Sea Power have developed a reputation in the twenty or so years since they formed for being a strange band, a group of eccentrics indulging esoteric interests and making the music they want to rather than chasing a formula for success. Reviews of their live shows tend to take great delight in focusing on whatever unusual things the band have on stage with them. Foliage, polar bear outfits, Cumbrian wrestlers and air raid sirens have all made appearances over the years.
This framing of the band as being part of the English tradition of the loveable eccentric, whilst not exactly incorrect, is an on oversimplification. It ignores the quality of their output, both on record and in the live arena, positioning them as an oddity, something to be enjoyed in a slightly patronising, ironic way rather than as a band of serious merit. It also miscasts their music. Esoteric and individual it may be, but it is still recognisably rock music.
Tonight is the third time I have seen the band live, but the previous two occurrences were in the mid noughties around the time they released their second and third albums. The band seem to have shifted subtly in that time. Some of the hallmarks are still there – the stage is still decked out in the obligatory plant life, for example – but there is a confidence and relaxation that I don’t remember observing before.
They play for just shy of two hours, but their stage patter is kept to a minimum, bar some heartfelt thanks at the end. Instead they let their songs and their musicianship do the talking. The setlist draws heavily on new record Everything Was Forever, whilst also offering a runout to songs from all of their previous main studio albums. It reflects a band confident of the quality of their new material – the album is their highest charting, after all, making it to Number 2 – but also at peace with some of their classics garnering the biggest cheers of the night. It is no surprise that The Decline of British Sea Power and Do You Like Rock Music? are the most well represented of their previous albums tonight.
The new songs are as persuasive live as they were on record. Arguably they are even better, benefiting from the volume, expansiveness and physical impact of the live sound. I have found Roundhouse to be one of the most consistently reliable live venues in London for its acoustics, and the band are served well tonight. The sound is backed up by top notch but un-showy musicianship. Another band would make a big deal of their band members switching instruments and singing duties repeatedly within the show, Sea Power just get on with it. Likewise Phil Sumner’s playing of cornet with one hand, whilst dispensing with keyboard duties with the other.
The new songs slip comfortably alongside the older ones. If they don’t yet garner as large cheers as some of their older compatriots, I think it is just a question of familiarity, and something that will change over time. They do not stray from the band’s recognisable aesthetic. Sea Power are a rock band, but they also lean heavily on kosmiche, shoegaze and angular post-punk to flesh out their sound. The kosmiche elements come through particularly strongly tonight, the motorik rhythms of the drums and bass lent a physical dimension in the live setting as the beat reverberates through the audience’s bodies. If the band do big and bombastic with skill, they do quiet, and introspective just as well. Songs like set-closer ‘Great Skua’ and ‘The Lonely’ are gorgeous exercises in studied restrain. Abi Fry’s violin playing is also beautiful, lending the songs an extra dimension throughout.
At its best, live music is cathartic and joyous, and tonight certainly fits bill. After two difficult, lonely years, nights like this are all the more important. It seems particularly fitting that the band close their main set with ‘All In it Together’ and feature ‘Waving Flags’ in their encore. The songs, with their messages of community and solidarity, are more important now than ever.
Words by Will Collins