Gang of Youths + Demob Happy @ The Sunflower Lounge, 28 May, 2017

Gang of Youths

Gang of Youths are an alternative rock band from Sydney and have been producing music since 2012.  Their debut album ‘The Positions’ was a hit in their home country when it was released in 2015, as was their follow up EP ‘Let Me Be Clear’.  They are now working hard to build up a following in the rest of the world with their current headline tour, which finds them playing to audiences throughout Europe, then America before heading home.  On the evidence of tonight’s show the world is about to be lit up by the energy of this small band of focussed and passionate young men.  Rarely have I witnessed such a stunning performance from a band, and listened to the eloquent, honest and positive between song musings of a tortured soul, like their lead singer David Le’aupepe – a man who is sharing the best and worst parts of his young life with music of utter conviction, integrity and sincerity.  He tells us that there is no room for mediocrity when you have one life to live.  The night flows effortlessly between a banging rock concert and motivational conference, and the small, devoted crowd are silent when he gives his sermon… we are transfixed throughout.

I appear to have ran away with myself here; that was supposed to be a quick introductory paragraph, but once I start writing about Gang Of Youths, you see, I get carried away.  I need to focus, because not only did tonight bring a great headline act, the support, Demob Happy are also excellent.

Originally hailing from Newcastle Upon Tyne, Demob Happy relocated to Brighton and also lost a member of the band on the way to make the hottest three piece since… well.. Nirvana.  There I’ve said it.  That is maybe too convenient a comparison, but Demob Happy’s brand of grunge, blues and rock leads you right there and they are like Nirvana if Cobain was the drummer, Lennon was on bass and Wilko Johnson was on guitar, and all the members had great voices to sing Beatles-esque harmonies, or imagine if Hendrix was actually all three members of the Experience.. you get the idea.

Their hooks are bluesy, but their vocal harmonies are pure pop.  Their rhythms are rock but their breaks are intelligently thought out, with half bars and tempo changes, rather than a plodding four-four throughout.  There are moments of Black Keys and rocky Led Zeppelin, but when you add three part harmonies on top of the mix, it takes it to a different place entirely.  Their performance is spellbinding with animation and passion from drummer Thomas Armstrong; a cool detached look from underneath riff heavy guitarist Adam Godfrey’s huge fringe; and utter focus and groove from Matthew Marcantonio, the lead singer and bass player.  They are so hot the drummer had to remove his tshirt half way through the set.  An utterly faultless performance and well worth looking out for in the future as their sound translates perfectly on record – the album ‘Dream Soda’ is already available, with new single ‘Dead Dreamers’ released this month.

If you haven’t heard of Gang Of Youths, you will not be alone as their brand of alternative rock has yet to hit the mainstream in the UK.  Their sound is a blend of The Killers, Bright Eyes, Counting Crows, The Waterboys and maybe a little bit of U2.  They are blessed with the archetypal frontman David Le’aupepe, who reminds me of a latter-day Jim Morrison, all flowing locks and snake hips.  But he has a stunning voice that is sometimes like Grant Lee Buffalo’s Grant-Lee Phillips and Counting Crow’s Adam Duritz when he screams, and Jeff Buckley or Mike Scott when he sings softly or falsetto, or Conor Oberst when he breaks from one to other.  I don’t know about you, but right there is a list of some of my favourite singers… in one man!  He also has presence.  You see it on video, but when he is two feet away from you and looks you right in the eye – you are engaged, captivated, mesmerized.

