The Kele Okereke that graced the Academy stage on Sunday night was barely recognisable from the young Londoner who stumbled, almost apologetically, into the limelight five years ago as the frontman of sensitive dance-rock foursome Bloc Party. That spindly, spiky-haired youth may not have completely disappeared, but in his place stood a smoother, more confident Kele, one more comfortable in his artist’s skin and revelling in his new role as a solo performer.
The singer (who now goes only by his first name) took to the stage with freshly-braided hair (courtesy of support act Mama) and, more surprisingly, a chiselled, muscular physique. Having endeared himself to the world as a shy, skinny misfit making music for other shy, skinny misfits, I can’t have been the only one to do a double take when he took to the stage. Okereke, Liverpool-born but London-raised, is as polite and unassuming as ever, but there’s something noticeably different in the way he puts himself about, as if his decision to (mostly) ditch the guitars has afforded him the opportunity to interact with fans in a much more direct way. While there were some awkward moments, he really impressed on just the third outing of his first ever solo tour.
Interestingly, Kele had elected to kick-start the tour with four consecutive Irish dates, playing Limerick on the 14th, Cork the 15th and Dublin the 16th before hitting up Belfast the following day. Generous though the itinerary was to his Irish fans (he explained later that he’d wanted to begin the tour in Ireland as Bloc Party hadn’t had an opportunity to visit while touring their last album, Intimacy), there was cause to believe he might have spread himself too thinly: the venue could not have been more than 2/3 full, so much so that the entire balcony area was closed off to anybody but press and performers. Not that it particularly mattered on the night: the atmosphere was fantastic from the moment he took to the stage and the extra room may just have helped ease the tension.
Support act Mama took the stage early in what can only be described as a loose-fitting roll of tin foil (which she helpfully slid off for the encore) alongside a pair of dancers who could only be described as absolutely incredible. Strangely, she performed surrounded by a full complement of instruments (acoustic and electronic), even though all of her music was to emanate from a backing tape. The instruments were actually set up for Kele’s band, more of which later. Her music was very raw – it was basically just her and some scratch tracks – but she carried it off really well, calling to mind at times a lo-fi version of MIA, minus the righteous indignation.
Almost an hour later, following what looked like a technical problem involving a barely-used smoke machine, Kele finally made his way to the stage with three-piece band in tow. He opened with -Walk Tall,’ the first track from his forthcoming record, The Boxer. One of three tracks from the record to have been officially released thus far, -Walk Tall’ was a strong choice to open proceedings, leading with a sorta-familiar military drill-type refrain: ‘I don’t know what you’ve been told / This starts now: walk tall, walk tall.’ -Walk Tall’ is typical of the direction his new music has taken, with brash, heaving synths forming the base for call-and-response routines and Kele’s anthemic, festival-sculpted choruses. There are lighter moments, too, but the emphasis seems to be on high-energy, high-intensity jams, in contrast to the increasingly navel-gazing music Bloc Party had been producing before their hiatus last year.
There was a popular outing for lead single -Tenderoni,’ which boasts a similarly crowd-friendly ‘T-E-N-D-ER-O-N-I’ refrain, as well as a couple of old Bloc Party favourites. Silent Alarm‘s -Blue Light’ was dusted off around the mid-point as Kele apologised for bombarding us with so many unfamiliar tracks, while one of the group’s less pretentious numbers, – Flux,’ was wheeled during for a thrilling encore. The majority of the set consisted of new songs, though, and he managed to fit all but a couple of the new songs into his 70-minute performance. Hearing most of the songs for the first time live, it’s difficult to make an immediate judgement the way you would with more familiar songs, but there is enough there to suggest that The Boxer may just be something to get a little bit excited about over the next few weeks.
Photos: Sara Devine