It is 6.25pm. It’s 30 degrees outside, the sun is pouring in through the windows, and elsewhere in Europe are reports of the hottest temperatures on record. Jonathan Bree is about to walk on stage and will be performing tracks from his recently released third solo album, Sleepwalking. Bree’s music is very much – as a previous album title would have it – night music. Late night music. I’m starting to wonder how a self-proclaimed ‘Master of Misery’ is going to work in broad daylight in the middle of a heatwave. But mainly, I’m excited. Sleepwalking is an exceptional record, and this is one of only three currently planned dates in the UK for the New Zealand based singer.
Any worries disappear by the time the first chorus of opener and album title track ‘Sleepwalking’ kicks in. And by Christ does it kick in. It’s a woozy, drunken sounding number on record, but live its menacing undertones are amplified and the chorus – all thunderous drums, minimalist guitar and discordant ‘bendy™’ string section – is an enormous rock beast.
Bree’s live show is all about the spectacle. It’s almost a staged version of his videos: Bree is flanked by two danseuses, with the whole band wearing blank white facial masks and dressed in matching American Old West style clothing that stylistically drags the 1890s into the 1960s. Everything is deliberate. Movements are studied, controlled and perfectly timed for maximum impact. Normally I find the idea of watching a gig through other people’s camera phones really, really, REALLY annoying, but it’s a testament to how much is going on that the front of the audience is a blur of people filming and snapping away, trying to capture all the brilliant little performative touches. And I can’t help myself: I’m doing the same. Whether it’s the bassist pretending to idly smoke a cigarette when not playing, or superstar in her own right and long-time Bree collaborator Princess Chelsea as danseuse/backing vocalist taking centre stage and using a customised tennis racket to rock the fuck out when miming to the guitar solo of YouTube hit You’re So Cool. Or indeed Bree himself showering the front rows with rose petals during Valentine. It’s a show full of little details that make the whole. During ‘Say You Love Me Too’, as Bree and Chelsea hold their mics to each other’s mouths (well, the rough position of them, anyway) as they duet, you can’t help but fall in love with them a little bit.
Whilst this could easily be open to accusations of distracting from or hiding the songs, in practice it really doesn’t. The songs are so good they comfortably own their place in the spotlight, living in the same space as Serge Gainsbourg, Scott Walker and Tindersticks, but updated sonically and with a tongue gently in cheek. “Racy texts with emojis/many hearts/that’s hot” from ‘Static’ may not sound so funny written down, but when delivered deadpan over tense tremolo guitars and Melody Nelson strings it’s hilarious.
The set closes with a one-two punch of album closer ‘Fuck It’ and first album cracker ‘The Primrose Path’. ‘Fuck It’ is a contradictory joy: the chorus lyrics written down are a nihilistic tantrum (“Fuck it/fuck him/fuck her”), but live it’s a revelation. An uplifting, soaring declaration of freedom. As the danseuses dance a synchronised march, raising their arms above their heads into the air, you can’t help but be swept along. It’s a hugely emotional climax to a genuinely amazing show. Easily one of the best gigs I’ve seen in a very, very long time.
And then they all take their positions, bow, and walk hand in hand in a line through the crowd as they leave the stage and the venue, victorious. I’m reminded of the recent repeats of Top Of The Pops on BBC4, particularly the episodes from 1981/2. A time when to be a pop star, all you needed was some brilliant pop songs and an equally brilliant but simple way of presenting them. Bree has some brilliant pop songs and an equally brilliant but simple way of presenting them. The rest is up to you lot.
Review & Photography by Steve Horry