The Leisure Society, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London – review

The defining social institutions of the Enlightenment were clubs and societies: groups coming together outside the confines of the academy to socialise and discuss and innovate. This concert was a throwback to those days: two groups whose conviviality resounded in public.

Opening act, Keston Cobblers Club, were like children let loose in a musical instrument warehouse, scampering around (in one case barefoot) and playing, variously, three trumpets, an accordion, a ukulele, a Catherine Wheel of bells, a third of a drumkit, a cittern and, in lieu of bass, a tuba. They were an unalloyed delight.

The Leisure Society’s songwriter, Nick Hemming, has a touching narrative about success hard won from years of failure and despair; he has now collected awards and plaudits. His band came on to a burst of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, as if to stake a claim to summery chamber-pop genius. But admirers of the melancholy folk of their first two albums have been confused by the tougher sound of the new Alone Aboard the Ark. The line between albums that it was impossible not to love and an album that is impossible not to admire is fine, but dangerous. No one was going to shout “Judas” – possibly the politest band in rock music, The Leisure Society have equally polite fans – but a suspicion of Dylan-goes-electric was inescapable.

The opener, the new “Another Sunday Psalm”, crashed straight into old favourite “Save It for Someone Who Cares”, tricked out with closing rococo flute trills and then a hoedown coda; a combination that asserted a common line of descent. There were blues cadences on “All I Have Seen”, with Christian Hardy rolling down the organ keyboard, and violinist Michael Siddell and flautist Helen Whitaker chanting “dooby-dooby-dooby-doos” behind.

Lyrically the new single, “Fight For Everyone”, betrays its birth during last summer’s Olympics, but musically it recalled Punch the Clock-era Elvis Costello, with a tight horn trio nailing down the chorus while Jon Cox’s bass carried the melody and Whitaker played vintage-sounding synthesizer. Hemming cleverly segued into the band’s first single, the lapidary “Last of the Melting Snow”.

As the band scales down to two, and up to nine or more, they are old hands at adjusting their arrangements to suit. Here, as Siddell increasingly abandoned his violin for guitar, the sound grew denser, culminating in a thrash on “Dust on the Dancefloor” as noisy as Arctic Monkeys.

The encores did finally redeem that opening nod to Brian Wilson. “One Man and His Fug” mingled Beach Boys harmonies with jug-band verve; and then, during a blissed-out psychedelic take on “A Matter of Time”, Keston Cobblers Club trooped back on stage, both little platoons combining into a pocket regiment.

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