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Declan McKenna

Declan McKenna – O2 Academy Bournemouth

Declan McKenna once again treated the south coast to a cohesive and compelling
showcase of his musical brilliance which was both optimistic, enigmatic, and at times,
just pure magic.

After the release of his third studio album ‘What Happened to the Beach?’ in February,
Declan returned to Bournemouth with his bright new record and his impressive, beloved
back catalogue. His UK & Ireland tour has reached its final night down along the south
coast before it jets off around the rest of Europe ahead of a busy summer. Joining
McKenna on his travels throughout the year so far has been upcoming indie-rock
royalties Wunderhorse, who have a huge year of new music and performances coming
up themselves and are keen to boast their best work to McKenna’s audience for one
final time.

There was a warm buzz along the streets of Boscombe as almost 2000 eager McKenna
fans, all dressed in a variety of unique takes on McKenna’s renowned 80s inspired
attire, football tops and tour merchandise, queued in the breezy south-coast air. Many
were heard to be planning silly strategies for getting as close to the front as possible,
whilst others attempted to predict what songs Declan would pull out his locker with
immense anticipation. Bournemouth was ready. I positioned myself on the upper level
with an excellent view down onto the stage and standing pits that would soon be
overflowing with enthusiasm and energy. The venue itself was as unique as you like; an
ageing cathedral-like auditorium with impressive theatrical architecture and a traditional
smell of rust, carpet, and dampness to exaggerate the rustic feel. Fans jubilantly sped
into the venue as the pre-support-act playlist filled the background; a rather interesting
selection of electronic and moody tracks that only McKenna himself could’ve hand-
picked for the occasion. It was soon time for the conversations to pause and the music
to begin, as the four-piece indie-rock group Wunderhorse settled onto the stage and
were welcomed by cheers from the lively crowd.

The group, fronted by Englishman Jacob Slater, worked their way through a short but
sweet 6-track set, including their hits Cathedrals and Emily, and rapidly began warming
the Bournemouth air. They were successful in making the stage their own throughout
and it was refreshing to hear a variety within their sunny but subdued sounding sonic.
Being the final date the band are touring with McKenna, the growing attendance were
treated to the first ever known performance of their single Aeroplanes, which was
received superbly and contained some stunning grungy guitar solos and emotive vocals
from Slater. They ended out their set with Teal and their latest release Midas; the
heavier, powerful closer has had tremendous reception as of late and had the crowd
riled up one last time. They departed to chants for “One more song,” however
Bournemouth were to be left disappointed. Whilst it didn’t feel as though the fanbases entirely aligned throughout, the indie-rock hopefuls still brought 100% to the stage and
ignited the room.

The attendance continued to grow across all three levels of the grand concert hall, and
you could already sense the heat of the packed-out floor below radiating through every
corner of every floor. Such mild aroma was mixing with an obvious sweaty tang from
below to create quite a poignant smell, one easily recognisable at most concerts
nowadays. The crowd utilised the pre-show playlist, featuring hits from Abba and
Madonna, to reach the level of excitement we needed ahead of the main event. The
band soon began settling onto the stage to a niche radio edition of daytime television as
huge triumphant cheers rang out. The set staging was intriguing, perhaps either huge,
jagged icebergs or a towering mountainous scene; however you may depict it, the band
were dwarfed in front and the audience were left literally asking, What Happened to the
Beach? Contrary to the cooler imagery, the band took no time to warm up as McKenna
threw Bournemouth right into his 70’s inspired sensation, Sympathy. Just like with every
performance he had everyone in the palm of his hands right from the first note and his
presence was infectious.

The 20-song setlist was packed full of McKenna’s notorious hits but was predominantly
comprised of cuts from the new record that was given centre stage. He dialled into the
nostalgia with tracks including Why Do You Feel So Down, Key to Life on Earth, and the
cathartic Kids Don’t Wanna Go Home, all a gift to the Bournemouth crowd, garnering
responses as arduous as I Write the News and Make Me Your Queen, which personally
was simply magical to finally hear played live. He flattered us further with the ear
worming, soul-driven Mullholands Dinner & Wine, record opener WOBBLE, and the
glittering Elevator Hum, all notably captivating and bathing Bournemouth in a wall of
noise. Despite only being released very recently, the audience was confidently loud in
response for these ones. A standout feature of McKenna’s dominant stage presence
must be his ability to never cease to move about onstage, and it begs the undying
question, just what is Declan McKenna’s tour step count? The energy he brings with his
impish gliding around was fantastic, and it amused Bournemouth far more than it
should’ve during the set. At times, he capitalised on the crowd perfectly, as energy-filled
Mezzanine met Isombard which met Beautiful Faces which met Nothing Works; his
seamless transitions between these buoyant hits had Bournemouth on strings and
overflowing with the energy and momentum they so craved. McKenna executed this
sequence with sheer professionalism.

This review would be meaningless if we didn’t mention everyone’s favourite crowd
pleaser; of course I’m talking about Brazil. It’s simply one of the best indie-rock anthems
out there, the unbridled togetherness the track generates is breathtaking and it will
continue to rival any artist who attempts to top it. Bournemouth chimed along with those
all-too famous chords and through the sea of phones, you could just about make out the paper-flame toned backdrop and McKenna, who was clearly enjoying himself. After the
uplifting You Better Believe!!!!, another number from his cosmic and stratospheric 2020
record Zeros, the first half of the set ended with two slower heartbreakers: Be an
Astronaut, a wannabe sequel to Elton John’s Rocket Man, and the melancholy It’s an
Act. Both saw McKenna swap the strings for the piano keys and had fans swaying in
time with their torchlights twinkling around the room.

McKenna and his band departed, waving goodbye in attempt to fool the now fragile
audience; Bournemouth could see right through his over-used party-trick and were soon
chanting a mixture of “One more song” and “Oh, Declan McKenna,” both echoing
profusely around the room to reincarnate their popstar. He re-emerged, laughing with
his bandmates about his foolishness, and probably about how loud the Bournemouth
crowd were. Being the final UK date on the tour certainly is an occasion to warrant
rarely played songs, and Bournemouth was rewarded with the live tour debut of
McKenna’s second debut single from 2015, Paracetamol. It came as a huge surprise,
particularly to the audience members who turned onto Declan after his emergence in
the music industry many years ago. I felt extremely lucky to be in the minority who can
say they’ve heard it played live.

The final two songs of the night arrived with two relentless, headbanging belters, both
seamlessly connected and had energy pouring into every exposed crack of the O2
Academy. The Phantom Buzz (Kick In) instantly got the room bouncing and the mosh
pits opening, before the best thing to come from the UK arms trade, the ever-relevant
British Bombs, ended the set. The political pipe bomb sent electric shockwaves through
the Bournemouth crowd; I’d never seen a more animated reaction to a song ever
before. If it wasn’t obvious, the song certainly ensured Declan met his daily 10,000+
steps target; he was jumping around in a frantic fit of rage by the final chorus. It was an
epic closing sequence to what was another remarkable show by McKenna. He danced
his way off the stage leaving the rather sweaty Bournemouth time to regain their breath
before leaving.

As his tour now takes on Europe, I can’t wait to see what larger stages await him in the
future. His ability to turn heartbreak and political turmoil into dancefloor anthems has
cemented his spot as a mainstay in the British music scene. It was vintage McKenna at
his absolute best, and an unforgettable night of music.

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