It is easy to feel in these times that we have no real heroes anymore, that we will never witness again the stars our parents talk about: no Lennons, no Bolans, no Barretts, no Moons, we just have light entertainers now.  But here, in David Le’aupepe, is one.  Maybe it is because Le’aupepe is an old fashioned writer, one that is unafraid to write about his own painful journey, warts and all, rather than a radio friendly vacuous ditty.  The album ‘The Positions’ is well documented as telling the story of Le’aupepe, his ex-wife and her battle with cancer, as well as his experience supporting her through the treatment and their subsequent break up.  It is gut wrenching stuff, but fundamentally honest and powerful because of that truth.  They play seven out of the ten tracks from the album tonight, with two recently released singles and three brand new songs.  There is light and shade throughout, from the roaring ‘Radioface’, to the joyful drunken walk home that is ‘Magnolia’, and onto the heartbreaking ‘Knuckles White Dry’ that David plays with just his guitar, describing the car journeys from hospital with a head full of platitudes for his dying wife.  It is devastating.  Particularly as he introduces the song by telling us that after their break up he hasn’t seen her for a couple of years, but heard she died only months ago – asking us for quiet while he sings his goodbye to his wife.  And there is quiet.  Total silence.  It sounds intrusive and overly sentimental, but believe me this is a man exorcising demons and in turn allowing us a window into that pain, to sympathise or empathise, to stand together like a therapy group.  There is not a whiff of pretence in the air either, this is real, this is painful, this is hard work, but it is blissful and it is worth every tear.

It is worth mentioning the band who stand humbly in David’s long shadow, because it is not a one man show.  Not only are they musically exciting, they are a safety net for their singer and songwriter; both physically within the band, but also emotionally as friends.  I sensed it when the enthusiastic crowd almost fell onto the stage and guitarist Joji Malani and keyboard/guitarist Jung Kim, are right there protecting their singer – not that it is necessary, the crowd loves David.

The rhythm section of drummer Donnie Borzestowski and bass player Max Dunn, work like a well oiled machine and are at times so close to each other physically, with Max kneeling on the floor by the hi-hat, that you feel even if they weren’t on the cramped Sunflower stage, they would still be shoulder to shoulder.  And above that impressive foundation is the voice of Le’aupepe; a voice which soars and cracks, laughs and cries – a voice that grows more powerful within a live setting but still retains all the feeling which went into the writing of these songs from years earlier.

The three new songs are each introduced and explained before being played because David believes they are still growing and he is unsure how an audience will react to them – to see someone so clearly brilliant doubting his own ability shows that there is not a hint of arrogance in the man.  It also makes you appreciate that for any writer, of any standard, there is still a moment when your willingness for acceptance is clouded with uncertainty.  There is no need to worry though, because all three new songs are stunning.  I also believe in one of the songs (“Spirit Wane’?), I heard the influence of the great writer Milan Kundera and his book “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, when David sings about ‘the terrible triteness of being’, I guess this may be the theme for the band’s upcoming album, ‘Go Farther In Lightness’ due out later this year.  I cannot wait.

The final songs of the set are from their album (interestingly the songs from last year’s EP are not played at all), and before ‘Magnolia’ starts, Joji makes David take off his guitar, presumably so he can move and dance (check out the promo video for this song), which he does admirably.  Part way through the performance David takes the microphone from the stand and steps into the audience to sing and dance with his loyal fans, who enthusiastically join in.  David returns to the stage with a damaged microphone, which he quickly replaces before standing on the bass drum and screaming “I’m ready to kick some fucking ass tonight” – which he does admirably.  It is joyous.

Before the last track ‘Vital Signs’, David thanks the audience for coming as he had expected to play to an empty room.  He speaks of a review that was written the last time they played Birmingham (supporting Manchester Orchestra) where the reviewer heavily criticised the band and their performance – he feels that the positive response and love felt this time makes up for any previous ill feeling.  (NOTE: I checked the reviews for that gig worrying it was our site that had been so critical, however, it was Subba Cultcha.  Our review by Francis is full of praise

I can honestly say that the Gang Of Youths live set is a life affirming experience: the music is exceptional, the performance is inspirational and the positive energy they produce intoxicating.  I hope that with the help of their record label the Gang Of Youths music will reach beyond their current cult audience.  Because you know it doesn’t really matter how great a band is, it matters how much effort Sony puts into marketing and publicising how great they are.  Selfishly I hope I can always see them like this – looking straight into my eyes and lifting my soul.

Gang of Youths Set List

Gang of Youths

Review and Images: Alan Neilson

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