Photo credit: Will Hartley.
Despite having sold-out months in advance, Loyle Carner’s concert at the Phoenix is host to an auditorium which is half-empty. Admittedly, this is only because an entire room’s worth of fans have decided that amalgamating into a large congregation of flesh at the front of the auditorium would be a marvelous idea. Carner’s music often gives the impression that he’s a glass half-full kind of guy, but the analogy becomes a little more tenuous when the glass is an entire venue and the substance contained within becomes sentient and aggressive – I’m glad to be on the balcony. It’s not often that performer-audience interactions entail the former reprimanding the latter, but then again, it’s not often that any remotely big names in hip-hop come to Exeter. The rapper asks the audience why they seem so insistent on pushing each other, and tells them to relax, provoking immense cheers of approval from the very same crowd he’s just told off.
The setup of the stage is considerably more relaxed. It’s decked out like an understated lounge with the fourth wall handily knocked through, and comes complete with a large armchair in which Carner will become ensconced later in the evening. The decision to decorate the stage in such a manner might naturally invite its fair share of questions, but it reflects the music well. It’s warm, personal and open to inspection, and the gig is no departure from this kind of approach.
After kicking things off with the anthemic Isle of Arran, Carner debuts Mean it in the Morning. If any one of his songs was going to pacify the near-rabid horde of a crowd, it’d be this one, so it’s a shame he isn’t accompanied by any instrumentalists. The wistful guitar lines and tranquil keys of the studio version bounce off the rapper’s subtle inflections and intimate cogitations wonderfully; it’s a shame they’ve nothing to bounce off here. Nonetheless, the lack of live instruments is well compensated. Rebel Kleff’s turntables are cleverly mounted atop a bookcase, from which he throws out some interesting departures from the album’s already rich textural tableau. In any case, Carner’s incessant positivity almost renders moot the format in which he chooses to deliver his raps. He has other things on his mind.
“Make some noise for my Mum!”
It’s hard not to admire his style – it’s usually the rapper who benefits from the hype man, rather than the rapper’s mother. He segues into Florence – a touching tribute to his younger sister – but not before providing some important context. “This next song is for my mum, because she always wanted a daughter, but then she had me and was like, ‘For fuck’s sake’”.
Things become genuinely moving as Carner finally addresses the elephant in the room – the giant football shirt adorning the wall behind the stage. It’s the same one he carries around with him on tour, and is the focal point of the show’s visual aspect. He explains that the untimely passing of his father partly thwarted their shared dream of touring the world together, but that he carries his dad’s shirt with him, to ensure they can share the stage together wherever he goes. He then treats the crowd to three new songs – an impressive feat in of itself, given that his debut album was only released this year. They’re largely contemplative offerings for which he returns to the aforementioned armchair, and they certainly seem to form part of the emotional acme of the set, both for Carner and for a large part of the audience.
Now everybody says I’m fucking sad,
Of course I’m fucking sad – I miss my fucking dad
For all the moments of introspection, Carner doesn’t neglect to provide his fair share of more upbeat material – both musically and lyrically. “Rebel Kleff raps as well – do you wanna hear Rebel Kleff rap?” he rhetorically inquires as the two of them launch into No Worries. Elsewhere, he performs an apparently legitimate freestyle rap in which he shouts out the Phoenix and rhymes ‘eclectic’ with ‘fucking dyslexic’. “Not enough people freestyle anymore”, he claims, and I can see why – I certainly wouldn’t want to follow whatever that was. Things end on a high, as Carner returns to the stage for an encore of NO CD. It’s every bit as raucous and rallying as you’d hope for, as he and Rebel Kleff feed off each other’s indomitable energy, giving the ten percent of the crowd who haven’t already lost it one last opportunity to do so.
“You’re beautiful!” cries an adoring fan at some point during Carner’s fifty-minute set. “I’m really not”, he modestly rebuts. “I look like half-twiglet, half-frog. But it’s not about how I look – it’s about how I sound.”
In case you’re still wondering – he sounds pretty damn great.