10/18/16 – The Orpheum

Earlier on his tour, British singer songwriter Declan McKenna had tweeted a recent purchase: a giant roll of duct tape splattered with an American flag pattern. Apparently, the band had put it to good use by decorating the bass drum onstage the Thursday night he played the Orpheum. The sticky strips of stars and stripes spelled out “Declan McKenna” in boxy letters, a DIY branding that seemed appropriate given McKenna’s fast rise to fame.

After winning Glastonbury Festival’s Emerging Talent Competition in 2015, McKenna’s first single, “Brazil” charted on Billboard and Sirius XM alternative charts. He went on to perform at SXSW this year, and played his debut Boston show opening for The Head and The Heart.

McKenna’s sound feels reminiscent of Vampire Weekend, a synth and guitar combination that’s tied together with quivering vocals similar to Ezra Koenig’s.

The first half of McKenna’s set relied heavily on yet unreleased (or at least, in the US) material, which meant saving his recognizable tracks for the end—a smart move for an act still relatively unknown in the States. Throughout the tour, McKenna and crew would soundtrack the ambling entrance of early The Head and the Heart fans.

Many of his songs are catchy, including the new “The Kids Don’t Want to Come Home,” and another new one in which McKenna so often wondered aloud, “Why’d you keep changing your mind?” that the crowd could easily sing along. However, McKenna’s repetition didn’t seem like an attempt to create a perfect pop earworm. Rather, it recreated the way someone gets stuck on an uncertainty—his vocals grew into a strained shout of desperation to know the truth.

McKenna shows much promise, but one of his greatest strengths in his recorded material—and, one of the reasons why he stood on the stage of the Orpheum that night—didn’t come through in live performance as clearly. His lyrics tackle tough topics, yet he never once uttered an explanation. (His latest single “Isombard” is about “this right wing Fox News-type TV presenter trying to justify things like police brutality and xenophobia,” and hit song “Brazil” tells off FIFA for their failure to address the major poverty issues when selecting Brazil as the 2014 World Cup host.) “Brazil” isn’t the only song in his repertoire that touches on the topic of poverty. In a new song “Trust in Me?,” McKenna talk-sang about welfare and selling crack. “Go on then, go impress the weatherman,” he shouted.

Surely the audience would have been interested in hearing a backstory, but weak introductions seemed to be the theme of the night. “This is a song I released back in December,” he said to introduce “Paracetemol,” a song he had described to me in an interview as inspired by “a story I heard about a child who’d committed suicide, after pressure from her parents to undergo transgender conversion therapy.” Mentioning a snippet of the story could have intrigued the audience and incited them to revisit McKenna’s material and learn more about his motivations.

“Paracetemol” had a sound hiccup: the synth suddenly dropped out, causing the confused band to pause. But anyone unfamiliar with the song (most of the crowd) did not notice, as the band quickly recovered and continued onward. McKenna dropped an octave to project more emotion as he screamed out the climax of the song. “The world around you is maddening,” he sang, looking genuinely distraught as he grabbed at his hair and gripped the coil of thick microphone wire.

As the set came to a close, the fans who recognized “Brazil” sang along as McKenna wailed “he talked like an angel, but he looks like me.” The recorded version ends with a lo-fi sample of a kid proudly saying “and that was my triple-collateral free-for-all,” but live, McKenna and crew looped and distorted the sample, using it as a base to build an extended rock’n’roll outro.

In a twist that surprised even the guy manning the house lights (which flickered on for a second), McKenna closed with “Isombard,” a beat-driven, highly danceable song that will likely bring future fans to their feet.

Declan McKenna Makes a Stateside Splash
Pros
  • Improvisation, looping on "Brazil"
  • Stuck to all original songs, despite limited released recordings
  • Quick recovery after sound hiccup
Cons
  • Could have shared stories behind the songs
8.6Overall Score

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