If ever there was an odd beginning to a Dog Is Dead show, it was possibly this (although please read the interview for an even stranger beginning to a gig…). The howling gales battered the mobile Deezer stage which was overshadowed by the gothic spire of the church. It all felt a little Bronte-like: incongruous to the chirpy, quirky vibe of Dog Is Dead’s music. As I approached it became clear that the high winds were going to make for an interesting event to navigate, as I could see the lines of slight anxiety creasing the brows if the Deezer team as they nervously eyeballed the rolling grey clouds overhead. Battling the bad weather during the event set-up and overrun interviews had pushed back the show start time by 40 minutes, but many in the gathered crowd had wisely layered up and waited patiently with their headphones resting casually on necks and wrists until the time came to don them. For every review I have ever read about Dog Is Dead, I couldn’t seem to help tripping over the words “Indie” and “Pop” so my challenge today was to battle through the crazy weather try to find some other adjectives to describe them.
The Deezer Bandwagon’s outdoor venue was set up in St. Martin’s Square, backing onto the Bullring Shopping Centre. I had been to a few silent discos before, and have come to love the novelty of them, but I had never been to a silent gig. I had mixed feelings of curiosity as to how having a band in a soundproof box separated from the audience would affect the overall impact of the show. Still the Perspex-fronted Bandwagon stage looked quite impressive, so I suspended my disbelief for the moment as the compere finally made introductions and politely thanked the audience for their patience. The headphones went on and the curtain across the perspective which blocked the band from view was, somewhat stutteringly, torn down from the enormous front window revealing the band giggling inside.
Frontman Robert Milton referred to the Bandwagon as an “aquarium” before the show (and during actually) and I cannot say I disagreed with him. If you read my review for In The Valley Below earlier in the month (supporting Kodaline) this took the goldfish-bowl effect I mentioned then to a whole new level. Still, despite the strangeness of the scenario, the band were all smiles and rolled out a set of mellow arrangements of songs from their album All Our Favourite Stories. Talk Through The Night was an unexpected, though not explosive, start to the show as the band seemed to settle into the rhythms they were directly piping via radiowaves to their windswept crowd.
River Jordan came second and despite the carefully controlled efforts of the band it seemed that their containment did seem to contain something of their energy too which was failing to reach the audience. It feels like Dog Is Dead’s music is generally written to be sung loudly – hence the fine five-vocalist all-male setup – so dialling it down and then boxing it up seemed to sedate the slightly bemused audience for the most part. Although due to the exclusive nature of the event, I gather that several punters were just happy to be there. However, in terms of the substance of the music, Dog Is Dead turned the acoustic setup to their advantage with the River Jordan’s divinely haunting, choir-like harmonies shimmering against the muted instruments.
Surprisingly, it seems that Dog Is Dead are not afraid to allow their music to rest, thus proving (without the usual tricks and pedals) the quality of the songwriting. By the time the joyful Glockenspiel Song came around, the audience – although still a little unsure of how to behave – were warming to the slightly detached setup. Thankfully Milton gave honest, humorous commentary about the strangeness of it all, including not being able to hear the audience. Milton, band-mates and compere then created some welcome mime heckling. The ice was broken and everyone seemed to relax a little. The ecstatic momentum of Young was then at last met with enthusiastic bopping and nodding, although people were still a little too weirded out to sing along. With the intensity of the electrical arrangement removed, the mournful edge of Any Movement seemed to reveal more soulfulness in Milton’s vocals than Dog Is Dead’s recorded material seemed to intimate. This was nice for me, as I worriedly had Milton pegged before the show as a bit of a Charlie Fink (of Noah and the Whale) sound-a-like. Hearing Dog Is Dead live assured me that Milton had retained an unusual and flexible quality of voice while never quite straying into Fink’s Kermit the Frog style vocal habits.
Then came the point in the set where the Deezer crew would “UNLEASH THE MUSIC”, which sadly makes the event of moving the music from headphones to outdoor speakers sound far more dramatic than actually it was. The glaring anticlimax came upon the realisation that the music – despite the gig’s central location – would be “unleashed” upon about 5 curious bystanders. Milton even chipped into the comedy of the situation with a slightly sardonic “Hello, Birmingham!” After ripples of laughter and mild confusion, people were advised to start taking off their headphones and as Dog Is Dead heroically moved on to Do The Right Thing, possibly the most melodically catchy tune of the whole set, the crowd finally started to sing along.
As Teenage Daughter closed out the short show, and Dog Is Dead we now throwing all their vocal welly at the crowd to a great deal of delight. As the rain started to fall, the atmosphere of a real gig had sadly only arrived at the end of the set: hampered by the very clever, but a little too isolating concept of the Deezer Bandwagon. Fans clutched their goodie bags and threw up their hoods while a few stuck around to talk to the band. Via an experience such as this, Dog Is Dead have proved themselves to be strong and surprisingly versatile performers and I would happily go and see them again. Although perhaps without the Perspex next time.
And hey! Look! I didn’t use the words “Pop” or “Indie” at all! HA!
Review by Jenny Bulcraig
Photograph by Steve Gerrard