Four years since their last Manchester headline show, and seven years since they played the O2 Ritz on their meteoric rise to indie stardom, Sundara Karma took to the stage as a band with something to prove. As fans flowed in from the cold, the Ritz’s stage jutted out expectantly from a wall of tinsel; inviting someone to fill it, asking if the band – as they are in 2023 – could.
Striding on stage to the 2009 RnB hit ‘Rockin’ That Shit’, equal parts camp intro music and mission statement, the four-piece arrived with purpose. Leather jackets shining over suits as they slung instruments over their necks, they flew into 2017’s ‘She Said’ as soon as the song on the PA had finished its chorus. Met with rapturous screams from the crowd at their feet, this would set a pattern for the evening. No nonsense, no waiting around, no between-song patter. If they were leaving a mark it would be through the songs alone.
A pattern set out early in the show would be the markedly different crowd responses to Sundara Karma’s older and newer material. The band may have started as they meant to go on, but their audience couldn’t match. As frontman Oscar Pollock launched into the singles from October’s Better Luck Next Time the crowd’s feverish excitement dissipated. Bouncing made way for swaying, rousing clap-alongs were replaced by a smattering of raised arms and voices that knew every word of their debut could only muster the choruses of these new offerings.
You could not, however, accuse the band of caring less about their new stuff. Just three songs in Pollock jumped off of the stage and mounted the barrier, leaving his glittering silver Telecaster behind, rousing the crowd into enthusiasm for ‘Miss Again’. While he communed with the front row, guitarist Ally Baty put on a show for the rest of the audience, tapping the song’s feverish guitar part from within his great leather trench coat.
Even this, though, got less out of the crowd than just the first few bars of the hits from 2017’s Youth Is Only Ever Fun In Retrospect. Their detours via 2018’s critically acclaimed Ulfilas’ Alphabet, too, paled in comparison to the ecstasy that set upon the room when ‘Explore’ or ‘A Young Understanding’ rang out like indie hymns. Perhaps unsurprisingly, their hyperpop escapades of the last couple of years went completely untouched. Only ‘Kill Me’ made the setlist from their 2020-22 releases, helped into genre-alignment with the rest of the set by the live instrumentation.
When they did play the favourites, though, the Ritz became one. The crowd, which seemed altogether more likely to enjoy an after-work pint at Brewdog than cans of dark fruits in the park, were transported back to the album’s release, chanting back every syllable of teenaged love and disaffection. Nostalgia seemed the mood of the hour.
The twenty-song set reached fever pitch twice. As the final chorus of ‘Explore’ burst forth, led by Dom Cordell’s punchy bass, Pollock left the lyrics to the crowd, sustaining a scream over the closing lines that seemed to concentrate all the energy in the room into his microphone, before allowing it to rush back out as rapt cheers from below.
‘Flame’ was the real zenith, though. For the final song of the night, their biggest hit, Pollock roamed the stage with a look of determination, flinging out picks from his mic stand. No longer having to encourage the Manchester crowd to sing along with him, he jumped down to crowd level again, this time vaulting the barrier to spend the final chorus in the crowd proper – as he has every night this tour. Past, present, band, and audience combined, the closing refrain hung in the air as the house lights came up. “Hold my flame and set alight, hold my fire screaming inside out” – a final peak of connection.
I imagine you can tell, as a band, when you’ve become something to look back on fondly rather than an outfit whose every new move captures people’s hearts. When audiences no longer open up pits but one or two lindy-hop enthusiastically. When you become a period piece. I know for sure that Sundara Karma feel some of that, but in the end, they seemed happy to oblige.