Live Review: Andrew McMahon & Sykes – The Key Club, Leeds – 27/02/2015

On the face of it Andrew McMahon’s brief visit to our shores this week was primarily about introducing fans outside the US to his ‘In The Wilderness’ project for the first time. However, if the date at Leeds’ Key Club was anything to go by, what these shows were actually about was a celebration of one man, his piano and his remarkable musical output.

The night started in fairly inauspicious fashion with Londoners Sykes, performing as a duo rather than a trio as usual, receiving smatterings of feigned interest among the polite indifference of the modestly sized crowd. The band’s light, airy, key driven indie-pop never really sounded anything other than severely hampered by the lack of live bass or drums. Often the lead guitar lines were so similar to what was being produced by the keys, that both sounds blended inextricably together leaving the sound flat and rather one dimensional. Vocalist Julia, in fairness. did put in an undeniably strong performance, but the power of her voice tended to make the lack of support and backing it was receiving from the music even more noticeable. Thankfully the passable but fairy forgettable set was soon over. (2/5)

If the room had been modestly busy for Sykes’, by the time Andrew McMahon took to the stage The Key Club was as uncomfortably overcrowded as it has likely been in its short existence. Resulting in the really only strong negative of the night, and one completely out of McMahon’s control.

The stage in The Key Club is pretty low at the best of times. And it seems that neither the promoter, nor the staff, had stopped to think that a performer sitting down at a piano might prove difficult for those not right at the front to see. Compounding the problem further by continuing to sell tickets at the door even past the point the venue had becoming stiflingly crowded. Realistically raising the height of McMahon’s piano would have been straightforward enough with the use of a moderately sized drum riser, instead McMahon himself was left to improvise with a makeshift perch of fans’ coats on top of his stool. Even then a good eighty to ninety percent of those present had to settle for occasional glimpses of the top of his head apart from odd occasions when he stood up. It was even worse for those cramped around the corner from the stage by the bar who presumably saw next to nothing of what was happening.

Mercifully from the second McMahon strode on stage, grinning broadly and waving a series of hand written messages high above his head (the pick of which read “requests are for Karaoke bars”) all of these issues, became, if not irrelevant, at least a little more tolerable. The word spellbound is used probably more than it should be to gig crowds, often for performers who achieve nowhere near such an influence, but that’s exactly how every person crammed tightly into the room became from the opening bars of ‘Synaesthesia’ (from ‘The Pop Underground’ EP) to the very last note of Jack’s Mannequin favourite ‘La La Lie’.

The name on the poster may have been ‘Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness’ but the set list provided an ecstatically received trip through McMahon’s entire career back catalogue. From the earliest Something Corporate tracks like ‘Cavanaugh Park’ and ‘Watch The Sky’, to some of the beautifully written efforts from the ‘In The Wilderness’ album including ‘High Dive’ and ‘Maps For The Getaway’ each song received rapturous, almost reverential word perfect sing-alongs. And with McMahon sharing anecdotes and memories about each track, the night quickly developed a very cool “storytellers” type air.

’Holiday From Real’ provided a feel good early highlight before the room became immersed in the bittersweet melancholy of haunting SC number ‘Me And The Moon’. Later ‘Dark Blue’ went down a treat before McMahon’s heart-warming tribute to his daughter and life before fatherhood, ‘Cecilia and The Satellite’ ended the set proper, with the Leeds crowd spontaneously adding note perfect harmonies to the chrous.

Fittingly the two loudest sing-alongs had been saved until last, with both ‘I Woke Up In a Car’ and ‘La La Lie’ both being belted back at the stage with every bit of passion and feeling the crowd had left. McMahon seemed genuinely humbled by the response his performance had received, promising to be back soon with his full band in tow while finding evident amusement in having to end the show by handing back the array of coats he had borrowed from the front row.

There is little doubt that anyone will have left The Key Club not delighted in the knowledge that they had just experienced the sort of truly special live music experience that doesn’t happen all that often. This was a memorable set where artist and crowd connected from the off to eke the most from the experience and an exceptional set of songs. (5/5)

4.5/5

Words by Dane Wright (@MrDaneWright)

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