The Maccabees Live at Brixton Review: Could They Headline Glastonbury?

The question posed in the title was offered by The Telegraph. The answer to it, obviously, is no.

The logic behind the Telegraph’s article was in comparison to The Maccabees’ contemporaries when their debut album, Colour It In, was released in 2007. At the time, their spiky, pop-influenced indie sound placed them in the same camp as the likes of The Futureheads, The View and The Pigeon Detectives. They were of course far better than them, but came under that umbrella.

Fast-forward nine years, with the release of their fourth album Marks To Prove It, they’ve become almost unrecognisable from those acts they once existed alongside. The sound is more intricate, considered and expansive. They can be melancholic, playful and hard-edged, sometimes in the course of one song. All four albums stand out on their own, each with an evolving style that holds up well with repeat listens. I’d go as far as saying that being a product of the oversaturated mid-2000’s UK indie scene has held them back, as they’ve been tarred with a brush they by no means warrant anymore.

It’s of course laughable that they could headline Glastonbury, especially given they were half way up the Second Stage last year, but it’s more than their current size that is holding them back.

In the last year, I’ve seen The Maccabees on said stage at Glastonbury, plus in support of Kasabian, and those kind of gigs really don’t suit them. They’re still pretty great, but there’s something missing in those venues.

I think it comes down to playing in front of their audience. The band, led by timid front man Orlando Weeks, are not your usual rock Gods. There is barely enough charisma for one person on the stage, let alone a whole band. Between songs very little is said, beyond the occasional and meek “cheers”. When they did try to talk, the crowd mostly ignored them and talked among themselves, or simply let out a cheer when they thought they were being asked to. No-one was really listening, basically.

This isn’t a criticism, though. They have so little charisma and stage presence that it actually goes all the way around and kind of becomes charismatic again. These guys are just so grateful to be there, and so obviously enjoy what they are doing. They’re not pandering to the crowd, and they’re certainly not trying to be anyone they’re not. They seem like super nice guys, who are a bit shy and would rather let their music do the talking for them. Their meek stage presence actually makes them oddly engaging, and when the music does start again, everyone is engrossed (apart from the drunks talking by the bar, but it is a gig in London) .

In another location, such as at a festival, this might not translate in the same way. It definitely wouldn’t in a headline slot.

It’s not just their odd “anti-charisma” that keeps the crowd engaged, though. That set list…

I ragged on Everything Everything for this, but placing the right songs in the right places is so absolutely vital to the way the crowd experiences a concert. I think in some ways it’s a really underrated part of the gig-going experience, but pacing a set list correctly can make or break an event.

There are three main rules of a set-list:

  1. Start strongly. Fast paced if possible, something to build on the anticipation the audience has had in waiting for the band to arrive.
  2. Don’t get too self-indulgent. Experimental album tracks are fine, new songs too, but too many in a row and you lose the audience.
  3. End on the highest-note possible.

On this criteria, I can’t praise The Maccabees highly enough.

Marks To Prove It was the obvious high-point to start the set off, but the main highlight was in the fantastic balance of playing the music they want to play, and the crowd-pleasing bangers.

This was never truer than when Weeks stood aside and let guitarist Hugo White take over lead vocals on the Noah and the Whale-esque album track Silence, only to follow that ballad up with debut album foot-stompers Latchmere and X-Ray. This is a band that knows how to have the audience playing in to their hands, whilst at no point pandering to them in any way.

Throw in a set-closing one-two of Toothpaste Kisses and Pelican and the crowd are leaving on the highest of highs. Job done.

Would this have been enough to convince people they should headline Glastonbury? Apart from Patrick Smith at The Telegraph, you’d have to think not.

But not every band has to be a headliner. I love Kanye West and The Who, and I like probable 2016 headliners Foo Fighters too, but they can do their crowd-pleasing, headline slot thing all they want. They can have that sound, that stage presence, that aura that drags 100,000 people in to come and see them.

But The Maccabees aren’t those guys, and they shouldn’t try to be. They should stay true to what they really are.


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