15th July | Trinity
Photos: Jessica Bartolini
It’s pretty hard to guarantee attention as a musician these days, but one reliable way to get good viewership is a well-placed cover version. While some covers fully merit their performer’s success (think First Aid Kit’s sylvan version of ‘Tiger Mountain Peasant Song’), it’s mostly an arena of awkward ‘No Diggity’s, and painfully finger-picked attempts to navigate the “shake it like a polaroid picture” part of ‘Hey Ya.’ This was The Naked and Famous’ gamble when they chose to tour a stripped-back and largely slowed-down selection of their most successful indie bangers, refashioning the upbeat thump of their heyday through a melancholy London Grammar filter.
A sober mood was well-laid by opening act, Scott Quinn, who performed next to a four-foot lightbox featuring his name, illuminated in capitals. While this set something of an opportunistic tone, all was soon forgiven with the introduction, “I’m Scott Quinn, as is beautifully lit up on this arrogant sign.”
Though Quinn’s skill as a singer was obvious and impressive, with layered vocal ornaments and delicate falsetto, he wasn’t quite able to reap the atmosphere that a venue like the Trinity Centre – a beautiful converted church – has on offer. With drama-heavy love songs and rich piano chords, the comparison to Sam Smith felt inevitable. But where Sam Smith won the public’s hearts with emotional depth and slick personable songwriting, Quinn’s songs largely felt like throwing soundbites at a wall to see what sticks.
Perhaps it was the jarring lightbox that made me cynical, but a lot of Quinn’s tracks felt so vague and universal that they verged on musical versions of a fortune cookie. This said, one of Quinn’s tracks clearly presented itself as his best. Written for a fallen friend, Quinn sang, “he had his nose buried in a book/the kind I wish I understood,” with palpable emotion, and the everyday understatement of the song proved much more moving than his slightly forced attempts to grapple with larger subjects.
The Naked and Famous couldn’t have looked more comfortable on stage. Kiwi singers Alisa Xayalith and Thom Powers alternated songs as lead vocalist, but felt strongest together, offering up simple and pretty versions of their old material. Xayalith sang with eyes closed, swaying to the music – effortlessly engaging as a performer. Her breathy voice attained a haunting quality in the spiritual setting, and the wash of keyboards accompanying her filled the space with sonic warmth.
Though most of their songs thrived in these intimate reworkings, not all of their tracks quite rewarded the heightened scrutiny of a stripped and slowed rendition. In ‘A Small Reunion’, for example, lyrics like, “With all the people that we knew/ We’ll get drunk and celebrate/ Here’s to me and here’s to you” were probably better suited to the thumping accompaniment of their original recording.
The unfortunate moment for The Naked and Famous came when Thom said to the crowd, “Massive Attack are from Bristol, right?” You could sense the room stiffen suspiciously. Who hasn’t heard too many buskers perform ‘Teardrop’ in the middle of Broadmead? Now to the band’s credit, ‘Teardrop’ is one of the tracks on their recent release and how could they have known how close the song is to becoming something of a ‘Wonderwall’?
But as the band started that now-too-familiar beat, there was a sudden feeling that we were watching a capable covers band. And when they performed their smash hit, ‘Young Blood’ straight after it was beautiful, sure, but it also had the aftertaste of an excessively slow cover of an upbeat classic.