o2 Academy, Bristol
“I dare you to groove harder than me!”, singer-songwriter Declan McKenna declares to a packed O2 Academy, Bristol. It’s a bold dare to pose, considering he’s face to face with a venue filled to the brim with such responsive fans, who are even willing to sing along to the opening riffs of tracks.
It’s exhilarating to finally be at this gig. Obviously, the events of the past year have meant that live events have been constantly rearranged to seemingly more hopeful days, and in more extreme circumstances, cancelled, and this is something that affected not only Declan Mckenna’s tour (which has undergone multiple reshuffles), but also the release of his sophomore record, Zeros; a collection originally pencilled in for May 2020, before being moved to August of that year, and finally arriving on 4th September 2020.
Fast-forward a year, and it’s only just been possible for Declan to bring that dazzling, 70s glam rock inspired, space themed concept album on the road. Despite a covid-scare just last week, that led to the postponement of a couple of shows, and threatened to throw the rest of the tour into chaos; Declan McKenna finally played Bristol, last night. And, luckily, the only chaos here was McKenna’s energetic stage presence (and maybe the queue to get into the building, leading to many missing out on the fantastic, CMAT’s, set. Although, it can be argued that this isn’t entirely an end of the world issue, especially when you consider this slight delay was the result of staff checking covid passports and tickets, in order to grant gig-goers access to the show; the times we’re living in, eh?)
The lengthy set opens with lead single, Beautiful Faces, a bright and poppy guitar-led track exploring pop culture, and how fake some elements of it can be; an issue incredibly prevalent in the media now, before leading into Rapture, a tune that poses itself as incredibly threatening and angry, yet you can still have a good dance and a sing-along to its jangly pop elements. I think it’s also important to mention the fact that Dec manages to make ‘nature’ rhyme with ‘Thatcher’ within this number, and that in itself is impressive, in my eyes.
It’s pretty clear why McKenna has been hailed the voice of a generation by the media, from just looking at the audience and the connection that they have with the tracks within tonight’s setlist. Put simply, Declan McKenna has a lot to say that he puts across through the medium of song, whether it’s to criticise FIFA or speak out about mental health issues. These are very much relevant to social issues of modern life, and aim to shout about the shit that you should be caring about – something that really does stand out against the tunes played on a two hour loop of the same combinations of manufactured pop music that doesn’t go on to say much more than how sad said musician is about their break-up et cetera, et cetera, blah blah blah (as Dec quite rightly states in ‘Rapture’: “There’s all sorts of crap on the TVs these days”). The level of maturity is so strong across both of his albums and standalone tracks released between projects, to the extent that it is difficult to get your head around the fact that he is only twenty-two years old.
A break from the bouncy indie pop comes just four songs in, with the introduction of Emily; a song that wouldn’t sound at all out of place on either one of former 1D heartthrob, Harry Styles’s, immaculate full-length releases, before Declan swaps his electric guitar for an acoustic and croons the soft opening bars of Make Me Your Queen, the first song of the night played from 2017’s What Do You Think About The Car?
On Stage, McKenna is joined by his equally as fabulous four-piece band, who really add to the sound quality of the show, offering a more packed-out sound. Unfortunately, the mixing of the show struck me as somewhat disappointing, as almost the whole way through his set, McKenna’s vocals appeared to be drowned out and lost amongst the variety of instruments that surrounded him on stage. This wasn’t too much of an issue for the crowd who knew every word to every song, along with every instrumental melody line, however, for anyone who is unfamiliar with the tracks that McKenna boasts among his discography, it would be virtually impossible to know what song he was playing, let alone what he was singing about. This is something that presents itself as quite the issue when you’re trying to make a statement about the issues that swarm the headlines in the 21st Century.
The Key To Life On Earth is the one song that I’ve wanted to hear live for absolutely forever, and other than the disappointing mixing, it was exactly how I envisioned it. The crowd jump around, arms in the air, chanting every single line in unison, in what feels like a really celebratory moment for the return of live music. Or maybe that’s just down to the fact that I spent almost every single day of lockdown with the window wide open, blasting the track on full volume. I think my neighbours are now pretty familiar with that one. Speaking of lockdown, lowkey and (artistically and purposely) slightly off-key track, My House, is played, in which it outlines the absurdness of 2020, and has a slightly more personal element to it, giving the audience a moment of calm before the storm that is the energetic stomping of Dec’s indie bangers.
The set consists of Zeros in its entirety, with the perfect mix of What Do You Think About The Car thrown in, a setlist really showcasing how far McKenna has progressed within his music, alongside developing his showmanship, and boasting just how talented he is, switching between acoustic guitar, to a glittery gold telecaster, and during some songs, jamming on the piano. The latter is presented just before the encore, as McKenna sits on a raised platform, playing the keys for Be An Astronaut, a song that I can only really describe as Dec’s Elton John moment. It’s confident, it’s atmospheric, and most importantly, it’s a tune that gets the crowd really going, before McKenna bounds off the stage, leaving the crowd nothing to do other than chant “Oh, Declan McKenna” to the tune of Seven Nation Army, in the brief darkness.
The stage flashes red, and the band return, with Declan perched behind the keys once more, this time for Daniel You’re Still a Child, a track that hears the audience singing back every word, further stapling the significance that the words he has to say hold. Declan finishes the song by doing the bleep test live on stage. Whilst chaotic, it really establishes the amount of effort that he has put into his stage presence, especially in comparison to his much earlier performances in promotion of his debut album a few years back.
A speech about Dec’s love for Bristol follows, to which the crowd erupt in support of what he is saying. He plays the pop led track, Why Do You Feel So Down? to which the crowd receive exceptionally, everyone jumping, no matter which level of the academy that they are on, before picking the speech back up again to discuss the Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest songs list, in order to introduce his cover version of Aretha Franklin’s “Say A Little Prayer”, which he performed alongside support act, CMAT. This truly was an impeccable moment of the set – both McKenna and CMAT’s stage presences are unmatched, and the contrast between CMAT’s flawless control when paired with McKenna’s slightly less polished vocals really seems to work for the cover. It feels like we’re intruding a karaoke night between the two, and I’m completely here for it.
Rounding off the hour and forty-five whiz through of bangers are arguably Declan McKenna’s biggest hits: Brazil and British Bombs, to which the atmosphere in the room buzzes, with everyone holding their arms in the air and jumping, as the pit is opened for one final dance. On the angry middle 8 of closer, British Bombs, the crowd chants every word. As Dec screams, “And if it’s not a f**king outrage, what’s it all about, babe?”, the crowd shouts back in unison, before the second, and final, confetti cannon of the evening explodes, spitting coloured pieces of paper over the audience, before one final singalong of the electrifying chorus.
The Zeros Tour is a dazzling celebration of Gen-Z, a celebration of the times that we’ve been through, and where we are now. It is also a sparkly, psychedelic trip through 70s, glam-rock inspired bops with masses of charisma. If there’s anyone that you should go and see live, it’s none other than Declan McKenna. And despite his continuous remarks of how “it’s only downhill from here”, as if to say he can’t quite fathom the energy of this show, I’d like to protest – Declan McKenna is most definitely the next big thing, and the only way from here is to space and beyond.