Live Review: Friendly Fires

XOYO, London, April 7th

XOYO’s small stage is swamped in equipment. There’s a drumkit and some guitars – naturally. There’s a percussion stand, complete with prerequisite cowbell. And to the left sits a compact horn section in glittery gold T-shirts proclaiming ‘[b]Live Those Days Tonight[/b]’. There’s also a large screen behind the stage, where projections of parrots’ wings play on a loop, and strobe lights wait to be switched on. Sure, XOYO’S concrete walls and exposed pipes might not look much like Utopia, but some music makes its own paradise in the here and now…

It has been three years in the making, but ‘[b]Pala[/b]’ (named from a doomed earthly philosophical wonderland in an Aldous Huxley novel) is worth the wait. Just as their debut was made for the festival crowd, with its cowbell, samba funk, and lyrics about friendship and love for all, so [a]Friendly Fires[/a]’ second album was written for nightclubs – its straight-talking choruses were made to be shouted across darkened cloakrooms, while feet make their way to the dancefloor.

The sensitive young ’un of ‘[b]Skeleton Boy[/b]’ (“I close my eyes on the dancefloor/Forget about you/I lose myself in flashing colours/I’ve gotta see it through”) has blossomed into a confident adult, ready to chase down what he wants (“You claim your history is beyond a man like me/But I’ll live, I’ll live, I’ll live/I live those days tonight…”).

Strolling onstage, the group launch straight into ‘[b]Lovesick[/b]’. Typically tropical, they’re punchy and tight. The first ‘[b]Pala[/b]’ number, ‘[b]Blue Cassette[/b]’, follows immediately. Luckily, the newer tracks segue well into their debut, despite lyrical and musical differences. Echoing classic louche frontmen like Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry and [a]Spandau Ballet[/a]’s Tony Hadley, lead singer Ed MacFarlane is in his element on ‘[b]True Love[/b]’, unashamed to be grandiose, emoting. Sweetly surprising himself, he exclaims “I’m actually enjoying this”, as the group segue into ‘[b]Chimes[/b]’, another cut from ‘[b]Pala[/b]’. Old favourites ‘[b]On Board[/b]’ and ‘[b]Jump In The Pool[/b]’ set the crowd alight, but so does current single ‘[b]Live Those Days Tonight[/b]’.

‘[b]Skeleton Boy[/b]’ is a treat, with an extended drum breakdown bordering on euphoric. The crowd surges forward in joy, and Ed leans out over the stage, spilling into the floor. He briefly apologises – “for taking so long on our second record, but now it’s done” – and all is forgiven as the intro to ‘[b]Show Me Lights[/b]’ builds into a slick early-’00s jam (think Another Level or East 17).

[a]Friendly Fires[/a] are almost in boyband mode – although it would challenge the most limber-limbed member of [a]The Wanted[/a] or [a]JLS[/a] to mimic Ed’s dance routines. “This is my favourite track off the record,” he proclaims, before ‘Hurting’ opens with EastEnders drums and ‘[b]Straight Up[/b]’-era Paula Abdul horns. While the recorded version channels Talking Heads via [a]The Avalanches[/a], live it’s a bit like Ace Of Base – and in the best way possible.

Saving the newest tracks for the end of the set, Ed introduces ‘[b]Hawaiian Air[/b]’ by saying that “this song was only written two weeks ago”. It’s psychedelic, with synthy burps and chugging cymbals. With Ed singing of “leaving the world down beneath the clouds” and “an ache in my leg from a broken seat” it’s a companion piece to ‘[b]Paris[/b]’, which follows hot on its heels. At this stage, it’s the band’s calling card – bittersweet and wistful, the lyrics sing of running away together to find true love – in a charming and vibrant new city.

The music swells and throbs, the crowd bump into each other and spill pints in their exuberance. But there’s a distant look in Ed’s eyes and the lyrics seem naive in light of the seize-the-day, live-in-the-moment spirit of the likes of ‘[b]Live Those Days Tonight[/b]’. Rather than running away to a new place, it increasingly seems like the wiser option is to stay and face up to problems at home, even if, as he sings in ‘[b]Hurting[/b]’, “I can’t keep on feeling the pain of your touch”.

The best dance music should make a communal experience feel like a personal one, and vice versa. It should be simple enough to sing along to, but complex enough to stand up to repeated listens. While support band (and previous Friendly Fires collaborators) Azari & III echo the hardcore rave end of the ’90s, with looped broken beats and soulful crooning, tonight [a]Friendly Fires[/a] are bringing back the decade in the way that most of the crowd here have experienced it – as young adults, yearning and dreaming and listening to boybands – or through the rush of hormones, going clubbing with friends for the first time.

Although it’s a mixed crowd tonight – BBC 6Music listeners mixing with girls who’ve heard ‘[b]Paris[/b]’ on a mixtape, Shoreditch staples standing next to groups of after-work gig-goers – it’s all one room, one pair of feet stamping on the floor, one set of hands clapping. No separation, only elation. By the time that set-closer ‘[b]Kiss Of Life[/b]’ has come around, the band have become part of that modest stage set-up, and merge into the spinning strobes and flickering rainbow prism lights, as they urge the crowd to “rub that line out of the sand” and start anew.

Ailbhe Malone

Friendly Fires to release new album ‘Pala’ on May 16