotion, House Party takes a step away from the topic of heartbreak by exploring Keaton’s personal struggle with the consequences of his success: ‘I’m everything I wanted, but I feel the same’. The irony is that although loneliness defines Keaton’s music, the honesty of his confessions are a huge part of what draw his fans so close to him.

The dialogue between Keaton and his audience was one of the most heartfelt elements of his performance. Though the excited crowd was in-part terrifying for the artist, he had us all in laughter when explaining ‘I’m very grateful, I just wish I was at home instead. I can love you from home’. The second debut of the evening, ‘I’m Not There’, justifies this need for a safe space as somewhere that ‘allows some time to be myself / Or find out who the hell that might be.’ The tone of the new album marks a change in Keaton’s feelings of self-frustration, being something he addresses in a more resigned, sarcastic sense as opposed to despairing over.

‘The Meeting Place’ was the third live debut of the evening and was memorable for its passionate guitar solo leading up to the final chorus. The forward-flowing sonics give the song an early twentieth-century rock and roll feel whilst showcasing Keaton’s instrumental talent alongside his masterful vocals. The confidence of the solo was a successful and refreshing detour from the customary ballads.

Another more unusual song from Keaton’s customary creations was ‘Two Bad Teeth’, one he introduced as a personal favourite from House Party. The melody of ‘Two Bad Teeth’ is reminiscent of a lullaby and complements the songs positive movement away from loneliness. In a borderline humorous acknowledgement of connection, Keaton tells an unnamed lover ‘you seem crazy just like me / Please, take a seat, dear, I’ll buy you breakfast / Let’s tear our hair out on the street’. Whether or not  the gentle lullaby-like intervals are to your taste, the crescendo of instruments introducing the final 45 seconds increases the pace and intensity for a brilliant conclusion in the us-against-the-world narrative.

The highlight of the concert occurred before the third to last song, ‘10am Gare du Nord’ from his 2013 Birthdaysalbum. A couple who had been in embrace all evening, totally absorbed in the atmosphere of love and music called out upon hearing the first guitar tabs: ‘this song changed our lives Keaton’. The chorus of agreement and applause which followed, despite the discomfort of a hot venue, simultaneously captured the unity of the moment and the power of Keaton’s art in generating deep emotion. The succeeding performance did due justice to the ballad about uncertain and unrequited love: ‘tire of me if you will, my dear / But I will not tire of you’.

The most important consideration of any artist’s new album is witnessing the growth in their music, and House Party truly delivers a fresh, sonic experience through personal explorations of one’s fame. Truthfully, I do not know whether any of the songs from House Party quite rival older songs such as ‘You’, ‘Small Hands’, ‘You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are’, ‘10am Gare du Nord’ etc. But I think the magic of Keaton is that his songs offer listeners a personal significance at specific points within their own lives. Had I not become acquainted with Keaton until House Party, perhaps my take on his new material would be different. Nevertheless, his music and his poetry have the potential to touch the hearts of listeners new and old, and never fail to speak to the most sentimental and earnest parts of oneself.

Featured image: Ella Woszczyk

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