3 members of Dehd performing live on the Albert Hall stage bathed in blue light

LIVE: Dehd (with Dry Cleaning) – Albert Hall, Manchester

I’m inching my way along the bar of Manchester’s esteemed Albert Hall when Chicago three-piece Dehd take to the stage. My mind is quickly taken off the task at hand. The unannounced combination of thunderous bass and pounding drums create a head-turning, cavernous sound. As they launch into Blue Skies highlight ‘Bad Love’, my attention has been well and truly seized.

It only takes a couple of songs to become apparent that the band’s secret weapon is the less obvious one: the drummer, Eric McGrady. Not that he’s that hidden away. By the time I’m back to my seat in the upper tier, my friend gleefully informs me that “he’s stood up!” – and do you know what, he is! Making his apocalyptic racket while towering behind the leads, he creates a solid foundation for the band’s sound.

And for 3 people, they really do make the task of projecting their sound in this grand space look easy. ‘Loner’, the Dehd song I’m most familiar with, sounds superb. Singer-bassist Emily Kempf’s soulful vocals boom up to the rafters, resonating as well as they do on record.

She carries a certain self-confidence, which couldn’t be more evident than in her brave attempts to interact with this Friday night audience. “Good game yesterday”, she declares, with about 5/10 conviction. She’s done her Manchester research (or at the very least searched the term on Google to bring up United’s victory over Barcelona the previous evening). The effort deserves to be rewarded by a less indifferent response.

The as yet unmentioned lead guitarist, Jason Balla, has a green guitar. Bright green. I… I don’t think I’ve seen one of those before! Nothing says “I’m bringing the riffs” like wielding a luminous green axe with such abandon. He’s all jerky movements, his face obscured with a mop of brown hair. His frenetic energy provides a nice contrast to Kempf’s relaxed charisma. When all 3 are combined – McGrady’s almighty drums, Kempf’s beguiling voice and bass combo and Balla’s intensity, they make a compelling outfit.

Shrouded in purple, Kempf croons through the dreamlike ‘Flood’, a cut from 2020 album Flowers of Devotion. She sounds almost like Victoria Legrand of Beach House on this one. The band has a certain soulful, dream pop energy which I hadn’t considered on previous listens. It sounds rather beautiful on songs like these, setting an immersive, relaxing mood.

It makes for an enjoyable live show which makes me wonder why I haven’t listened to Dehd more often. It’s not like they’re a chore to get into – their music is very immediate. Every song sounds like you’ve kind of heard it before – and that’s a compliment. I suppose the downside of this approach is that their various one-word-titled songs can be a bit indistinguishable sometimes, but such instant infectiousness is hard to concoct, and I think that’s down to the strength of each individual element. They’re a lean, mean song-building machine. So who knows if the person standing up and swaying in front of us to ‘Window’ is their most vociferous Manchester-based fan, or is hearing them for the first time tonight? Both scenarios are possible.

The motorik rhythm of the final tune, the earthy early single ‘Fire of Love’, sees the band turn everything up to the max. Kempf’s vocals, the crunch of the bass, those fearsome drums and guitar. It’s at once unpleasant and impressive; a statement that given the chance to play venues like this, Dehd are more than willing to make the most of it. Which I’m a fan of: nobody wants the support act to go through the motions. So all in all, it’s a big thumbs up from me. I’m going to go back to their last records immediately.

This is somehow the third time I’ve seen Dry Cleaning in the last year, so I know what to expect for the main set. My friend however hasn’t previously heard a single Dry Cleaning song. I warn her that this is going to go one of two ways. It went the other way.

I have sympathy though. I’ve written numerous times of how much I love this band’s absurd contrast between traditional indie rock and abstract spoken word. But I do concede that their ‘animal with the wrong head’ set up doesn’t work in some environments. Florence Shaw’s absurd lyrics, the cornerstone to the band’s MO, are hard to hear above the noise in a live setting. So one’s enjoyment relies on familiarity with the music beforehand. I enjoyed hearing the songs from last year’s Stumpwork in a live setting for the first time, particularly the weirdly moving ‘No Decent Shoes For Rain’, and the highly quotable ‘Hot Penny Day’. But without being able to properly hear Shaw’s punchlines on cue with the music, you end up with perplexed faces wondering what’s going on.

There’s one thing I wanted to do after leaving tonight. Listen to both of these fine bands on record, once again.

Words by Tom Burrows

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