It’s perfect that Alexandra Palace, the 10,000-capacity venue that sees Fred Again.. play a four-night mini residency this week, offers one of the most humbling views of London – skyscrapers, intersections, houses and all. All those people, all those lives.
The 30-year-old super-producer’s music, a mix of ambient house and techno through which he weaves voice notes of friends and strangers alike, magically turning their words into anthemic lyrics about community and connection, clearly captured some kind of zeitgeist in the pandemic. Having graduated from producing for the likes of Ed Sheeran and Rita Ora, he’s created something close to his own musical language via his ‘Actual Life’ series of three albums and an EP, the latter of which was released two months into Covid. It’s easy to see why: this is deeply emotional dance music that found its audience at a time when we couldn’t see our loved ones and dancing was out of the question.
So tonight marks a milestone. With precisely 35,246 tickets shifted for the four shows, all of which sold out instantly, it’s as much a belated celebration of being on the other side of that dreadful period as it is of Fred Gibson’s rise. The atmosphere outside Ally Pally seems more like that of a festival than of a Tuesday night gig. Groups of friends wrap their arms around one another for photos in front of that killer view; a snapshot in time.
As punters are ushered in the venue, they’re handed rectangular blue keyrings that will, apparently, form part of the show. If it all seems a bit Coldplay, any sense of grandiosity is undercut by a shaky live feed of Fred entering the stage, the low-key aesthetic immediately reflecting the intimacy of his music. As he nestles behind a keyboard, screens behind him beam out phone-filmed videos of small moments such as rain streaking past a car window. Ambient sounds build slowly before Fred and his DJ, Tony, who pogoes throughout the gig at the opposite end of the narrow stage, achieve lift-off with the pounding ‘Kyle (I Found You)’.
What follows is an audiovisual experience that combines more homey looking videos with a stunning light show – at one point, the ceiling is illuminated by dangling red bulbs that throb against the darkened venue – and music that shifts between massive and muted.
It turns out those keyrings are intended to cover your iPhone torch. When everyone fires them up it should create, in Fred’s words, “a sea of blue”. Yet that’s not the piece de resistance: this occurs when he disappears among the crowd to reappear at the other end of the venue, where he continues the performance from a podium over which hangs a screen that bathes him in light. It looks like something from Kanye’s ‘The Life of Pablo’ era. The whole thing is often astonishing, though the keyring trick doesn’t quite come off and hushed piano interludes rob the show of its momentum.
Criticism has dogged Fred Again.. since he found success. Detractors claim he’s ultra-posh (true) and that his music is basic (not true). There is definitely a conversation to be had about privilege in music, but no one here seems to be checking the “early life and education” section of his Wikipedia page. There is great skill in his live interplay with Tony and his voice, evident when he croons a hook here and there, isn’t half bad either. The final thrilling 15 minutes of the gig peaks with ‘Billie (Loving Arms)’, which punters chant as if it’s ‘Seven Nation Army’ as they leave the venue. Like the entire show, it conjures the communality he’s forged with young fans whose formative years were frozen by the pandemic.
Outside, afterwards, looking down across the city, 27-year-old fan Charlotte summons the intimate spirit of the night: “At one point, I closed my eyes and thought I was the only person there for a bit.” 23-year-old Prav, meanwhile, hails the “interactive” elements of the performance that saw Fred move out amongst the crowd – the physical manifestation of the producer’s relationship with his audience. Together they capture the unique way in which Gibson’s music has resonated with people as both a vehicle for connection and a balm for the soul.
Another fan tells NME that Fred’s music is “so personal” and that she heard the first ‘Actual Life’ album after she’d to London from Dublin. “I didn’t know anyone in London,” she says, “and his voice notes… it was like I had a mate over here.”
She then shares a deeply personal story about losing her father during this period and explains that tonight marks her third anniversary in the city. Fred, she says, “got me though a lot of shit”. Before we part, she locks eyes and implores: “If you know him, please tell him thanks so much for helping me get to this place.”