There are points on Bombay Bicycle Club’s second album, ‘Flaws‘, where the band could quite easily be mistaken for a singer-songrwiter project. Less than a year on from their distorted guitar led debut, the acoustic melancholy of album number two was as far removed as it was possible to get from the first LP without doing a full on ‘Kid A‘, and the only thing more surprising than the new sound was the speed at which it had arrived.
But when Bombay Bicycle Club approach the end of their euphoric Brixton show, the 16th and final date of their largest ever UK tour and a homecoming of sorts for the four young north Londoners, they have 11 people on stage: the band themselves, who tonight are grown to a six-piece by vocalist (and burgeoning solo artist in her own right) Lucy Rose and multi-instrumentalist Louis Bhose – starring particularly on banjo during ‘Ivy & Gold’ – two brass players and three backing vocalists, courtesy of members of earlier support act Dry The River.
The 11 musicians are bringing the house down with a lawless finish to ‘Always Like This’, one of the many standout tracks from ‘I Had The Blues But I Shook Them Loose‘, and tonight, in their home city and one of the most important places for music on the planet, Bombay Bicycle Club feel like the most vital band in Britain right now. It’s something they’ve been threatening for a while, in truth, since two rave-reviewed EPs in 2007, before the band had even finished school. Now, with three uniquely excellent albums in three years (two charting in the UK top 10) and their triumphant Brixton finale as evidence, there is one question: why have Bombay Bicycle Club become so important?
Before answering though, having sadly missed Lucy Rose as opening support (that’s gigs on work days for you), Dry The River have the task of warming up a rapidly filling O2 Academy. Led by a barefoot frontman, they look every inch a “boys with guitars” band, but this is dispelled immediately once they strike up. For a start, the five-piece include a violinist in their armoury; more generally, their songs expand on folky structures to build into increasingly intense offerings, often ending in wild breakdowns, and they’re soon pounding about the stage, lost in the noise and looking for all the world like it is they who are tonight’s headliners.
They bring to (my) mind the now-defunct Grammatics, or someone like Mumm-Ra, both excellent songwriting bands, but it’s the vocals that put Dry The River above that standard. As well as soaring, on-the-money lead vocals, the songs are overlaid with close harmonies that shine as brightly as the Academy’s lights: not least on forthcoming single ‘New Ceremony’, which swells like a shifting tide into a sumptuous chorus.
Their six songs are fervent, warm and, if perhaps a touch similar, but there is no doubt Dry The River have potential in abundance, and with just a handful of singles already securing them a huge amount of interest, expect them to be the main attraction at a well-known venue near you soon.
Bombay Bicycle Club’s time is now, however. They’ve done the support slots – I saw an indifferent 40-minute set early on during 2010 as they struggled to deliver on the NME Awards Tour – they’ve surfed the wave of hype that grew for three years following their sit-up-and-take-notice appearance at V in 2006, and tonight they storm London’s iconic Brixton Academy with a conviction that seems as though this was always intended to be their destiny.
And perhaps it was. The first reason Bombay Bicycle Club are a band who deserve this sort of night is the strength of their music; still barely out of their teens, the Bombay boys have a back catalogue of fine songs that puts far more established and visible artists to shame. Their three full length records each have an identifying sound: the agitated, reverb-smothered rock debut, the lowered-eyes intimacy of their acoustic follow up, and now album number three, ‘A Different Kind of Fix‘, which returns to their electric guitar roots but with a more intense atmosphere, more intriguing sounds and, it must be said, a smoother, classier finish.
What connects all three albums fundamentally, though, is quality song-craft, and where 18 months ago the band were perhaps still finding their feet live, this Brixton gig blows away any doubts. It starts bizarrely: the band come on stage to Fatman Scoop’s ‘Be Faithful (put yo’ hands up)’, a song that has never sounded any good without the panacea of at least four hastily consumed vodka-Red Bulls, yet when “Engine engine number nine, on the New York transit line!” segues neatly into the skittish piano sample that opens ‘Shuffle’, the most immediate song on ‘A Different Kind of Fix‘ and one that gets the entire audience on its feet, you have to admire the sheer audacity of it.
From then on – energy pumping after that opening – it’s a masterful display. The new album, naturally, dominates the first half of the show, and the aura these new songs have on record is equally captivating live. The breathy, hustling outro to ‘Your Eyes’ seems to be absorbed into the building, the aching ‘Bad Timing’ crashes out of the speakers almost apologetically, and the chorus to ‘Leave It’, perhaps the band’s best yet, is simply triumphant.
Following current single ‘Light’s Out, Words Gone’, which has the timelessly ethereal quality of a song decades older than the band themselves, there’s a brief attempt at an acoustic interlude for the banjo-jangling ‘Ivy & Gold’ and ‘Rinse Me Down’ from ‘Flaws‘, before the debut album gets its turn in the spotlight.
But – it’s not as if those songs are any less deserving of this Brixton audience, and it’s clear many of the crowd here hold these early songs close to their hearts. Rarely has a riff sounded so striking, so necessary as ‘Magnet’ does tonight, and it’s one of several welcome cuts from ‘I Had The Blues…‘ including ‘Lamplight’ and ‘Cancel On Me’ that get a clamorous airing on this final tour date. They leave the stage initially to a wonderfully peaceful version of ‘The Giantess’, which merges then into its much noisier cousin ‘Emergency Contraception Blues’. When Bombay Bicycle Club return for a two-song encore, it is third album closer ‘Still’, a flickering lantern of a song with Jack Steadman sat at a piano backed by Lucy Rose’s harmonies, and ‘What If’, again from their debut album, that finish the gig and the tour. Musically urgent, pressing, but lyrically earnest and hopeful, ‘What If’ is the fragile tale of awkward young love that Bombay Bicycle Club do so well: “if only one of us had the guts tonight”. And it’s these tales that are the second reason why this band are so important.
This is not the music, nor sentiment, for a disaffected uprising; it’s the soundtrack to the Saturday nights and Sunday mornings of millions of teenagers and twenty-somethings. It’s music for every person over 12 and under 35 who’s ever gazed achingly across a dark room at the object of their desire. It’s the fears and hopes of a young, smart, comfortably off generation, of which the overwhelming majority of the 5,000 people inside Brixton Academy this evening, and the band themselves, are part. It’s almost perfect art, for and of its time.
Bombay Bicycle Club are a (still) young band, but with three superb genre-swapping albums in three years, this Brixton show proves that their ability to make great music is matched by that music’s ability to connect with people. The band’s importance in the eyes of the Brixton crowd is bordering on reverence, but it’s easy to see why: there isn’t another ‘guitar band’ in Britain writing songs of this quality, songs that matter to this generation so directly. Tonight, Bombay Bicycle Club have ‘made it’. The next question is: where can’t they go from here?