Somewhat bizarrely, Yeasayer have become quite a live draw. As brilliant as it is, how exactly did this happen? How did three hipster Brooklyn-ites (now five for live performance) who started out playing a fusion of jittery Afro-pop and genre-bending indie, who like to dabble in world music, and who have about two songs with real mainstream appeal get to the point where they’re selling out every show?
“We’ve played more in London than anywhere else … we love you,” says vocalist Chris Keating emphatically by way of thanks. But he doesn’t need to pander for this capacity crowd’s affections – he has their undivided attention. This gig has been rescheduled from September after the band postponed their European tour when guitarist Anand Wilder became a father, therefore there are a lot of people in here who’ve been waiting some months to hear recent album ‘Fragrant World’ live.
Critics may have been unconvinced as to whether that particular album was a worthy successor to the bonkers genius of 2009’s ‘Odd Blood’, or if it delivered on its promise as a sonically “demented” record. But evidently, this crowd don’t believe everything they read - there’s not one pair of feet stood still from the moment smooth, elastic synths usher in tonight’s opener ‘Blue Paper’.
The set is inevitably heavy on songs from ‘Fragrant World’ and given that these tracks have had a longer-than-intended gestation period, they’re sung back at the band energetically, word-for-word, accepted with open arms into the Yeasayer live canon. ‘Reagan’s Skelton’ offers a huge middle finger to those who bemoaned the album’s lack of an ear-wormy banger; huge, squelchy bass and fidgety percussion leading up to a brilliant chorus dripping in funk. While it’s clear the lads really did listen to those Aaliyah records before they wrote the rest of the tracks. ‘Longevity’ is glossy and luscious with glowing harmonies, its arrangement uncluttered by layers of noises and effects that usually litter Yeasayer’s material, and similarly ‘Henrietta’ is dreamier and trippier than anything the band turned out even in their hippyish early days.
They’re not exactly the nut-job R’n’B the band promised, then again if tonight shows us anything it’s that Yeasayer are really a band heading in a new direction. ‘Madder Red’ and ‘Ambling Alp’ still stand out as their best work – upbeat pop that judders and chirps with squawking chants that jar in all the right places. But for the remainder of the set it’s almost like Keating, Wilder and drummer Ira Wolf Tuton smeared vast quantities of shimmering polyfiller over their back catalogue. Big-hitter ‘O.N.E.’ is chucked out mid-way through the set – a sign of a band hitting its stride with confidence. However instead of kicking off with its usual zippy chirps and quirks, it glides in, a slowly evolving beast with its creases ironed out, so unrecognisable that it takes a moment for grins to spread across faces and the singing to begin.
Of course the band would call the change of tack: progression, the tightening of loose bolts... improvement. And while tonight they don’t sound like the skew-whiff loons that made ‘Odd Blood’, it’s also exciting that Yeasayer aren’t afraid to experiment with what made them so interesting in the first place. And those kind of balls could take them, well, anywhere.
Words by Dannii Leivers
Photos by Richard Gray