Live Review: Esben & The Witch/Kowalski @ Speakeasy, Belfast

by Katherine

‘Errr, is it just me or is it a bit foggy in here?’ Vaguely worried that hours of idle facebooking have finally taken their toll on my frazzled retinas, I am reassured by the barman, who confirms that it is, indeed, ‘just a bit foggy in here.’ The cramped reaches of the Speakeasy have been packed with a blue-tinged fog so thick, it’s enough to send you scurrying to Web MD to research symptoms of early onset glaucoma. Hypochondria aside, it’s a setting befitting of Brighton three-piece Esben & The Witch, who’ve captured the hearts of critics with their elegantly skewed psycho-pop.
But first up it’s Belfast’s own Kowalski. Their sun-shimmered indie – with all Pavement’s slacker’s effervescence and the muted brilliance of Yo La Tengo – is as joyous as ever, but it flops in front of a crowd more intent on skulking than having a dance, and their endearingly waffly banter – on the weather and the divide between Bangor and Belfast – goes down like a clown at a Cure concert.
Heralded by a tangle of feedback and a fanfare of squawling electonics, Esben & The Witch troop onstage. Opener ‘Argyria‘ (named after a terrible disease which dyes the skin a metallic silver, eek!) finds frontwoman Rachel Davies rocking back and forth, her crystalline wail spluttering from her throat in indistinct, ragged peals, while guitarist Thomas Fisher grapples with his instrument, flinging himself around the stage with wild abandon. Both seem rabid, and the crowd are visibly shaken; there’s a pause before the round of applause, as they try desperately to process what they’ve seen. Throughout the gig, what appears to be ceramic death marks perched in front of the stage whirr and flash, as though controlling the musicians musicians hollering above them, marionette-style.
But there’s a method to Esben’s madness – ‘Marching Song‘ is tight-knit goth-pop, Davies’ cauterwaul managing to mould itself into melody long enough to create – if not an earworming three minute pop-ditty – more of a song than a prelonged sonic art-skit. As closer ‘Eumenides’ deluges from gauzy ghost aria to blood-thumping battle-cry, percussionist Daniel Copeman grabs his sparkly floor tom, drags it out into the center of the crowd, and proceeds to batter it to near-smithereens in front of the leather sofas. A lady perched on the sofa instinctively shields her glass of wine and blinks increduously at the rapt crowd suddenly gathered around her. As the crowd files out, the merch stand man remarks ‘They’ve already broken three drums this tour’, gloomily. The whole thing would be hilarious if Esben & The Witch weren’t so bloody good