Usually, gigs at Brixton Academy begin with an artist bounding on stage to thunderous roars – but the first time we see Róisín Murphy tonight, she’s peering mischievously around the venue’s labyrinth of backstage corridors. As the Crooked Man Rhumba remix of ‘Jealousy’ ticks into syncopated life, she’s barely visible on the big screens, except when her red-platformed foot appears around the corner and gives a theatrical high-kick.
When Murphy finally emerges onto the stage, she’s followed by a cameraperson, and continues her performance for the lens. Whirling around a silken green cape like a wayward magician’s assistant, she only makes eye contact with her audience though the real-time video streaming behind her. It gives the opening of the show a surreal, slightly meta feeling; almost as if we’ve all gathered here together to watch the making of a virtual concert. When the Irish singer, songwriter and producer finally turns to to face the room, the energy is at fever pitch.
Murphy released her fifth solo album ‘Róisín Machine’ in lockdown, an exceptionally weird time for dance music – and though her house and disco-inflected songs were begging to be belted out of a basement soundsystem, the desire and yearning at their heart also chimed with the present. “This is a simulation,” she sang on that album’s opener, “this is for demonstration, this is a lonely illusion.”
While many artists valiantly attempted to foster meaningful connection in live-streamed performances, with patchy results, the musician’s own virtual show in November last year went drastically in the opposite direction. Continually, she drew attention to the eerie and bizarre nature of what she was doing – the show ended with a desperate Murphy banging on the window of a reinforced metal door as it gradually shut her away. “Nothing can come close,” she sang, performing a stripped back, acoustic version of Moloko track ‘Familiar Feeling’.
Elements of the ideas within her standout livestream are also present tonight. During her ‘Assimilation’ remix of ‘Simulation’ spliced clips and text from John Cassavetes films form a jagged collage behind her. By referencing the Greek-American director, known for blurring the lines between reality and performance in films like Opening Night, Murphy hints at similar ideas. After she delivers an onslaught of increasingly flamboyant costume changes – ranging from a pink pom-pom that encompasses her entire head to a sunhat with a comically large brim that dangles across her shoulders – and shifting from classic tracks like ‘Overpowered’ to relative deep-cuts like 2012’s ‘Flash of Light’, the encore sees Murphy and an acoustic band remerge in a row, taking their bows like actors after a play.
Neatly tying the whole thing up, she ends by beckoning her camera back on stage – this time, the big screens show the audience the mirror of themselves applauding. It’s a beautifully simple image, capturing how it feels to return to the stage after so long away.
Conceptually and visually, tonight is hard to fault – but throughout Róisín Murphy is sorely let down by an atrocious sound-system. The pulsing basslines of ‘Narcissus’ get completely lost to a bass drum, which thuds dully like an embalmed trout smacking against a piece of corrugated iron. And when her long-time collaborator Eddie Stephens plays Moloko’s ‘Familiar Feeling’ on harmonica in the stripped-back encore, none of the brilliant melody cuts through.
While the opening lyrics of ‘Overpowered’ are met with euphoric woops, the bombast of the 2007 album title track gets lost. At times, it’s even difficult to distinguish which song Murphy’s playing until a muffled vocal rises above the murk. It’s a real shame, making a show which should feel like a jubilant celebration fall, at times, strangely flat.
Róisín Murphy played