REVIEW: Deaf Havana (Portsmouth Pyramids Centre – 16/03/2019)

Deaf Havana released Rituals, their fifth full-length record in August 2018. A sonic shift departing from their heavier roots punctuated by signature riffs towards synth-driven pop. Vocalist, James Veck-Gilodi feared this would alienate some of the existing fan base. Based on the crowd’s reaction at the Pyramids Centre in Portsmouth, James had nothing to fear.

It was understandable to feel that this tour was almost belated as Deaf Havana had a limited public profile in the UK throughout 2018 to support the release of Rituals. The anticipation and expectation approaching this tour was palpable with the last headline tour from Deaf Havana in November 2017, supporting their fourth full-length release ‘All These Countless Nights’. However, tonight’s performance was bold and fearless reminding the crowd that they were never a moment too late.

Braving the wind and rain on Southsea Seafront for Deaf Havana’s second night of their headline tour, we arrived barrier-ready to see the support acts. Hot Milk, an emo power-pop duel-fronted band from Manchester and Glasgow based The LaFontaines. Han, one half of the duel-fronted, Hot Milk and Kerr Okan, frontman from The LaFontaines both had stage presences you couldn’t help but fall in love with. They were cheeky and confident but never to the point of arrogance. They offered crowd participation in droves with both acts encouraging the audience to put their hands up in the air, both standing tall on the barrier and the lead singer of the LaFontaines entering and circling the crowd at one point. A personal highlight was from the charismatic lead singer of The LaFontaines who had a sharp wit quipping that they were “playing one of the seven wonders of the world, I didn’t know Portsmouth had the pyramids.” Both acts left an impression on me that I won’t forget in a hurry. I am excited to see what paths they take as it felt like watching rockstars in the making.

Next, it was time for the main act. The ominous pink neon cross which has become a signature part of the Rituals era lit up and Deaf Havana took to the stage. The crowd was launched into an 18 song setlist starting with fan favourites such as ‘Fever’, ‘Mildred’, and ‘Worship’, the stage saturated in purple, red and blue lighting that will soon become synonymous with the Rituals era. From the off, there was an eclectic mix of songs, old and new, from their juggernaut catalogue. Whether you had most recently heard Rituals or were a fan since their second full-length release, ‘Fools and Worthless Liars’, there was something for everyone.

The benefit of being brother’s in the band were that James and Matt Veck-Gilodi (on lead guitar) stage dynamics were as present as ever, often naturally bouncing off each other. Almost immediately, they both put the crowd at ease with their familiar back and forth stage banter. Matt reminding James the day of the week as they have just spent a month prior touring the album in Europe. As ever, Matt never faltered with his unparalleled stage presence. From shredding his guitar during ‘Leeches’, building the song to an incredible high before it came to a close to his distinctive command of the stage with what can only be described as wriggling leg dancing during ‘Cassiopeia’. Oftentimes, Matt was caught in an animated hypnotic trance as he locked onto people in the crowd with his arresting eye contact throughout the night which helped support the intimacy of the evening.

The band approached midway through the set and with acoustic guitar in hand, it was time to slow things down and perform ‘Happiness’ and ‘Hunstanton Pier’. During ‘Happiness’, front and centre, a couple got engaged (as you do) a sweet moment that again instilled the realisation the impact their music can have, to build better and stronger bonds. ‘Hunstanton Pier’, lyrically and melodically dripping in equal parts nostalgia and emotion, a reminder of another place, another time, the crowd needed no introduction to sing-along to the chorus. It was instinctual, a tribute to the infectious choruses that Deaf Havana are well known for. This could easily have been mistaken as the encore, not their ninth song in an eighteen song set. Matt’s beaming smile towards the crowd during this moment was a testament to the gratitude the band has towards the continued support from their fans. This is Deaf Havana truly at the top of their game.

The transition to a more synth-driven sound meant that during the second half of the set, for the first time during songs such as ‘Holy’, ‘Hell’, ‘Cr33pin’ (a warm welcome to hear a b-side from the deluxe release of Rituals) and the encore ‘Sinner’ sees James released from his grip behind the guitar. This gave way to the the freedom of moving freely around the stage. Rituals, an album about redemption translated seamlessly to the stage. This brought a new energy, one that was energetic, dynamic and fluid moving between guitar when necessary to fist pumping in ‘Hell’ and ‘Sinner’ in time with the beat to bouncing and side-stepping to and from each side of the stage. It was clear that the struggles James has previously experienced with being a frontman of the band were a thing of the past. James had a redeemed passion of playing live and feeling at home being the frontman.

As the set came to a close, James did not want the audience to leave without showcasing his insane powerhouse vocal once more. Cutting through the crowd with a melisma and ad-lib during ‘Boston Square’ “but I guess I was wrong, all I am is wrong these days, that’s all I am.” The vocals were raw and they were impassioned, an echo of a past that is gritty which helped the relatability of telling a story of great loss. I couldn’t help but be held captive in that moment. As the set came to a close, after a short stage-left exit with the allusion that the show was over, Deaf Havana came back for the encore. It seemed appropriate it was the lead single ‘Sinner’ from Rituals. Many times throughout the set, James stepped away from the microphone as often the crowd would overpower Deaf Havana in singing along to every word. James encouraged the audience one final time for the crowd to sing along. This culminated in a gospel-like singalong which encapsulates the theme of the album and perfectly bookended the show.

James saying thank you and goodnight

As Kerr Okan of The LaFontaines quipped earlier in the evening about performing at the Pyramids, “once you’ve seen it once, it’s a bit shite.” Instantaneously, I was transported back to the first time I saw Deaf Havana live under the Pyramid of the same venue seven years ago. Whilst times change, friends leave and time doesn’t stop for anybody, returning tonight, all those years later, served as an epiphany as well as a reminder of why I keep coming back to Deaf Havana. With thanks to James conversing with the crowd like you were familiar friends created an atmosphere that never wavered from feeling intimate; infectious choruses that pervade lyrics of personal struggle, self-doubt, guilt and regret which tonight sang in unison with the band served as a reminder that we’re all in the same hell, albeit with different demons. Even through various line up changes, their continued artistic evolution and resultant hardships the band has experienced at the hands of the music industry since then, an atmosphere Deaf Havana’s music has undoubtedly created is one of community. Community that is restorative, honest, authentic and one with the power to heal. Tonight, Deaf Havana proved that not only have they emerged triumphant but so have I.

It’s Deaf Havana’s ritual and we’re just so lucky enough to be living in it.

Deaf Havana are on tour for the remainder of March 2019, click on the poster below for tickets.

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