Sunflower Bean on a blue-lit stage

LIVE: Sunflower Bean at Strange Waves V – O2 Ritz, Manchester

“Manchester make some fucking noise!” shouts Julia Cumming into the not-quite-at-capacity O2 Ritz before Sunflower Bean launch into ‘Headful of Sugar’, the title track from their forthcoming album. I was fond of their last record, 2018’s Twentytwo in Blue, a sort of ‘Fleetwood Mac for millennials’ affair if I was to give you the crude one-line summary that you didn’t ask for. This new track, however, starts with reverb-laden guitar – the kind that instantly brings on feelings of nostalgia – and feels a lot more atmospheric than their previous associated sound. The three-piece are bathed in an orange glow on stage. Nick Kivlen, the band’s guitarist and second vocalist, is wearing a jumper over a dress. Olive Faber, their ferocious drummer, is pounding her kit with intent. I’m ready for this new iteration of Sunflower Bean, and if this first track is anything to go by, there are exciting new layers to explore.

The band very notably are standing in a triangular formation with no defined frontperson, and it makes the stage look picturesque as they tear into the second song. This one is pure 90s; the major chords and energy of the track brings to mind a band like Manic Street Preachers (who Cumming has recently collaborated with). It ends with a HUGE guitar solo, and this one-two punch of new songs really whets the appetite for what’s to come.

As Cumming and Kivlen casually chat with the crowd between songs, Faber pounds the drums to give them some percussive backing – maintaining the momentum of those early rippers before they go into previous album highlight ‘Twentytwo’. The opening guitars on this rendition have clearly been influenced by their new sound – the smooth 80s pop now has an edge which neatly brings it into their new era. I’d forgotten about this song, it’s a cracker.

Cumming announces that the next one is a “world premiere” live debut, and what a debut it is. She has a great voice anyway, but I haven’t heard her singing with such passion before. This one builds uncharacteristically slowly with more instrumental texture than we’re perhaps used to, before Faber’s drums explode. But then, Kivlen takes the lead and the song seems to change completely, revealing an epic two-parter with way more sonic range than we’re used to. Quite honestly, it bangs – and the lighting to go with it is excellent as well.

The band seem a little underwhelmed by the energy of the crowd, something Cumming attributes to it being “approximately 8.25pm”, and it’s understandable: with the liveliness these three display on stage, they’re made for bigger, more raucous audiences. But they don’t let it bother them. Kivlen announces that they’re drinking “Jack Daniels with a sort of English tequila” (I mean, guesses on a postcard as to what that is) and they launch into great-sounding versions of new track ‘Baby Don’t Cry’ and older hit ‘Easier Said’, bathed in a Loveless-cover pink glow.

Next track ‘I Don’t Have Control Sometimes’ “comes out very soon”, and like a few of these other new songs, it has 90s nostalgia vibes. A sound technician runs on stage to correct the wobbly sound halfway through, so Cumming halts proceedings because they want to do it right. It takes a breezy confidence to do that, but these three have that in abundance.

Announcing that they’re “keeping it crazy until the end of the set” they play my favourite track of theirs ‘I Was A Fool’ and recent single ‘Who Put You Up To This?’. Similarly to elsewhere in the set, the stylistic differences between old and new are less pronounced as the more expansive, crunchier new sound is lent to the older stuff as well. Trading the smooth for the epic, the band are showing an impressive versatility in this show that I perhaps hadn’t expected from them before.

They close with a song whose title I hear as ‘Shape’ (which research suggests is probably incorrect). It’s all grungy riffs – Kivlen leading with the first verse, Cumming with the second, Faber typically launching at the drums. They’ve shaken off those Fleetwood Mac vibes that’s for sure – now they sound like the mid-90s for the 2022 generation. But that’s not intended as damning with faint praise; it takes skill to make original compositions that seem so familiarly nostalgic. Based on this Strange Waves set, I’m looking forward to the new record from a band who are developing their talents with each release. They tell us that this was their first Manchester show in 3 years and they’ll be back in the Autumn. They’ll be worth catching when they return.

Words by Tom Burrows

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