As he stands on the Louisiana stage, Oldham born Kiran Leonard’s unkempt visage of no shoes, odd socks, casual attire and a mop of ‘dragged-through-a-hedge’ blondish-brown hair, gives off the aura of an A-Level student basking in the slovenly bliss of summer holidays spent sleeping until noon. While this is quite possibly the current reality being enjoyed by many of his peers, the 18 year old singer-songwriter has been busy gathering a steady accumulation of plaudits (from BBC 6 Music in particular) and embarking on his first full UK tour. Released in November last year, the sprawling discordance of debut album “Bowler Hat Soup” has received positive reviews and Leonard, for all his raw edge, has been cast as a youthful, fecund mine of musical ideas.
While Leonard is purported to have played more than twenty instruments on his debut record, albeit some of those mentioned include the experimental use of a radiator and a grill, things are kept relatively simple for tonight’s show; eschewing any digital loops or embellishments, or uses of household appliances, Leonard is joined by a drummer, a bassist and a fourth musician sharing his time between violin, keys and guitar. The unhinged, sometimes desultory nature of Leonard’s musical style is evidenced in the evening’s opening tracks as bonafide, Clash-esque punk is evoked by the aggressive thrash of guitar before giving way to accessible melodic grooves.
‘Dear Lincoln,’ released as a single last year, is an erratic burst of baroque, vaudeville catchiness; sounding something akin to Syd Barrett performing The Zombies, the indecipherable ramble of the lyrics make it a sub-two minute blast of nonsensical joy. Suspicions that Leonard’s lack of audience interaction in the early stages is the result of teenage diffidence are put firmly aside when he regales the crowd with the offbeat story of next track ‘Oakland Highball’; a song, we are informed, about a man being abducted by extra-terrestrials and committing suicide upon discovery of Planet Earth’s wickedness in comparison to his experience of an alien utopia. Containing a melodic snatch of ‘Dear Lincoln’ and the occasionally doom-laden croon of his vocal, Leonard’s frantic onslaught of guitar leads to a snapped E string and a change of instrument.
Introduced as a new song, ‘Don’t Make Friends With Good People’ is tinged with a country influence and the jaunty bounce of its picked guitar part is the evening’s most melodic moment; all before marching drums and a vaguely Vampire Weekend style riff extend the song into a loud, prolonged jam. The stylistic disparities are such that, when Leonard and his band cease for a few seconds before resuming, it is hard to tell whether or not we are hearing another track or merely a continuation of the same song.
“Geraldo’s Farm” contains the infectious repetition of a one bar guitar figure and a rare excursion into conventional riffing. The bass guitar holding down the song’s hook, Leonard savagely assaults his guitar while joined by frantic wails of violin; this sees another E string broken and Leonard resumes with the guitar he started off with before almost instantly breaking that instrument’s B and G strings. Leonard’s subsequent call for appreciation of his bandmates feels a little premature but, with four guitar strings now broken, it is a weary acknowledgement that the game is up. Despite this, the crowd are keen to hear another song and Leonard dutifully acquiesces to “Come up with something.” Initially deciding to re-string his guitar while prefacing the next song with a Werner Herzog inspired tale, he aborts that idea and, though left-handed, decides to attempt ‘Brunswick Street’ on his bandmate’s right-handed guitar. A few inevitable mistakes cause Leonard to break out into laughter but it’s an impassioned performance made all the more charming by its ramshackle inventiveness.
It serves as a fitting encore considering Leonard’s imaginative, versatile musicianship and raw ambition of ideas. When he bids farewell to the crowd by saying “Thank you for coming to this evening of bizarre chaos,” it is a description just as apposite.
By Scott Hammond