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annabelbenton
10th April 2024

Declan McKenna live in Manchester: Seamlessly mixing old and new

Touring his third album ‘What Happened to the Beach?’, Declan McKenna created a cohesive and compelling live show out of his new material and impressive back catalogue
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Declan McKenna live in Manchester: Seamlessly mixing old and new
Credit: Lucy Craig @ The Mancunion

Two years on from his stop in the city to tour sophomore album Zeros, Declan McKenna returned to Manchester with a new record. After the February release of his third studio album What Happened to the Beach?, fans were eager to reconnect with an artist who’s already been releasing music for almost ten years.

What Happened to the Beach is certainly an experimental album and a departure from the outer-space sound of Zeroes or the youthful debut What Do You Think About The Car?. McKenna received positive reviews, with The Guardian labelling WHTTB? a “dissociative, distinctive album” and NME praising its “pure, creative optimism.” However, the proof of an artist is so often in their live show, and as the audience filed into the O2 Apollo, anticipation built to see how his new direction would translate in performance.

Credit: Lucy Craig @ The Mancunion

After support from Wunderhorse, McKenna arrived on stage with instant impact. Opening song ‘Sympathy’, one of the singles from WHTTB?, was accompanied by confetti before Declan launched into his biggest hit ‘Brazil’. Playing ‘Brazil’ second was a bold move which kicked off the party atmosphere and left the singer able to explore more recent records afterwards. McKenna made sure to tell the crowd “I hope you’ve got your dancing shoes on tonight,” and they certainly did from the get-go.

Credit: Lucy Craig @ The Mancunion

After a raucous beginning, new tracks such as ‘It’s An Act’ and ‘I Write News’ held up well. Although audience participation was understandably louder for older songs, the crowd were audibly singing along to McKenna’s latest album tracks.

The audience was then able to catch its breath as ambient noise exclusive to the WHTTB? vinyl pressing created a calmer atmosphere at the start of ‘Breath Of Light’. This isn’t to say that McKenna’s new material didn’t go down well at the Apollo, as ‘Mullholland’s Dinner and Wine’ particularly felt as though it was meant for the live stage. Where the album wanders between disparate beats, acoustic guitars, and synth interludes, the live show levelled out its sound into something more high-octane.

Credit: Lucy Craig @ The Mancunion

McKenna was definitely secure in blending recent releases with older fan favourites, often breaking into long – and extremely impressive – guitar solos for songs like ‘Nothing Works’. The crowd was particularly on board with WHTTB?‘s lead single which followed on from a divergence into some older McKenna music. Fans were kept on their toes as the set moved between Zeroes and What Do You Think About The Car?, featuring ‘The Key to Life on Earth’ (complete with huge cheers for the line “roaring crowds in Manchester”), ‘Rapture’, and ‘Make Me Your Queen’. Having seen Declan on his Zeroes tour, it was a treat to see the album’s songs performed alongside a very different record. It’s a true testament to McKenna’s ability that the gig didn’t feel stilted.

The crowd remained totally with McKenna as he moved through ‘Mezzanine’, ‘Isombard’, and ‘Beautiful Faces’. On paper, it wouldn’t immediately seem like the three songs from three different albums would work in succession, yet, combined with audience clapping and chanting, the trio built with non-stop energy. McKenna let his music do the talking, addressing the crowd sparsely with an occasional thanks or praise for “Manchester you mad bastards.” He did make full use of the stage, however, repeatably climbing to its second level to shred alongside his drummer and playing guitar solos at the edge of the crowd.

Declan McKenna
Credit: Lucy Craig @ The Mancunion

After a short break, McKenna and his band returned to the Apollo stage for a four-song encore, with the singer telling the audience “You know we’ve got more tunes.” More tunes he did indeed have, starting with ‘Listen to Your Friends’, a song whose bridge always goes down well live. ‘Eventually Darling’ brought the audience back to a more wistful mood, before McKenna moved into ‘Mystery Planet’, another bonus track from the WHTTB? vinyl. McKenna is clearly enjoying experimenting with different songs and setlists on his current tour, and it was moments like this which cemented the success of his new album in a live format.

The night concluded with ‘British Bombs’ – could it have ended any other way? The audience moved into one final mosh pit as McKenna cartwheeled about the stage and red confetti fell from the roof once more. The playful performance of a political song was a fitting ending to a gig with started with a bang and never really slowed down. Manchester’s “roaring crowds” kept the energy up until the very end as McKenna capped off an impressive, musically mature return to the city.

Credit: Lucy Craig @ The Mancunion

Declan McKenna was an artist in control as he finished the show by climbing onto his piano stool to survey the crowd. Whilst What Happened to the Beach? is more understated than its predecessor Zeroes, McKenna’s live performance was more self-assured than ever. Blending three albums into one cohesive set, the singer proved why he continues to be at the forefront of British indie music almost a decade on from his debut release ‘Brazil’ – and why his new music is just as good as the classic single.

Annabel Benton

Annabel Benton

Co-Culture Managing Editor at The Mancunion // Twitter: @AnnabelBenton_

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