When? Saturday 15th December 2012
Where? o2 Academy, Leeds, stalls
Who? Ellie Goulding + band (support: Sons and Lovers, Yasmin)
Anybody who has been to an “o2 Academy” branded venue up and down the country knows exactly what to expect from this particular stable. The bar prices are standard for a regional live music venue (lager from £3.90 a pint, soft drinks £1.80 a half – December 2012) and the queues are manageable with three bars inside the auditorium, each well staffed. Security is never an issue and inside the auditorium there is little if any presence – somewhat predictably in this case for such ‘low risk’ gig. The venue is a decent size and holds approximately 2300 on two levels, with the more sedate upper balcony area proving the wiser choice for children and those who don’t enjoy being in smelling distance of other patrons. The sight-lines are generally good, with the auditorium raking adequately for even the smallest patron to comfortably see the action on stage from the sound booth backwards. Restrooms are intentionally scarce and require a trek through to the lower level bars, making not drinking too much before the act comes on a necessity!
A strong set from the indie pop stylings of Sons And Lovers kicked things off nicely, with their marquee single “Set My Heart on Fire” standing out. After a brief interlude, young DJ/singer-songwriter Yasmin, clutching a Macbook-Air, made her way to the stage and played a short set of remixes. Unfortunately, such is the lack of fanfare for support acts at live gigs that many in the auditorium – initially, myself included – were aware that she was actually an act playing a live set. Unlike Sons And Lovers, who leafletted after their act, constantly mentioned their band name during their set and so on, Jasmin didn’t utter a single word throughout her performance. Her set was almost impossible to differentiate from the ‘filler’ music that was being played by the venue between acts, which was a shame as Jasmin is an accomplished vocalist and established talent already, with two UK top 20 hits to her name. She has also supported the likes of Ed Sheerin and Example in the last year, but here her act came and went without most people in the audience even realising.
Ellie Goulding arrived on the stage seconds after her band, shortly before 8:30pm, and launched straight into three tracks from her outstanding 2012 studio album ‘Halcyon’: ‘Don’t Say a Word’ opens the show almost as a piece of musical theatre, with Goulding playing a basic, pounding beat on a downstage drum during the refrain, a gimmick that was to recur ad-nauseum throughout the evening. ‘Hanging On’, sees Goulding curiously singing with two microphones – with one set to an ethereal filter to replicate the post-processing effects heard on the studio recording of the track. It is not until ‘Joy’, the seventh number of the evening, that Goulding truly settles into her rhythm and the track – helpfully explained to us as being ‘about joy’ pre-song by Goulding, eventually proved the strongest of the evening.
The evening continued to improve with a strong rendition of ‘Explosions’, before the filters, vocal layers and production effects were briefly dropped for ‘Guns and Horses’ from Goulding’s 2010 debut album ‘Lights’, played and sung beautifully – and solo – by Goulding on electro-acoustic guitar. A new song premiered, ‘Without Your Love’, which is about – you guessed it – a break up. The song is an attempt at replicating the repetitive anthemic qualities which made ‘Anything Could Happen’ a chart and cultural success, but sadly fails to hit the mark. Goulding returns for the scripted encore, her cover of “Your Song” and “Starry Eyed”, both from ‘Lights’. The former was somewhat ruined by unavoidable audience participation, leaving the number just about the weakest of the evening. Leaving the stage at 9:50, Goulding played for approximately 80 minutes.
There is no doubt that Goulding offers the classic ‘package’; attractive and in great physical shape, Goulding is seen as something of a middle-class hero to a generation of young, predominantly female, fans and it is her image as both a serious artist and a fashionista which forms a large part of her artistic credibility with her target audience. Yet, it seems Goulding is so desperate to be respected that she can seem to be trying too hard. At one stage, having asked the audience if they were having fun – and naturally receiving a reply in the affirmative – Goulding forgets herself, replying back without an ounce of irony, ‘good-o!’. Goulding later explains between songs that she has a nervous vocal tick – one which makes her sound ‘like a pirate’, and her singing teacher had scolded her for it. A 2012 pop act ignoring her own ‘rule of cool’ by telling the audience that she has singing lessons was also quite a turn-up for the books. Goulding was keen to remind us she has just got back from touring in the United States and, at times, appeared to have adopted an American twang when she spoke, much like fellow British talent Joss Stone before her, whose career was undeniably damaged by trying to be something she isn’t. A lovely display of ego didn’t go unnoticed either, as Goulding scolds some badly behaved revellers; “Yeah, I really love how all you guys are just chatting away down there, it’s great”.
In fact, I was truly surprised just how awkward some of Goulding’s act was. For such an accomplished vocalist with songwriting skills – and being a performer who is keen to show her diverse musicality – her performance skills are surprisingly limited. Goulding doesn’t really dance per se, neither does she stand still. A nervous performer, she seems to go through a clutch of stock moves depending on the nature of the song. The recurring trait of brushing her hair down over her eyes then flicking it away becomes hypnotic (this resembles passion), the hip-hop style bopping/pointing at the audience (this means we are meant to dance) reminded me somewhat of Cerys Matthews. In a ‘emotional’ song Goulding keeps a lot more still; it really is performance by numbers.
Supported by an able band of four, Goulding is at least in good hands. There was no interaction or chemistry between Goulding and her band of note, aside from one slightly embarrassing attempt at flirting by Goulding to guitarist ‘Chris’, whom she ‘admits that she fancies’, before quickly reassuring the audience she is ‘just kidding’. Ouch. Incidentally, the band are not acknowledged again or even introduced by Goulding, so I will do so here;
- Christian “Chris” Ketley – Guitar, keyboard, midi fighter
- Maxwell Cooke – Keyboard
- Joe Clegg – Drums
- Simon Francis – Guitar
But that only tells half the story. This concert, like the studio albums – especially ‘Halcyon’ – is produced to an inch of its life. A quick scan of the production credits on the album is very telling, look at all those producers and mixers! Goulding’s style, a hybrid dubstep/electro-pop/folk mishmash of genres leaves little room for the real talent that makes Ellie Goulding a star – Ellie Goulding. The Halcyon Days Tour is, essentially, the album with some live vocals by the onstage Goulding sung over the top. Often, how much singing Goulding is actually doing is open to debate. Now, it is not uncommon for performers to use pre-recorded mixes and layering effects to get the desired quality in a live performance, but I mean her performance was identical at times to the studio recording. The middle of set acoustic ‘segment’ of the set proves, in earnest, the only demonstrable examples of Goulding’s sheer talent, of which I have no question.
At £25 a head, the ticket prices weren’t bad (and the venue was far from sold out, with tickets available on the door) but I can’t help but feel that Goulding would be better suited in a more sedate environ. The thought of seeing an acoustic Ellie Goulding set in a theatre, city hall venue or even small club is a very attractive – albeit unlikely one.
The Halcyon Days Tour runs until April 2013 with more dates set to be announced.
- Harry Zing