Posted by Warren Barner.
Reviewed on 25th February 2012.
Live at The Wardrobe on Wednesday, 22nd February 2012
What has happened to Fanfarlo?
Three years ago they produced one of the best debut albums in years, Reservoir, which caught the indie-folk mood at just the right time. A year later they thrilled the Brudenell Social Club with a great, feel-good performance. They went on to support Mumford and Sons and when an appearance on Letterman followed it seemed this band could do no wrong.
But in the two years since their last appearance in Leeds a lot has changed. Firstly, the beard of bass player Justin Finch is now simply out of control, transformed from a garibaldi into a bird's nest of epic proportions. Think Fidel Castro and add another foot.
But the biggest transformation is the sound of this London five-piece which now sits uneasily in the genre marked bland. Trumping the fledgling Reservoir was always going to be a difficult task, but rather like Guillemots the band has decided to take a radically different route on new album Rooms Filled with Light, which is released on Monday.
I'd been looking forward to this night at The Wardrobe for some time as part of a two-gig double header with Beth Jeans Houghton, but it's hard to remember a more disappointing evening in which both support acts were simply head and shoulders the main offering.
Some of the songs from Reservoir have been totally reworked, slowed down to a funereal pace, like I'm a Pilot (which was never that quick), Comets and Finish Line. More worryingly is the disappearance of some of the elements that made them so engaging. Simon Balthazar and Cathy Lucas have both ditched the mandolin in favour of electric guitar, while the synth irritatingly plip plops its way through the majority of the set.
In a recent interview Balthazar said he only listens to music created in 1979 but it's hard to see which bands from that period have influenced this startling change in direction. (Talking Heads? Bowie? Fleetwood Mac?) Maybe he should fast forward a few years to the Thompson Twins or some of the poor quality synth pop for which the 80s are renowned.
It would be interesting to know whether this alarming volte face is the brainchild of Balthazar or a decision made by every member of the band. Fair enough if they've decided to abandon the folky side of their music for a more sophisticated sound in the chase for riches but they're in danger of losing those who loved them in the first place and not winning over any new fans.
Replicate gets the night off to an inauspicious start (it's just not a song that should be heard live) and more polite applause from a half-full venue ensues for Tightrope.
Live, Deconstruction, which is probably the best song on Rooms, even though the intro is pure Love Cats, lacks the sparkle of the record. An acapello version of Atlas moves into Flawed, before the keyboard takes over to hit Luna where it really hurts.
Admittedly, it's not a bad finish as a revamped version of Howard T Wilkins goes down pretty well, while Bones is OK live. Criminally the band have dumped Drowning Men but finish with the equally good Walls are Coming Down which is mercifully untouched by pop sensibility. By then of course it's all a bit too late.
The night had started off so promisingly too. Leeds six piece Heart Ships, named after a lyric in Neil Young's Tell Me Why, really impressed as they belted out their brand of nu-folk and rock, Arcade Fire meets Maccabees. Opener Burial was great and lead singer Ryan Cooke's falsetto mixed well with the gruff backing from the band. Very interesting and certainly one to watch.
They got the night off to a flyer, even though they were a bit bombastic and 'stadium' in places, unlike Race Horses, a Welsh indie band who had supported Fanfarlo on their previous tour in 2010. It has to be said they were one of the worst dressed bands I'd ever seen. The lead singer's T-shirt tucked tightly into high-waist jeans gave him the look of someone on a mental health ward, while the drummer's jumper looked like it had been rescued from a charity shop in 1987. I say drummer because for some unknown reason there were two. Race Horses shambled about the stage trying to get the sound right before they started, but when they did lead singer Meilyr Jones really came across as a charismatic frontman. The orange Juice-like opener wasn't representative of the rest of the set which was very much Gorky's Zygotic Mynci but none the worst for that.
Both bands put in passionate performances and looked like they cared, unlike the disappointing Fanfarlo. As their song goes: 'The ships are coming in'. Maybe this one is sinking. From a fan, how far low can you go? Please come back, there's still time.