On a night like this, you can but thank those luckiest of stars that XOYO was last year extensively refurbished. They’re of course this evening invisible, cloaked in a thick fug of impenetrable humidity but they must be up there for the air conditioning down here to be quite so vigorous. And just as this belated onset of summer has been some while coming, so too the ascent of one of pop music’s more eccentric ensembles – Clean Bandit – has been slow, if resiliently assured.
It’s maybe apt, given the aseptically stealthy moniker, that such an idiosyncratic proposition should have crept so quietly about the live circuit these past few years but if they’ve thus far by and large resided in relative obscurity, then all that now looks as though it’s teetering on the decisive precipice of some pretty seismic change. And both the perseverance and subtle diligence of the band’s core members seems to have been fully vindicated this evening, with a showing so decidedly sold out that even the bankers – of which a few are, alas, rather vocally in attendance – can’t get to the bar for love, money, nor any other material commodity.
Though the clientele that Clean Bandit attract, perhaps expectedly, pertains to a kind of ‘west London does east for the evening’ vibe and it’s so too a familial affair, their guestlist armed with more branches than even the most evergreen of family trees. But what of the music itself?
Well, as with their audience it’s a bit of a mixed bag, really: more or less since inception, the ‘Bandit reavers have strived to assert themselves as a truly unique hybridity charted at the vanguardist apex at which neo-classicism intersects the current trajectory of commercially viable, concertedly wompy UK bass music. And although these two traditionally disparate strands of genre stylisation are markedly stitched into the very fibres of the soirée, only rarely is one cogently interwoven with the other.
Arguably the one isolated instance at which the two successfully converge is on UK Shanty – a quintessentially British ditty that creaks beautifully between Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes on the one hand, and the glutinous heft of Aaron Jerome’s estimable SBTRKT project on the other. It’s little coincidence that co-founder Grace Chatto fronts this, their one moment of out-and-out inspiration as their auxiliary vocalists – tonight numbering three – boast considerably less charisma between them.
They in turn lead Running Around – essentially ’90s Ibiza big beat fodder embellished with only ephemeral flutters of orchestral virtuosity – which misses the point of self-designated cross-pollination quite remarkably and another, tentatively entitled Rihanna, which comes across rather more redolent of the Vengaboys than it does, say, We Found Love. (The segueing Dust Clears does, however, incidentally recall the kind of heavily vocoded drivetime flump Calvin Harris might come out with of a bleak morning after a particularly heavy one out in Dumfries.) And then there’s the customary Wildfire ‘rework’ that’s rendered irrelevant by the fact that it’s only marginally distanced from Jerome’s original.
And herein lies Clean Bandit’s undoing; the vexatiously self-detuning string; the lingering prints on the meticulously crafted plot: that the influence The Chatto Quartet bring to proceedings – the vibrant flickers of string lit from the necks of various instruments like ripened matches scratched along grizzly sandpaper – should be the defining factor, whereas in the case of this SBTRKT rehash, they’re just about the only factor to differentiate at all. But throughout, such glimmers of brilliance are exhibited as perfunctory accessories when they really ought to be prominent essentials, and their positioning onstage is similarly, if ever so strangely peripheral. Perhaps they’re already only too aware of this fundamental flaw in the ruse, and it’s merely easier to conceal their true inspiration in lines along the platitudinous lines of: “Back in ’96, oh yeah/ Close your eyes and let me take you there.” But there’s an at least half decent band in there somewhere, and it sounds as though it’s one still incarcerated within the maple and spruce…