The concept of “Summer music” can be hard to reasonably define; it’s one of those things that’s based less in quantifiable music theory and more in intangible feeling. Something like Calvin Harris & Dua Lipa’s ‘One Dance’ isn’t a Summerjam because of the chord sequence underpinning the song or any one synth preset which alters the tone of said chord sequences, but rather it is a Summerjam because of the sensation that listening to the song provides: that of sunny beaches, poolside bars, and exotic glamour as a cool ocean breeze slides through the air. It is by that reckoning that I dub Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever to be our current foremost purveyors of “Summer music”, the Melbourne quintet’s major-key power-pop-inflected drivetime rock just sounding completely perfect in the warm rays of Summertime weather. And so, following on from their impeccable 2018 debut full-length Hope Downs, they made their way to Sheffield’s Leadmill on a balmy Tuesday night as part of their latest UK tour.
Before that, though, there was Thyla. This buzzed-about Brighton quartet are trading off opening dates on the tour with Our Girl but in no way should they be considered second-fiddle to their more veteran partners. Thyla have so far issued just one EP, February’s What’s On Your Mind?, and a handful of singles, yet they are evidently powered by a winning level of self-belief and playful rock-starism which indicates a clear desire to become somebodies’ inarguable favourite band playing rooms three times the size of the Leadmill sooner rather than later. Drummer Danny Southwell pounds away at his kit like he’s trying to reach the back rows of a football stadium whilst singer-guitarist Millie Duthie, in addition to generally commanding the stage with some vintage Courtney Love-like swagger, even playfully eggs the crowd on with a “you can do better than that!” in response to some initially muted cheers.
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The songs, for their part, provide strong evidence that such attitude is justified rather than cocky. Opener ‘Only Ever’ is a dead-ringer for prime Lush in how Duthie’s voice drifts ethereally above Southwell’s tumbling drums and guitarist Mitch Duce’s effects-laden guitar washes, whilst ‘Gum’ invokes Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth and newbie ‘Two Sense’ brings in a little Hole sneer. Penultimate number ‘December’ makes the mistake of dropping a slower ballad into an opening act set which loses the crowd a little, and the set in general is dogged by muddy sound mixing which causes most of the dynamics and interplays to be lost to these ears in a live setting – in particular, Dan Hole’s bass is an almost inaudible blur – but it’s largely a very strong showing and makes a surprisingly fitting pairing with the headline act; Thyla mining the shoegaze and dream-pop side of 80s/90s alt-rock whilst Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever go for the jangle/power-pop side.
As for RBCF, the levelling-up that’s been demonstrated in the progression from debut EP Talk Tight in 2016 to its 2017 follow-up The French Press and culminating in last year’s LP Hope Downs has been replicated in their progression as live musicians in seemingly double-time. When I first saw them last October, they were solid performers meticulously replicating their on-record sounds in a manner which was fun yet a little frivolous; by the close of their set, I felt satisfied in having seen them but not particularly moved to head back again. Tonight, on the surface, not a whole lot has changed: still taking the stage to Mental as Anything’s ‘Live it Up,’ still carting around the same rotating disco balls which sit either side of Marcel Tussie’s drum kit and serve as their only on-stage pageantry, still light-to-non-existent on the stage banter and crowd interaction – the most we get are singer-guitarists Fran Keaney and Tom Russo taking turns at different points to note that this is the first time the band have played Sheffield, whilst ‘An Air Conditioned Man’ has a brief breakdown and rebuild prior to its charging outro for a crowd clap-along.
And yet, at the same time, everything has changed. The band seems to have been in a perpetual state of touring since the release of Downs’ first single ‘Mainland’ and, especially following their status throughout this past summer as dependable festival mainstays, they’ve very much grown in that time into a muscular prime rock machine. Almost every song played tonight has seen its tempo raised to some degree in a manner that’s been precision-designed to launch tracks which balance on the borderline between “appreciative swaying” and “excitable pogoing” firmly into the latter category. Downs closer ‘The Hammer’ goes from a mid-tempo sing-a-long to a stormer with machine-gun snare rolls that punch right through proceedings, whilst already-rippers like ‘Time in Common’ bolt out of the gate like greyhounds on a race track.
You can already tell how this touring cycle has been influencing the band. Recent single ‘In the Capital’ sees its outro gets extended as lead guitarist Joe White solos the song into the night reminiscent of nothing less than The War on Drugs. Meanwhile, the currently unreleased newbie ‘Big Fence’ – introduced as “a song about garden fences” although, coming from the band who’ve written about gentrification, campus misogyny and Australia’s colonialist history, it’s pretty safe to assume the song’s not just about garden fences – drives along a relentless eighth-note bass line from Joe Russo and sees the bright blazing sunshine of the group’s work up to now dimming to a dusk prowl. It’s still recognisably an RBCF track, this being a band which has been refining and perfecting their specific sound to a level of instant recognisability, but demonstrates them finding new nuances in order to avoid going stale.
Nuance is also something that is surprisingly picked up when seeing RBCF live and perhaps the biggest reason why I would enthusiastically recommend fans of the band get to a live show. On record, these songs can be deceptively simple for a band with three singer-guitarists, the kind of songs where the technical proficiency and criss-cross playing never enters a casual listener’s mind because the songs just seem to work so perfectly that they appear more straightforward than they actually are. In concert, with all the band members directly in eyesight so you can see who is playing what part and when, that musicianship becomes immediately evident and unmistakeable. Obviously, there’s the discovery of how Tom Russo and Joe White’s shared lead guitars intersect with one another on tracks like ‘Bellarine’ (which on record has Tom’s part take the spotlight more), but it mainly does wonders for the vitality of the rhythm section. How Keaney’s acoustic guitar provides a vital pin for many a song, or how natural-sounding Tussie makes the uncommon time signatures in ‘Mainland’ and ‘Clean Slate,’ or how so much of each song’s pulsing momentum comes from Joe Russo’s surprisingly intricate bass-work.
In and out within just over 75 minutes, this was the definition of a no fuss no muss set. All hits, no filler. Every one of the set’s 17 songs torn through with a tight energetic precision endemic of a band which is in the midst of transitioning from a dependably excellent recorded act with a solid yet unremarkable live show into one of the all-round best rock acts on the planet today. Rolling Blackouts C.F. have found a new energy in their live sets in these past few months, going beyond merely replicating their recorded efforts and instead translating them to more ferocious live settings with designs grander than the venue they’ve played tonight. That’s a really exciting sign for wherever they’re headed in the future on record and it’s extremely encouraging to see them grow into a band whose live show is coming up to par with their irresistible music.
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever are currently touring the UK until 23rd July. You can get tickets and info on further live dates and updates at their website.