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Live: How To Dress Well

Tayyab Amin recounts a personal, ethereal tour-de-force by the captivating Tom Krell. Author: on May 18, 2013
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It could be pure, distilled emotion. It may be unconditional love. It’s there, whatever it is. As Tom Krell speaks to us for the first time, I feel the same presence I’d felt just once before – when I’d seen Stevie Wonder. His first action is to request a standing ovation for one of the best acts he’d been supported by, ethereal Mancunian duo G R E A T W A V E S. Their seamless set went without words between songs, though nothing needed to be said as they impressed Whitworth Art Gallery with a sound riding a groove between Beach House and The xx. We didn’t all leave our seats to clap when they’d been given a name, and I regret that now.

An art gallery seemed a fitting place to experience live music. The open space was creatively inviting, white walls waiting to be painted as we felt the sun set through large, slightly tinted windows. I realised I’d made the mistake of sitting slightly too front-and-left during G R E A T W A V E S’ set, hearing way too much of the nearer speaker; thankfully, the sound was really clear and crisp, complementing the act we were here to see. After introducing his friend and himself as How To Dress Well, Krell comments on the weirdness of seated gigs, “It’s like we’re all adults or something. Good show. Clap clap.”

Most of the music came from How To Dress Well’s most recent album, Total Loss. Heavy hitters Cold Nites and Running Back come sooner than later, as does the cheer-inducing, stomping jack of my personal favourite, & It Was U. Some cuts from Love Remains make it too, such as Suicide Dream 2. I can’t make out the gear Krell’s friend is using – it seemed to vary between looping and drum machines, and it wasn’t uncommon to see him accompany the sultry vocals and clean percussion with a violin, adding untouchable texture to the music. Krell speaks occasionally between songs, describing “Talking To You” as a, “duet with myself, about wanting a career and wanting to be free, about being with the one you love and wanting to have sex with everyone, about that confusion.”

I thought Krell had been singing duets the entire time – blinded by the projector directly facing him, he sways and croons with his shadow, combining and drifting between the two stage microphones. It’s through this unconventional, curious manner of using mics he adds the vocal depth that his records are so rich in. Krell knows that while being able to use things well is good, knowing when can be invaluable, at one point suddenly parting both mics and singing to us face-to-face. Unexpectedly leading us through a range of moods, he asks the sound engineer to tweak things up, warning us that the new song he is about to perform is particularly stressful. Visuals only add to the unease here as we watch a weary, white-collared man paint his face green and his mouth and eyes red, and then in reverse. The set ends with the unabashed passion of Set It Right, the rapturous beat brought to a climax when Krell slams both microphones together, hitting us with a wall of sound as the person in the visuals plunges into an ocean.

Krell maintains it was his friends and tour manager who had convinced him to return with an encore, asking us to direct our applause to them and for the support act once again. He takes a moment to prepare himself under the dim glow of the hall’s lights, recalling the words to a new song, Blue. He then prepares us, “I was performing this song in Leeds and this lady says to me – she had a really Northern accent and I couldn’t understand anything she said – she said you can’t sing that about your brother! So I just want to say I don’t really want to kill my brother. It’s just… complicated. It’s complicated.” Even that couldn’t prepare us. He moves both mics behind him and fervidly belts out the song a cappella, mourning lost potential in his fraternal relationship.

I’ve never before seen an artist so open, so vulnerable and so striking – even taking a picture during his performance felt abusive. Total Loss was a record written largely in memory of a close friend he once lost, and Krell confronts his grief head on. Thrilling and tragic, the live show sounds even better than the studio version, and every emotional aspect is amplified too; it will snatch your breath from you and send thunderous shivers through your heart. If Krell has been giving such an impassioned, soulful performance every night of this marathon four-month world tour, all credit to him – he’s refusing to be defined by his circumstances, willfully taking control of the reigns of his own life once more.

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