There’s something about a 6pm door time at a Saturday night gig that never settles quite right. Despite the darkened room, there’s still the air that one can’t really ‘go for it’ at a live show that intersects the afternoon.
Lucky then, that this Saturday night is very much within the remit of chill – a concert to immerse rather than observe, the sort that can be attended alone without feeling overly conspicuous. All the better for absorbing the level of wordsmithery in evidence...
The O2 isn’t necessarily famed for its sound quality, and Arlo Parks first couple of songs struggle because of it, leaving an audience free to check their phones or see how many of the academy’s two-pint cups they can squash together between hands in order to meander a round back to their friends. However, her ease on stage quickly finds it’s place, an undulating voice that feels luxurious, draped over easy-going, London-dusted bedroom-funk. She speaks of how her first gig five years ago was a Loyle Carner one, and when she calls this tour a dream come true, you’re inclined to believe that it’s something more sincere usual crowd-pep speech.
At no point does she come off as anything other than immensely likeable, and in ‘Supersad Generation’, she has a genuine crossover hit, a shot of hopefulness running through it’s heavy-yet-relatable subject matter. At just 19 years of age, she’s got a heck already going her way.
If nice guys traditionally finish last, then Loyle Carner must be at the very back of the pack. He emerges onto his biggest Leeds stage so far as an adopted son, known well around these parts as somebody who will just as merrily wait for selfies outside the gig as he would walk you to the Belgrave for a pint and some footy chat. All of that will indeed come later in the evening, but in the moment, he appears noticeably overwhelmed by the roar that greets each song, forced to his hunches as a slow smile stretches across his face. Nothing about any of this is taken for granted, and it shows.
Tonight’s gig relies heavily on the sonic palette of last record ‘Not Waving, But Drowning’, and despite performing it’s exploration of mixed-race identity to a predominantly white audience, none of its nuances are lost. He prefaces the moody interlude ‘Looking Back’ with a patient and candid explanation of his own struggles with representation, and ‘Ottolenghi’ with our need to show more appreciation for immigrant communities. Where such explanations may dip into preaching in the hands of another artist, here is just feels like an invitation in the world of Ben Coyle-Larner, a way to make the vast O2 suddenly feel a lot smaller than it is.
Certain songs give way to extended, spoken word freestyles, further heightening the sense of matchlessness – no Loyle Carner show is ever quite the same, but his pin-sharp enunciation ensures that you’ll never miss a word. It’s a feat rarely experienced in rappers, but he truly never skips a lyric, save for one small ‘N****’ that he thankfully self-edits for tonight’s crowd.
Indeed, it is this ability to assimilate with the mood of the crowd that is his biggest strength. For every sensitive ‘Dear June’ or ‘Florence’, there is a ‘No CD’ or ‘The Isle of Arran’, poised to demonstrate his ability to play both poet and performer with equal proficiency. If only he would believe it himself – before performing album highlight ‘Still’, he leans in once more, and informs us that even though he believes it to be the best song he’s ever written, he was until this moment terrified to perform it. “I think I was afraid to be sad, but it’s okay to be sad – I was sad before I came onstage tonight and now I’m really f****** happy.” The crowd erupt once more, and that slow grin spreads back across his face. Drowning suddenly seems a whole lot less likely.