Midway through his band’s performance of ‘Eye In The Wall’ at Manchester Cathedral, a thought occurs to me: Mike Hadreas is seriously goddamn cool. This shouldn’t be the case. A vest-wearing 40-year-old with the face of an eternal teenager, flailing his arms around on stage like Mark Corrigan attempting rainbow rhythms – it’s pretty much the opposite of cool right? But it’s precisely this total abandon, this willingness to lose himself in the music and do whatever he wants, that makes him such an arresting figure. He’s owning the stage tonight, much like he owned it with his performance of ‘Queen’ on David Letterman back in 2014, which played a big part in catapulting his Perfume Genius project into the wider consciousness.
2014 was quite a while ago now though, and whereas then Perfume Genius was a comparatively fledgling act, he lands on the stage here as a bonafide star following a string of accomplished albums. The music of Perfume Genius often has a haunting spirituality that seems ideal for this setting, and that’s why I’m here; I saw Low here in April and the sound was otherworldly.
But this gig doesn’t start strongly. The opening renditions of ‘Your Body Changes Everything’ and ‘Without You’ seem rather flat. Hadreas’ voice feels lost in the noise, the drums land with dull thuds, and there isn’t a lot of range in the sound which makes the band just seem indistinctly loud. I’m braced for disappointment.
Yet, there are quickly signs that this feeling is premature. Both ‘Describe’ and ‘Fool’ have middle sections where the steady build and percussion of the verses falls away to reveal drone-like synth sections and Hadreas’ pleading falsetto. He plays the songs in close succession here, and on ‘Fool’ especially, the way he holds the high notes is mesmerising. It suddenly feels as if those early songs were the warm up and now he’s absolutely delivering what we came for. We gather ourselves and applaud warmly. Now we’re in business.
Hadreas takes a moment to introduce his band, and then announces ‘Normal Song’ as one he wrote for his mother. It’s a tender, moving piece – even more so live than on record. When it finishes he playfully mocks himself for introducing what the song is about, before the band leaves the stage and he goes into an even more bare bones track from the same period, ‘Katie’, written for his Grandma. It’s a beautifully intimate song, pitched perfectly in this environment. Those opening doubts seem a long time ago.
It’s hilarious how he goes into these heart-wretching, emotional moments and then gets up and basically says “thanks, ok, what’s next”. Someone in the front row asks him where he got his trousers from and he replies with “oh you know… the store” and then rips into the disco pop number ‘On The Floor’. This sounds electric and everyone is swaying now. It’s not easy to swing from stark and personal piano pieces to out and out pop tunes, but Hadreas is nailing it tonight: a mark of his and his band’s rapidly evident skill as live performers.
And yet, they’re far from done yet. The most memorable moments are saved for the latter part of the show. Firstly, ‘Otherside’. I mentioned this in my top 10 modern short songs for its minimal verses that build to the most almighty crescendo, and live – well, my god do they deliver. A shiver runs down my spine because I know what’s coming, and when it does, it sounds like a message from God. Making full use of the Cathedral’s organ, it’s quite honestly the most stunning song I’ve seen live in a long, long time.
Then, at last, we get two songs from this year’s record, Ugly Season. It’s probably the most experimental Perfume Genius album to date, but I’m slightly surprised we haven’t heard more of its sinister, minimal songs as again, the Cathedral seems ideal. ‘Photograph’ does indeed sound fantastic, with its haunting keys echoing through the room. Visually it’s special as well, as towards the song’s closing stages Hadreas becomes enveloped in a billowing veil, looking at once like a sea creature and a demonic bride. It’s a show stopping moment. Then we reach the pounding energy of the epic ‘Eye In The Wall’. I didn’t think we’d get this live, but I’m delighted we have.
The band returns for an encore, and of course, they close with ‘Queen’. When he delivers the immortal line, “no family is safe, when I sashay”, I see some people actually punch the air. The Cathedral is lit up and it has been life-affirming for all of us. Spectacular.
Get yourself to a) a Perfume Genius gig or b) Manchester Cathedral whenever you next get the chance.
Words by Tom Burrows