8th November at Academy 2
Local Natives are a band that understands silence. The very beginning of their show at Academy 2 was not a mess of noise, but a calmer introduction that flowed around the venue, tempting the audience’s ears to reach out to the breathy, airy, harmonies of the band’s three falsetto singers. As the drums dropped in, suddenly filling the empty space with the hyperactive booms of tom toms and the white noise of cymbals, every audience member snapped out of their now-unimportant conversation to listen to what the band had to say. They were right to listen.
The setlist spanned Local Natives’ three critically-acclaimed albums: Gorilla Manor (“an exuberant crazy time”, guitarist/vocalist Taylor Rice tells me), Hummingbird (“getting all these issues out of our system”) and this year’s Sunlit Youth (“full of optimism and hopefulness”). These albums are snapshots of the band at different points in their lives, and after their killer opening I wondered how they would pull these disparate moments into a cohesive show. My fears were dissolved by excellent use of staging and song choice that the band displayed.
Performing in a line with just the drummer behind gave equal importance to all members, neatly communicating Rice’s earlier claim that, “our band is such a democracy, not just one person’s vision; we have three singers, and three songwriters.” This approach was aided by the band’s onstage rapport; members interacted, chatted, and for a very personal performance of ‘Columbia’ stripped down to Rice and childhood friend/keyboardist Kelcey Ayer before slowly rebuilding as the song built up. The staging nicely divided up the disparate tones of the tracks, aided in part by the great song choices, using the sadder, quieter songs as breaks from the upbeat ones. This is what I mean when I say they understand silence, you cannot have huge tracks if there is no room for them to breathe.
One track — ‘Sunlight Youth’ — stood out from the rest, however, not only because of its positioning at the heart of the set but also because of its political subject matter, amplified by the oppressive subtext of that night’s US presidential election. The topic dominated not only the song, but also our earlier interview; Rice explained, “we had a dawning realisation that we have a microphone and a stage…there are things we have to address. I wish this election wasn’t about who had emails here, or who’s a sexist or a racist. I haven’t really been sleeping and it’s all we’ve been talking about; one of two different worlds is going to triumph tonight”.
One song — ‘Fountain of Youth’ — made their allegiance clear, with Rice singing: “I think we better listen to these kids”, meanwhile the usually lame lyrics: “I can’t keep pretending that I’m still asleep” resonated across the venue with cheers of “Hillary”. That comment summed up a large part of what Rice — and many Americans — have been going through: they are not just a divided and fighting nation, they are tired. The whole band seemed to emulate this, especially as the show was the last date of their UK tour. Towards the end of the gig, the finality of everything really started to hit home, as the bands emotional dreadnoughts started to rock the crowd.
As the gig wrapped up with a two-song encore and a closing promise to return to Manchester again, Local Natives appeared to be a more positive, close-knit band than the one I saw two years ago at Latitude Festival. The band’s “West Coast Indie Rock” style may be less fashionable than when Gorilla Manor debuted in 2009, and their political messages seem childishly basic compared to acts like Run the Jewels, but it is hard to hate them, especially when the crowd is harmonising the vocal hook of ‘Who Knows Who Cares’ as the band leave the stage smiling.
As for Rice, and the nightmare-come-true election result he woke up to, I strangely have hope. One thing that struck me in the interview was his love of his home, California. Faced with the joke question: “What’s your favourite colour?”, he answered seriously, giving a long description of a mountainous view opposite the San Rafael Hills of LA. He described how he sat in his kitchen looking out and writing song after song. Even though he had used so many words, his answer was simple: home.