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Live Review: Radical Face at Gorilla

Multi-talented musician Ben Cooper swept us into his otherworldly realms with a cacophony of string instrumentals. Accompanied by cellist boyfriend Josh Lee, a local drummer, and an electric-guitarist friend, Cooper himself tinkered on his acoustic as he sung his stories in Gorilla.

Naturally, a live performance meant compromising on a display of Cooper’s musical versatility, but this was compensated for by the heartening synchrony between his own playing and that of the supporting ensemble. Each player was highly attentive to each other’s moves, much like how children in a school play look to each other for line cues. But rather than being off-putting or seeming amateur, this onstage brotherhood infused Radical Face’s performance with a touching humility – Ben Cooper self-deprecatingly joked: “we’re not a real band”.

The light displays were massively underwhelming; some fluorescent strobe lighting swept across the stage occasionally, but there was nothing really emblematic of Radical Face as an act to be appreciated, other than Cooper’s beanie. For concert-goers who were less familiar with them, the quartet could easily have been dismissed as a group of men simply there to set up stage equipment – until they began playing.

This lacklustre marketing might be a good thing: Ben Cooper, up on the stage with his depressive humour and authenticity, reminded us that even the most talented and accomplished artists can be relatable. Cooper’s youthful voice and endearing connection to his work made it difficult to avert our eyes from the stage anyway, and I personally loved his groundedness. He displayed a self-awareness of his own supposed mundanity, citing a French Vogue article that described him as having the “voice of an angel, body of an ogre”. His complete transparency and all-accepting attitude towards even such a shallow remark was quite badass.

The band’s sound itself served as a transcendental soundtrack behind the folkloric tales of Cooper’s fantasy world. The slightly echo-ey acoustics of the Gorilla basement actually enhanced the band’s more organic sound elements, the minor distortions adding to the sense of magic realism imbued in Radical Face’s lyrics. There were some songs I hadn’t come across, but hearing them for the first time live was a delightful introduction.

The writer-singer-poet warned us at the very beginning that the set-list was somewhat out of his control – perhaps a clever disclaimer as I was in fact surprised by the lack of features from his most recent album, Therapy. Only a single track – ‘Hard of Hearing’ – was performed. I can only imagine the disappointment of avid Radical Face listeners at the exclusion of these more synth-filled numbers, which would have coloured the gig with more variety; not to mention, it would have shown Cooper’s impressive musical range and his willingness to experiment and evolve as an artist. Given the Floridian native’s praise-worthy focus on the narrative links between his twisted, Southern Gothic generational tales, the lack of any apparent logic behind the ordering of the set-list was quite unfortunate.

I enjoyed Cooper giving us brief overviews of what his songs are about. Songs like ‘The Mute’ sound deceptively cheerful, especially with the upbeat strumming and string-plucking, while the track ‘Ghost Towns’ can sound almost balladic with the romantic and woeful line of the chorus: “I still miss you”. Really, ‘The Mute’ depicts the experience of a child who remains perpetually misunderstood by his parents, while ‘Ghost Towns’ is about a murderer who misses the town he has fled. For ingenious songwriting like Cooper’s, explanations of meaning are important.

I enjoyed the gig, but amongst the self-deprecating jokes and the trivial treatment of his performance, it seemed at times like Cooper and Lee were unbothered – perhaps embarrassed – to make the gig the spectacle which Radical Face could certainly be. Hopefully in the near future, Manchester will see another opportunity for Cooper to show off his talents, this time unashamedly.

7/10.

Tags: folk music, generational tales, Gorilla, magic realism, narrative, radical face, southern gothic

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