Review: Declan McKenna – a youthful artist-audience love in at Thekla

15th May 2017

The sea of adolescent faces singing and swaying along to a succession of cheesy pre-show pop hits (‘Like A Prayer’, ‘It Wasn’t Me’), and the palpable sense of a giddy teenage adulation, give the impression that one has wandered into a dystopian hybrid of sixth form disco and One Direction gig. Things have evidently gone well since Declan McKenna – then an impossibly fresh faced, bandana-clad 16 year old – won the Glastonbury Emerging Talent competition in 2015; McKenna has signed to Columbia records, toured America and is on the verge of releasing debut album What Do You Think About The Car?

Seemingly true to form in the context of the shared adolescence between audience and performer, a mass-sighting of smartphones capture McKenna – locked and loaded with a glitter gun – arriving on stage to both the pitter-patter synth-pop of ‘Isombard’ and a gale of jejune screams. Such shrill hysteria seems more befitting something a little more musically vacuous but McKenna – beyond his boyish good looks and slightly lisping cuteness – is a precocious musician whose talents are worthy of such a strong connection with his contemporaries.

With McKenna already doused in sweat after the opening song, his knack for danceable indie and euphoric instrumental interludes result in the crowd seemingly expending an equivalent level of energy; ‘Bethlehem’, for instance, features lulling arpeggios before its crunchy chorus guitars incite mass pogoing from the audience.

“I’m a very sweaty boy” says McKenna as he strips down to a vest and, predictably, this is greeted with more screams; his urging the audience to register their votes ahead of the General Election is met with further screams oddly on a par with those incited by McKenna’s vest. If it takes a sweaty, eighteen year old boy in a vest to encourage political enthusiasm in today’s youth then why not? McKenna subsequently delivers ‘Listen to Your Friends’, a politically charged flag-waver featuring a spoken interlude rhyming “healthcare” and “welfare” and inducing some earnest finger pointing from the crowd.

Another socially conscious tune arrives in the McKenna’s tale of disaffected youth ‘The Kids Don’t Wanna Come Home’. One of his standout songs, it is irresistibly catchy indie-pop that incites an atmosphere of unbridled joy; the crowd stands poised in anticipation before leaping chaotically right on cue at the outset of each chorus. Any songwriter with pretensions of delivering important social messages can easily fall foul of piety but, in the context of his youth and clear passion for his craft, McKenna traverses such downfalls.

Early in the evening, he expresses slight surprise at his band’s efficiency considering that this is the opening night of the tour and their first show for months. He and his equally callow bandmates on guitar, bass, keyboard and drums, deliver a consistently tight and passionate performance though a slightly loose sounding ‘Brew’ perhaps attests to first night rustiness.

Penultimate song ‘Humungous’ contains the lyric “You spend too much time on your phone” and, in observing a lad nearby who is texting updates to a friend for the entire performance, it feels like a direct message from McKenna to some of his fans. To truly capture the communal magic of gigs like this, it’s a lesson that needs to land.

The night ends with ‘Brazil’, McKenna’s effortlessly cool and catchy lamenting of FIFA awarding the 2014 World Cup to Brazil without addressing the poverty affecting the country. It remains his best song and one where McKenna has found a sweet spot of subtlety in his approach of principled song-writing. The night’s pervading adulation then culminates as, for a brief moment, McKenna stands Christ-like before launching himself into his second crowd surf of the evening.

It’s been a night that belongs to the young; a rare and thrilling snapshot of a young artist connecting with an audience of his peers.

Scott Hammond

Photos by Karina Jacenko – check out our gallery of the show.