Charlie Lim live at Marina Bay Sands review: thrilling testament to the power of live music

December 19, Sands Theatre: playing a three-part set, the Singaporean songwriter makes a case for giving local artists bigger stages

“Holy shit.”

Those were Charlie Lim’s first words to the hundreds of people dotting the Marina Bay Sands Theatre for the second night of Back To Live, the two pilot shows marking the return of large(ish)-scale concerts to Singapore nine months after the coronavirus forced the nationwide closure of live entertainment venues.

I’m not sure we were a very impressive sight: masked audience members meekly seated at appropriate intervals, taking up less than a quarter of the seats in the concert hall. And the pandemic is far from over, as every attendee understood from the swabs jammed up their noses prior to entry and the warnings from eagle-eyed ushers in the venue.

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Charlie Lim Singapore Marina Bay Sands Theatre Back to Live pandemic coronavirus COVID-19 concert 2020 review
Credit: Marina Bay Sands

But Lim could be forgiven for being a little stunned: he hadn’t seen a live audience in about a year. He’d last played a local venue on the same scale in December 2018 – the launch concert of his most recent album, ‘CHECK-HOOK’, at the Star Theatre – and that experience showed in the ease with which he commanded the Sands Theatre, even as a pared-down production crew meant he had to make more on-the-fly gear adjustments himself.

Ever self-deprecating, Lim told the audience he knew that splitting his set into three parts – solo acoustic, a four-piece ‘jazz’ combo and a full setup with his longtime backing band the Mothership – “was a bit John Mayer-y”. But it was far from self-indulgent. Rather, it served to demonstrate why live concerts are so precious. Lim took advantage of each mode not just to perform his songs differently and show off his versatility, but also develop various moods. You can’t feel the energy of a room change when watching a livestream.

The first mood was intimacy. Guitar in hand, Lim started with the first song he ever wrote (‘Rust’, from his 2011 self-titled EP) and bantered with the audience about their rapid COVID tests.

Lim also took a moment to recognise “migrant workers and those who can’t get back to their families”. His voice cracked before he began ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’, and then transitioned smoothly into ‘Room At The Table’. A stripped-down tune that fleshes out the prelude he wrote for 2018’s National Day song, it was released during lockdown to raise funds for local charities supporting migrant workers.

Coming days after reports that nearly half of all migrant workers in Singaporean dormitories had caught COVID-19 – as opposed to less than 1 per cent of the wider resident population – Lim supplied a sobering, if brief, reminder that sitting in this plush theatre and enjoying live music with other COVID-negative people was a thoroughly privileged experience.

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After that poignant start, Lim’s bandmates joined him onstage and the show got louder and looser. The four-piece delivered funky deconstructions of the UK garage-inflected electronic soul of ‘CHECK-HOOK’ that, driven by drummer Soh Wen-Ming’s expert rhythms, were a balm for anyone who’d missed the feeling of a kick drum vibrating in their chest.

Charlie Lim Singapore Marina Bay Sands Theatre Back to Live pandemic coronavirus COVID-19 concert 2020 review
Charlie Lim and Aisyah Aziz at Back To Live. Credit: Marina Bay Sands

The band’s tight interplay also shone when they vamped up the coda of the wryly campy ‘Blah Blah Blues’, but the four-piece arguably did their best work when they supplied the resonant backdrop for the new song ‘Won’t You Come Around’, featuring Aisyah Aziz.

Sporting a bright blonde wig, Aisyah scampered onstage, instantly bringing a mischievous energy to the set. But more importantly, she spurred Lim on: they both fed off each other’s energy, delivering knockout vocals that seemed to herald a thrilling new direction for Lim’s future material where he really lets loose as a singer.

Lim and Aisyah also sang Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’, which was later blown out of the water by a cover of Radiohead’s ‘All I Need’. After ‘Unconditional’ (the romantic, Burial-evoking closer of ‘CHECK-HOOK’), keyboardist/organist Chok Kerong slyly dipped into the heavy chords of the ‘In Rainbows’ track. Lim and the Mothership then proceeded to soar, as the original did, into electrifying territory, Lim violently shaking his head as he sang to ‘glitch’ his voice in real time.

Charlie Lim Singapore Marina Bay Sands Theatre Back to Live pandemic coronavirus COVID-19 concert 2020 review
KEYANA performing at Back To Live. Credit: Marina Bay Sands

These heady, unpredictable parts of the Back To Live concert stood as testament to the power of live music. But they also attested to Singaporean musicians’ ability to step up to the plate when given the opportunity to take a huge stage with flashing lights and quality production values. It’s rare in Singapore to find local-only lineups booked for tony venues such as the Sands Theatre, let alone allow a newcomer like R&B singer KEYANA – who only has two songs to her name – play an opening set that also marked her first time performing original material.

Typically, profit-conscious promoters would have considered such a concert a risky proposition, but these aren’t normal times. It might be a year or two before international artists are permitted to tour abroad. Let’s hope Singapore takes advantage of that lull to extend more opportunities to its local musicians – and give audiences stunning shows in the process.

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