There’s a metaphorical contract one signs when going to a Jacob Collier gig: leave any expectation of subtlety at the door – you’re not getting any.
Musical polymath, Jacob Collier is currently touring the world, supporting his new album, Djesse Vol.1, the first of a four-part series of records that he says capture four distinct musical worlds. This first one is all about grandeur, and features instrumental arrangements by the incredibly versatile Metropole Orkest, conducted by Jules Buckley. This tour, however, doesn’t feature the orchestra. Instead, Collier is accompanied for the first time by a regular band, comprised of drummer Christian Euman, bassist Robin Mullarkey, and vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Maro.
Collier’s usual brand of loop-heavy, running about the stage between various instruments like an excitable child who can’t decide between his favourite toys, was curtailed in Wednesday’s performance. This band setting features just as many toys as Collier’s one man shows, but he shares the load with three extremely capable and talented musicians. What this means is that the show is a lot more carefully choreographed, and less subject to Collier’s every whim.
The night kicked off with the singer’s particularly intuitive brand of call and response with the audience (the first of many instances of this throughout the gig), followed by the first single from Djesse Vol.1, ‘With the Love in My Heart’. The audience was lively from the get-go, but there’s something to be said for audiences at Jacob Collier gigs being somewhat competitive for his attention. Due to his notoriety as the purveyor of exciting, complex new concepts in music theory, Collier’s audiences (including this one, as demonstrated when Collier asked for a show of hands) tend to be full of musicians attempting to impress those around them. The result of this phenomenon is that songs are often punctuated by cheering and clapping, and occasionally loud commenting when there’s an interesting key change, or an unexpected rhythmic idea. So, while the audience was excitable and completely engaged, there was this pressure to be more vocally knowledgeable than the people around you.
While the atmosphere in the room was a little strange, the performances on stage were certainly captivating. One of the advantages to having a band on stage with him, is that Collier didn’t need to spend a lot of time creating loops. Instead, songs came together more naturally. Songs like ‘Hideaway’ were particularly stunning, when three of the four musicians on stage traded their various instruments for acoustic guitars and created a beautiful flurry of sound before launching into the song. ‘Ocean Wide Canyon Deep’, from the new album, was another highlight, benefiting from the band’s natural chemistry and Maro’s gorgeous, breathy vocals, which provided a welcome reprieve from Collier’s impressive, but wearing vocal runs. The whole gig was presented with the aid of some truly spectacular lighting, with a blend of warm lightbulbs on poles and harsher, coloured LEDs creating a series of dramatic visual displays.
There were moments, however, which left something of a bad taste in the mouth. While it was clear that Collier was really enjoying the chance to play with other musicians, it became apparent that his tendency to stand out often messed with the vibe the band was creating. Tender moments would be interrupted by an impressive piano lick, or a distracting, complex percussion rhythm. It appeared at times as if he was off in his own musical world while the band had to scramble to adapt. That being said, it’s a real mark in the band’s favour that they were able to keep up with Collier’s more erratic moments so adeptly.
More so than other jazz-pop acts, Collier’s gigs are broken into a collection of cool moments rather than a cohesive whole, often creating a dichotomy between transcendent shared experiences and showy demonstrations of all the ideas in Collier’s head, which divide the room into wide-eyed devotees and sceptical eye-rollers (admittedly, from observation, the former group far outweighed the latter). Of the transcendent numbers, the most stunning were ‘Hajanga’ – a particularly uplifting tune from Collier’s first album, introduced beautifully through a solo prelude by Maro sung in Portuguese – and the first encore, ‘In My Room’. The Beach Boys song was performed from a raised window above the stage with all four band members crammed onto the ledge armed only with a U-bass, melodica and acoustic guitar. The song was a moment of genuine warmth, with the whole band emanating a spirit of community out into the room. Having seen Collier live four times now, this was the first concert attended by this reviewer, where the genuine moments significantly outnumbered the overly showy ones.
Though at times Collier’s tendency to thrust himself to the centre of attention detracted from the unity of the band, this is still the most captivating format in which to see the multi-instrumentalist live. The presence of the band cut the time-consuming looping of his solo shows, kept his showboating in check, and the presence of Maro (another polymath, and a star who has a really promising career ahead of her) added some much-needed variety to Collier’s sound. The most powerful moments of the night came when the band was at its most unified, showing that Collier’s music is at its very best when it embraces the spirit of collaboration, and on this occasion, it did wholeheartedly.