Kawala put on a live show full of fun and excitement ahead of their debut album, Music Critic Frankie Rhodes reviews
I last saw Kawala in Birmingham two years ago, supporting Dodie, and I was struck by their colourful style and distinctive harmonies. This time, I was delighted to see Kawala headlining their very own show at the O2 Institute in Digbeth, emerging from the lockdown period with even more toe-tapping, happy hits – and now with a crowd of adoring fans.
The London-based duo, Daniel McCarthy and Jim Higson, have reached new heights since their performance in 2019, and now have a fantastic backing band joining them full-time. In my interview with the guys two years back, they described their style as ‘quite rhythmic, folky, with pop and indie elements.’ This sums up my experience of their sound pretty well, but it fails to take into account the sheer joy that they radiate on stage, welcoming everybody into the party.
Their support act, Master Peace, set the tone for a fun evening with a vocal style falling somewhere between Rex Orange County and the Wombats. In a twist on the indie pop genre, he used an on-stage DJ, affectionately termed ‘The Soundman,’ to provide a dynamic backing. His single ‘Red Wine’ was particularly distinctive, highlighting Master Peace as one to watch.
Kawala then greeted the audience with bright lights and funky shirts, launching immediately into the upbeat electric riff of their aptly named hit, ‘Funky.’ It was great to hear a song I had known for years being belted out by the audience, and the pair enhanced their stage presence with cheesy dance moves and camaraderie.
They then moved into ‘Angry Man,’ a more recent track with a light-hearted tone, despite the poignant lyrics. McCarthy covered the playful guitar backing, and the two came together for a fantastic heightened harmony towards the end. Greeting the crowd, Higson said that he was glad to back in Birmingham after two years away, before adding: ‘let’s be weird together.’ As if we needed an excuse!
Their next song, ‘Animals,’ took a more dramatic tone, but proved to be a hit with the audience, who expertly carried its repeating refrain, with its catchy line: ‘It’s just a metaphor’ reminding me of John Green. Next up was a moving slow number, ‘Heavy in the Morning,’ with a steady beat and frequent harmonies – a kind of Kawala-style ballad.
After joking that the audience could do with a little break from Kawala songs, (we didn’t think so,) they went on to deliver a cover so brilliant that I would not have known it wasn’t theirs. ‘1,000,000 x better,’ originally by Griff and HONNE, was given the Kawala treatment with an indie backing and generally lifted feel. I have to say, now that I have listened to the original, I think that Kawala’s was a million times better.
The track that followed was, in the band’s own words, ‘another sad one,’ and the pair apologised about lowering the tone again. They need not have done so; their slow tracks are clear indicators of their versatility and storytelling skills. This song was a particular gem: ‘Back of My Hand’ told the story of where the two grew up, in Kentish Town, acting as a beautiful reflective piece.
‘Moonlight’ returned us to quintessential Kawala, complimenting the song’s imagery with silver-blue lighting. You know you have created a catchy tune when the audience sing along, even to the guitar riffs. This was followed by an exclusive single from their debut album (which will be released in March), entitled ‘Jessie Come On.’ While I enjoyed the rocky vibe, I thought this new track lacked Kawala’s characteristic brightness – although it did show their ability to tackle new genres.
While Kawala had a generally dead time over lockdown (as we all did,) they explained to the crowd that they did have one ‘lockdown win’ – having their song ‘Ticket to Ride’ added to the Fifa soundtrack. The popularity of this track was evident: it was fun, quirky, and had a brilliant road-trip-style chorus.
Returning for a much demanded encore, Kawala performed their acoustic track ‘Mighty River.’ with McCarthy executing a brilliant finger-style guitar solo. Their crisp, perfectly aligned vocals made me almost wish the entire show had been acoustic. But then their final track – ‘Runaway’ – reminded me that they are at their best situated in the indie-pop genre.
If I had to summarise the concert, I would use the band’s own words to describe the evening: ‘weird and special.’ And that is not bad-weird, but wonderfully quirky, and completely joyful. I cannot wait to see what Kawala do next, and await their debut album with great excitement.
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