Review: XFM Winter Wonderland featuring Bloc Party, Manchester Apollo, 4/12/2012

by - Saturday, December 08, 2012

When my old flatmate Charlotte bought me a ticket to the XFM Winter Wonderland, I was both happy and sceptical. Boasting an impressive line-up of some of indie’s finest, you can’t deny the value for money, and of the good spirit behind a charity event for War Child. However, 6 bands in under 5 hours? With changeover time? You don’t have to be a scheduling genius to work out that this doesn't allow the bands much time each to perform. This realisation ultimately leads to the flaws in an otherwise very fun evening.

Arriving rain drenched following a comedic ‘bus through massive puddle soaks the entire path’ fiasco, we catch the opening strains of Spector, who go a long way to prove they are not as irritating as once thought. Underwhelmed initially by their album, it sounds much more alive here, in a live setting. With only twenty minutes stage time they rattle through an impressively tight set, Fred leaning over the crowd, holding his microphone out to let the crowd sing Chevy Thunder, his fringe bouncing away like a hip young dad at an 80s disco. He's a born entertainer, incredibly pop in approach. Introducing his band members between bars of a football stadium worthy sing-along of Never Fade Away, he gestures like a young Morrissey, clearly putting in 150%. His slight over zealousness isn't surprising for a man who has tried and tested so many guides to finally find one that appears to be working, although his snarky ‘'tonight's gig is like a selection of my CD collection from 2004' is probably a little premature for a band who haven’t quite yet cemented their legacy. 

Delphic are another pleasant surprise. Having not witnessed their live show since they supported Friendly Fires way back when, they have grown up somewhat, their live show becoming more of a spectacle that a series of bonks and bleeps. They start with a new song, blending seamlessly into halcyon, whose angular solo recalls the glory days of frank Ferdinand, if we're sticking with Spector Fred's 2004 theme. Despite the nagging voice in the back of my head that keeps reminding me that singer James Cook’s voice sounds a lot like Dan from perky popstars The Feeling, they come across pretty cool, all in suits, saying nothing between the segued songs. I bet they do a fantastic DJ set. If debut album Acolyte was the sound of a grimy basement, the new songs unveiled here are an attic room staring out the stars; same caginess, bigger aspirations.

Unfortunately for Everything Everything, the crowd are not quite as receptive to their hyper-intelligent electro-indie. It’s a shame, because they’re on fantastic form, tighter than ever. They don’t mess about, clearly using this opportunity to promote their upcoming album Arc, with only Photoshop Handsome and Suffragette Suffragette flying the flags for the old days. New songs Don't Try and Cough Cough, despite the gargantuan tunes they are, remain somewhat flat, and as they leave the stage without so much of a sniff of My Kz Yr Bf, people are visibly disappointed.

In typical ebb and flow fashion of a gig with this many acts, the ante is upped by penultimate performers Maximo Park, who prove near impossible to photograph. Paul Smith flits from one stage to the other so quickly that one suspects Harry Potter-style apparation. They master the art of a coherent setlist in the time they are given, spanning the National Health to Apply Some Pressure, with a version of Our Velocity delivered at double breakneck speed. Their peak comes in the form of Books From Boxes, a sign of how masterful they are as lyricists when the pace is slowed down.

As headlines  it should follow that Bloc Party rip the place apart with a crowd so thoroughly warmed up. They both do and don’t, suffering at the hands of trying to fit such an expansive career into 40 minutes, promoting their most recent album AND keeping both old fans and XFM themselves happy. They seem to focus on the latter, skipping some of Four’s better moments (VALIS?! WHERE IS VALIS?!) In favour of One More Chance, Hunting For Witches and Flux. That said, Coliseum causes a minor sh**storm, and Octopus is a worthy opener, resplendent in it’s bouncy chorus. Day Four sounds particularly poignant here, the four Ikea colours flashing irregularly behind them. Kele's 'fro bursts out the sides of his b-boy cap, his trademark grin in place as he implores the crowd to 'come on you f***ers!'. His voice has never quite been as good live as perhaps it should be, but he makes up for it in stage presence and enthusiasm, executing the higher notes with far more conviction. A snippet of a slowed down version of his solo single Tenderoni that fuses into One More Chance and Rihanna's We Found Love that becomes Flux demonstrate his skills better that on Bloc Party's own material, suggesting an all out pop direction might be an option for them in the future. Consider the nature of the gig, they do the best possible job as worthy headliners, but I can’t help being left with a certain regret that I didn’t catch them on their own tour. 

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