Live Review: Jake Bugg at London Brixton Academy – 23rd October 2013

By on Thursday, 31st October 2013 at 2:00 pm

‘Champagne Supernova’ rang out from inside the faux regency portcullis that frames the stage at London’s faithful Brixton Academy. The crowd, clearly hyped, were eager to catch up with their own palatable rebel just weeks before the release of his latest album, hopeful of the chance to garner any loosely disguised teasers. What was once part of the raw appeal of Jake Bugg – his stripped back appraisal of urban life in often decaying provincial centres – has become a brand on the back of the astronomical success of his debut LP. This was one of the first opportunities for his most loyal UK fans to learn whether he would stay true to his roots.

Oasis’s seminal track gave way to the haunted tones of Robert Johnson’s ‘Crossroads’ reverberating around the cavernous hall as Bugg and his band coolly took to the stage with all the fanfare of a band practice on a rainy Tuesday. The sense of compulsion that is at the heart of the Johnson “I sold my soul to play the blues” legend (a misplaced attribution meant for his predecessor Tommy Johnson – one for all you bluesos) was also evident in this 21st century journeyman, who has delved to depths beyond his years since the tender age of 12 – even if it could have been done using a more subtle, less worn cliché.

Not the kind to require total self-reinvention on each release, opening track ‘There’s a Beast and We All Feed It’ was a neat little teaser from his eagerly anticipated second album ‘Shangri La’ that suggested his vantage point has remained the same, even if his horizons have changed. His blissful incoherence already stood in stark contrast to the bubblegum autotune of so many of his contemporaries.

The stage layout was simple, with drummer Jack Atherton shifted off to the right and a scaled back lighting rig hidden behind a sheet adorned in Bugg’s now universal half vinyl logo. Beams like truck headlamps erupted through the darkness for ‘Troubled Town’, an infectious single release from his eponymous debut album that details the apathy of the British recession in his native Nottingham.

The first chords of ‘Seen it All’ – a song that perhaps best characterised his initial shift from promising protégé to dominant chart force – pulled the crowd up by their vocal chords for a rousing recollection of urban hijinks with a Bob Dylan esque narrative and soaring choral line.
‘Simple as This’ was the first of the night’s mellower tracks, and although it’s hard to dispute Bugg’s sincerity, it’s fair to say that he seemed to find it more difficult to connect fully with an audience that were more overtly distracted than, say, Arctic Monkeys to The Verve within three tracks.

Aside from activating the advertising node of all fans of slightly watery mainstream ale in the room, ‘Country Song’ provided relief in demanding total attention from a crowd that had hitherto drifted in and out. Such a unified moment caused the song to echo off the vast ceiling, even if the “old rusty guitar” of which he sings is sounding a little more clinical these days.

Despite its meeker approach, the crowd remained fixed throughout ‘Pine Trees’ and on into ‘Song About Love’ (get your laughing gear around that in a thick Midlander accent!); a number that showed real versatility and rose to a lofty, magnificent summit. Such a view became the perfect intro to the image rich ‘Slide’, another acoustic wander that beautifully expresses Bugg’s vocal range and joy in isolation.

The daydream was shattered as the rest of the band returned for the mildly psychedelic vibrato of ‘Green Man’, which passed in a customary two minute thirty blur into the swinging “you take the wheel” blues rock of ‘Kingpin’ – one of the standout tracks from Bugg’s upcoming album. ‘Taste It’, with an intro that resembled Johnny Cash’s cover of Soundgarden’s ‘Rusty Cage’, had the seated circle on their feet in appreciation, whilst the skiffle sound of ‘Slumville Sunrise’ spoke of separation from nostalgia and alienation in a pacey, amped mould. The final track of the set proper, ‘What Doesn’t Kill You’, was a manic first finale with an up-tempo beat and slicing solo, with Bugg himself exhibiting an unmistakeable tonal inflection worthy of Alex Turner.

Again, Bugg instigated a major dynamic change to the set as he returned for the pastoral grief of ‘Broken’. The audience would repay his self-effacing admission of outsider tendencies with their most interactive response yet, united in voice and a point of view that they could not have put so eloquently. With slide guitar and a gospel sounding chorus, this is also one of Bugg’s clearest indications of musical malleability.

The subtle juxtaposition at the heart of Neil Young’s ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)’ might have been best covered by Bugg mid-set, as the audience grew antsy for their personal favourites to be shoehorned into the closing minutes of the set. However, the concept of placing oneself outside the archetypal established or contemporary musical circle – the idea that forms the fulcrum of Young’s original – is undoubtedly one that chimes with Bugg.

It was right to give the final slot of the night to a track that potentially played the biggest role in elevating this young troubadour to his current height. Coming after two such touchingly personal numbers, there was an element of “putting a brave face on” throughout ‘Lightning Bolt’ that rendered it stock compared to his performances a couple of years ago. But, with its jangling chords and country fried vocal melody, it was a chance to take stock with a bass and drum breakdown, even though the majority of the crowd were behaving more like frontmen by now than the song’s own architect.

At this stage of his career, it seems fairer to label any criticism of the band more as growing pains than a precursor to survival in the musical wilderness. Yet again, Jake Bugg possessed one compelling feature that granted him brevity; that it was evident he’d still have writing those same songs, even if no one had ever listened.

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