London Grammar are a trio – singer and occasional guitarist Hannah Reid and multi-instrumentalists Dan Rothman and Dominic “Dot” Major. They’re Londoners, but formed at Nottingham University. Their debut album, If You Wait, was released in 2013. That was followed by Truth is a Beautiful Thing in 2017 and just this year, Californian Soil. A stately progress, which reflects the stately nature of their music, which, at least until the latest album, has been characterised by a beautiful, sparse melancholy that is at its most pronounced in Hannah’s singing. She is one of the best around in my view. In the slower songs, there’s a real sense of sadness, that duende that I’ve written about many times before. When they do stray into more up-tempo territory, there’s a strain in her voice, a venturing outside the comfort zone. The melancholy never quite goes away.
Californian Soil does take the band’s sound into more of a pop-dance zone than its predecessors. I guess that’s inevitable – there isn’t much in the pop world today that doesn’t have some kind of electronic dance beat attached to it. Got to move with the times. Further, that sound seems to reflect a change in attitude. In interviews accompanying the new album, Hannah said that she had assumed more of a leading role in the band and was asserting herself against the prejudice and misogyny in the music business, having been close to quitting in 2019. Well, I’m glad she stuck around, because Californian Soil is a fine album, which grows on you with each listen. And it was great to have them back on tour after all this time.
There were two shows at Ally Pally, on Friday and Saturday just gone. That means around 20,000 people made the trek to North London to see them. That’s not bad, and it meant a lot to them. Dan Rothman made the point during the show that he grew up ten minutes away from Ally Pally – this was a real homecoming. I went on the Friday, with friends Shane and Jon. We figured they’d be on stage around nine, so stopped for a couple of beers near Alexandra Park station. It’s another ten minutes’ walk up quite a steep hill after that, and we ended up getting the timing slightly wrong. Despite the fact that there were a lot of people still in the food hall when we got there, the band had started. I figured by checking previous set lists – thanks to Setlist FM as ever – that we had only missed Californian Soil and part of Missing, for which Hannah was wielding an electric guitar. It was reassuring to hear Hey Now after that – not only is it a wonderful song (from the first album) but, unless they varied the set each night, it was only the third of the set.
After that we had a succession of songs from the new album, culminating in the closest thing London Grammar have to a “banger”, Baby it’s You. The second half of the show stepped into more varied territory, starting with two favourites from Truth is a Beautiful Thing, Big Picture and Hell to the Liars, featuring one of Hannah’s most passionate vocals. Mind you, I was probably working from memory on the night – there was so much chatter going on all around that it was hard really to take in the more subtle elements of the show. I find it odd why people pay £35 to stand in a big hall and chat to their mates when they could do that down the pub for free, but that’s the way it is in these big shows. I was just about able to appreciate Wasting my Young Years, one of their signature tunes, which followed. A song I will always love, with the anguish of Hannah’s voice conquering the cavernous surroundings. The main set finished with America from the new album and another old favourite Metal and Dust, a suitably upbeat ending.
The encore was a triumph, with Bones of Ribbon followed by the London Grammar anthem, Strong, and finally Lose Your Head from Californian Soil. Strong is such a great song, as resonant now as when I first heard it back in 2013. I’d prefer it if Hannah sang the chorus rather than the crowd, but we were at a celebration of London Grammar, not a recital. Lose Your Head, rather appropriately, was also the moment when a fight kicked off just in front of us. Just some drunken lads, but this was a London Grammar concert. You don’t fight at a London Grammar concert!
So, ultimately, I felt a little ambiguous about this one. I love the music and especially Hannah Reid’s singing. But neither of those could come fully to the fore given the remoteness of the stage – a choice we made by standing at the back – the chatter and the inevitable reliance on the dance beats to fill the arena and keep the crowd energised. The screens were good and the light show and backdrops were imaginative, which enhanced the experience. There was a nice mix of old and new in the set, and I’m really pleased to see the band doing so well. So I’m glad I went, and it’s got me fully appreciating Californian Soil. Could be in the year’s top ten.
With luck we might see them again at Latitude next year – I could see them headlining the Friday evening. The perfect fit, as the stars begin to light up the night sky, the laser show dazzles, and Hannah’s voice echoes through the balmy air…*
Some more photos, the close ups off the screen.
(* As long as the rain doesn’t pour down that is!)