Ed Harcourt: Capstone Theatre, Liverpool

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Ed Harcourt (Credit – Artist’s Facebook)

Ed Harcourt was at the Capstone Theatre to play his album, Beyond the End, and Getintothis’ Will Truby is left feeling somewhat confused.

Playing an album in its entirety is a daring game – if it’s your most recent release, you run the risk of alienating long-time fans.

We’re all for elevating pop music to the high art expectation of classical; presenting a pop album as though it were an opus that can only be heard in its entirety is certainly a refreshing perspective. However, it has to be executed right.

Your entire set can flatline within three songs, if they’re too similar. That isn’t to say it’s an impossibility; Muse played Origin Of Symmetry in its entirety at Reading and Leeds in 2011, and to this day that remains one of the best shows they’ve ever played. However, the success of the exercise relies on two factors; one, that the album is good enough, with enough catchy parts to maintain interest throughout; and two, that you provide an experience outside of just listening to the album at home, there needs to be something extra live.

This show at the Capstone Theatre is a frankly confusing misstep from Ed Harcourt, who has been a moderately successful musician for two decades now, with a decent back catalogue.

It’s understandable that he’d try and mix things up in support of his tenth album, the instrumental Beyond The End, which is definitely a departure for him. However, the whole show comes across as quite novice, with no support act, an under rehearsed and ill thought out live band, and ineffective visuals.

Ed is accompanied by three musicians, playing violin, cello and keyboards. The stage setup features a Celesta, an instrument you very rarely see live. It’s completely wasted here however, with Ed choosing for it to feature only in two songs, and then only quietly. There’s also a Minimoog synthesiser that is played for a total of thirty seconds.

Every arrangement seems to have been put together very last minute – the string players just sit there in silence for half the time, and when they do play they play incredibly simplistic parts that add little to the music.

The most perplexing moment comes at the beginning of Keep Us Safe, which he introduces by playing a looping guitar drone. He then slams on a messy distortion, which sounds completely out of place. Ed then gets up, sits down at the piano and starts playing, while one of the violinists moves to turn down the drone manually on the pedal.

It comes across as quite messy and under rehearsed – you wonder why he didn’t just use a sample, or find a piece of gear to gradually ramp the distortion up and then the volume down.

This isn’t to say that Ed is a bad musician – far from it, many songs feature difficult flourishes on the piano, beautiful and haunting melodies, and in certain places quite evocative textures. However, there are too many timing issues, too little variation, for the execution to come off.

It’s impossible not to find ourselves comparing the show to Public Service Broadcasting, an instrumental band who rely heavily on visuals at live shows. PSB use clever cuts of old footage relating to their music’s concepts i.e. space travel for Race For Space, footage from the Welsh mining strikes for Every Valley, which are dynamic and fun to watch.

Ed seems to have put together random clippings crudely edited together in a couple of hours, to which we gave up paying attention to after four songs. The opening song and track of the album, Diving Bell, uses a swirling technicolour cosmos as its visual backdrop, just like your old computer’s screensaver, which doesn’t really add anything. Ed’s issue here is there is no particular theme to the album; and with no words and no theme, it’s hard to know what the song is about.

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After an interval, he returns to the stage to play a number of songs from his back catalogue, mostly solo but occasionally accompanied by his string players. The only real standout song here is single Hey Little Bruiser, which is by far his best song. It’s played pretty close to the recorded version, which actually works for him here. It sits in the middle a set of otherwise quite boring and somewhat sloppy songs. Most of the songs seem to have lost their joy by cutting out a full band, reduced simply to solo electric guitar or piano.

Beyond The End is a good album, it’s pretty atmospheric and calming, and there’s enough going on behind the piano to maintain interest. It just doesn’t come across especially well live, and Ed hasn’t done enough with it to warrant a live performance.

Live shows are supposed to be an experience beyond just listening to the album at home, there needs to be an appeal for seeing them come to life onstage, seeing and hearing the work musicians do to bring them into existence. Ed Harcourt’s show at The Capstone Theatre was quite the opposite; lifeless, flat, and just uninteresting.

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