SAFIA @ Woolly Mammoth, 2nd September
As I’ve said to many a person, glassy-eyed and stroking my chin, I remember when Woolly Mammoth was a deliciously scummy place called Mustangs. Since the changeover, the floors have become marginally less sticky and the music a little more hipster (there’s also a giant woolly mammoth in the centre of the room), but the essence of Mustangs lingers on, eternal in the grimy bathrooms and mildly disgusting ambiance. It’s a bit of a weird place to find yourself on a Wednesday night if you’re not an alcoholic, but well worth it for the show to come.
We arrive and are ushered upstairs to a crammed room, where first opener Owen Rabbit has just started his set. The crowd mills around disinterestedly, despite the fact that Owen is clearly (and quite viscerally) pouring his heart out over the keyboard. I mean it: the kid’s emotional, his vocal acrobatics descending into wails periodically. The echoey synths are atmospheric but badly suited to the venue, where they lose all semblance of layering and combine to form a fuzzy, angsty haze. I’m not blown away by Owen, but can’t help but admire the onstage therapy session.
After a quick break, chilled out duo Boo Seeka take the stage and immediately grab some attention. Their performance is clever, charming, and effortless, with gorgeous synths layering 80s beats and beautiful lyrics. By the second track, I’m more than a little in love with the vocals, which – bear with me – sound like the curious/glorious lovechild of Tracy Chapman and John Butler. By Deception Bay, the whole crowd is singing and holding hands, inspired into peace and love by the sweetness onstage. It’s like Boo Seeka wandered (possibly semi-stoned) off a beachfront and into the crowd’s adoring arms.
Not long after, it’s time for the feature spectacle. The audience has crammed in tight, and there’s a pleasant mix of hip 30-somethings and baby-faced 18-year-olds, not to mention a gaggle of unbelievably child-sized girls in the front row who seem ready to gun down anyone blocking their (very limited) view. Finally, the lights dim and we hear the iconic tick-tocking of Counting Sheep, complemented by lights and strobes flashing in time. Just before we all descend in to epilepsy, SAFIA walk on, shrouded in smoke and applause, and launch into the track, much to everyone singalong delight. All three band-members are high in energy, but Ben steals the spotlight as he struts passionately up and down the stage, crooning with many a hand gesture and hair flick.
We soon discover that SAFIA‘s members are big fans of strobe lights. The whole set is peppered with intense light shows and smoke, as if Counting Sheep set the tone for the electro-dream state the show seems to enter. The band bring Listen to Soul, Listen to Blues in with a long, eclectic intro like a drug-addled jam session and the crowd responds in wonder, singing and screaming along to Ben’s beautiful vocals. Several glitchy, instrumental interludes punctuate the set, and although some audience members seem frustrated when they can’t sing along, I enjoy the more creative side of the show – particularly as the more popular songs are executed almost identically to their recordings.
The set’s a mixture of old and new, with some new tracks previewed from the much-anticipated full-length album that’s apparently to come. Classics like You Are The One and Take Me Over create chaos in the crowd as everyone attempts to express their joy simultaneously by bashing each other with their limbs. The atmosphere is electric, particularly in Take Me Over, which features a slightly glitchier, SAFIA-styled chorus than the Peking Duk version. The encore brings a long, bass-driven interlude that turns into Paranoia, Ghosts & Other Sounds (flawlessly executed), before the set ends on the single, Embracing Me. It’s an exhilarating set, injected with surreal energy that perfectly demonstrates all that SAFIA can do.