The O2 Arena, London, 5th December 2018
When most artists pitch up at The O2 arena they put on a headline show; in Years & Years case, tonight’s landmark moment has been billed as their ‘Rendezvous’ instead. Compèred by model and trans rights activist Munroe Bergdorf, the usual support slot has been turned into something of a variety show; all set on the band’s fictional utopia of their ambitious second record ‘Palo Santo’. Glittering pop newcomer Rina Sawayama turns up with a dance troupe for the night, along with Norwegian singer Astrid S, and in the moments before Years & Years’ dream concert begins, the stage is handed over to London vogue group Kiki’s House of Tea. It’s safe to say that much of the audience will never have witnessed anything quite like Jay Jay Revlon and his formidable family of dancers before, and there’s clearly been an effort behind the scenes to make space to celebrate an entire community. Olly Alexander doesn’t just bang on about inclusivity; there are distinct steps being taken to practice it.
Ahead of the night Olly Alexander billed the whole thing as a “a project to celebrate the incredible talent from the LGBTQ+ community and our allies.” And he’s right – for a second the cavernous arena feels more akin to an especially chaotic Dalston Superstore. Even London mayor and Labour politician Sadiq Khan gets involved. “Love whoever you want to love,” he says in a video message, before finally welcoming Years & Years to the stage. From many artists such a maxed-out sincerity-o-meter might feel a little grating, but from Olly Alexander, an artist who clearly spends much time pondering how to be a responsible pop star in 2018, it feels very genuine.
- Read more: The NME Big Read with Olly Alexander
As all great pop shows should be, really, everything about Years & Years performance is at once provocative and playfully absurd. Opening with ‘Sanctify’, Olly Alexander locks horns with a variety of sinister dancers in tense tussles; befitting a song that unpacks sex with a straight guy, things get very steamy. For the following song, ‘Shine’ the frontman rips off a layer to reveal a torso of fake tattoos. Across his stomach, in bold gothic scrawl, it reads ‘Dream Daddy’.
It’s representative of the tension which rules tonight; for every straight-faced gyration or sexy moment from Olly Alexander, there’s a winking aside to the audience; a bemused comedy expression that says ‘how the fuck did I get up here? Me, a pop star?!’ A genuine love of pop music and all its ridiculousness is also visible in every production decision; from Mikey Goldsworthy’s frankly preposterous keytar, to the red-lit box which hosts the frontman’s prowling silhouette for ‘Worship’. The white shield slowly lifts. And just when things all get a bit raunchy – Alexander even gets his very own Nadine Coyle ‘Sound of the Underground’ moment, clinging to the metal grid in front of him – his silhouetted place is taken by a guitar wielding Emre Türkmen. “Ooo, the way you move!” Alexander jokes, running rings around his bandmate earlier in the gig. “The way you play that guitar”
And for ‘Palo Santo’ – the smouldering beast of a ballad which titles Years & Years second album – Olly Alexander is hoisted many metres into the air, a throne slowly cranking him skyward until he’s a singing man belting his heart out in the moon. His silver gown is a comically long effort, with a train that tumbles all the way to the floor. You sense that Cher would approve. You also sense that Madonna – whose own illustrious cape infamously tripped her up at this very same venue during the Brit Awards in 2015 – is busily taking health and safety notes.
Olly Alexander is the undeniable star of the show, with approximately five costume changes, and a strengthened vocal which has clearly been honed and made more powerful. Yet the generosity which led the ‘Rendezvous’ segment of the night continues til the end. Unusually, Yeas & Years unleash their backing dancers for their own number – they cover Ariana Grande’s ‘No More Tears Left To Cry’ and Madonna’s ‘Like A Prayer’ – and during the encore, Olly Alexander is joined by recent collaborator Jax Jones for ‘Play’. The pair have evidently been working on synchronised choreography backstage, and rise to the occasion again on the 02’s runway. Naturally, Alexander is dressed “like a Christmas decoration” for this portion of the show.
“This is the very last night of our tour, and I’m emosh!” he tells the room immediately before closer ‘King’. “This very night we have been dreaming of for a very long time. And I don’t want it to end”. Judging by the hordes of gig-goers howling the chorus of ‘King’ and reenacting Olly Alexander’s airborne throne sequence on the escalators of North Greenwich tube station after the show, that sentiment extends both ways.