LIVE REVIEW: Declan McKenna, Eli Smart in Portland, ME (07.17.23)
The good vibes and high spirits were plentiful as Portlanders filled into State Theatre right at doors for a double dose of cool fun, with Eli Smart warming the stage for Declan McKenna.
Bringing his brightness and big spirit, Eli quickly won the hearts of the youthful and exuberant crowd with his catchy melodies and danceable groove. “’Cus this is just my kinda fun,” he crooned in set opener “No Destination,” his carefree, adventure-full lyrics inviting the audience to let loose.
By second song, the upbeat single, “Highschool Steady,” the crowd was in the mood to get down, dancing and clapping along, and cheering loudly for the guitar bridge. Eli’s right-hand man on backup vocals, Jordan Paul, had some killer dance moves throughout the entire set, but more-so in this one particularly, matching the song’s music video floating across the stage and elevating the atmosphere.
“My name’s Eli Smart, this is my beautiful band. We’re here for a good time. You can sing along with this one, it’s pretty easy,” he called, before the melodic and catchy, “Hope I Don’t Fall In Love.” Arms were waving overhead as everyone picked up on the words and cooed along. Little tempo changes and tricks had everyone captivated and in the moment.
After introducing his band, aforementioned harmonizer Jordan Paul, Hampster on drums, and his much beloved grandmother, Denise Kaufman on bass, Smart grabbed a lap steel guitar for the slow burner, “AM to PM.” Hazy melodies and warm falsetto smoothed over the air and left the crowd swaying.
“Y’all still chill?” He asked, as the band left him alone on stage with an acoustic guitar for “Midnight Blue.” A sea of cell phone lights popped up for the slow and pretty ballad. Reintroducing the band for last song, and older single, “Come On, Come On, Come On,” they built the energy back up into fun and fast guitar riffs that had them all bouncing around the stage and the audience doing the same.
A tight half hour set, they could’ve gotten away with longer and the new fans would’ve been alright with that. Definitely warmed up proper and full of anticipation, the crowd cheered every time Eli came on to clear his gear. Later on during intermission, his grandmother walked around the aisle to get to back of house, and was met with claps and cheers of admiration. An overall warm reception for everyone involved and a great fit for an opener.
With the atmosphere still buzzing, the house music faded out and ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” rang out and everyone knew it was time to get lost in sound. Declan McKenna and his band launched right into it with “Brazil,” the fast-impacting song that got him discovered eight years ago. There was an instant energy, with the floor bouncing under jumping feet. This energy barely subsided the whole performance, a man of few words, keeping it mostly about the music and catapulting into song after song. Balancing song shifts and swirling sounds, “The Key to Life on Earth” followed, before the vocal loop filled “Rapture” with its dark layers and levels of surging guitars, full of controlled chaos.
With hit after hit, he cried, “Are you ready for the night of your lives?” before the saccharine sweet “Beautiful Faces” kept the sing along rolling, with fans raising their arms and crying out, “Tonight I wanna be on Broadway and in cabaret.”
“You Better Believe!!!” brought the Ziggy Stardust feel, with ethereal rhythms building up until a slow piano ballad outro. The beautiful and meaningful “Paracetamol” continued the swirling, magical mystery, highlighting the lovely lyrics that show just how profound McKenna has been with his writing for his whole career. On that theme, “Listen to Your Friends” kept the rawness and realness, while he sang solo over a full symphonic melody.
His songs are very controlled, yet melodically interesting, turning on a dime to change tempos and styles effortlessly. “Humongous” demonstrated this starting with him solo on guitar before breaking out into a wall of noise with a massive clap along.
“Isombard” teased with a titillating toy piano tinkering and poppy guitars that never seemed to fade, keeping everyone bobbing with the ebb and flow. In contrast, the somber and sweet “Make Me Your Queen” had a pretty and twangy interlude that crooned despite its heartbroken gloominess.
“The Kids Don’t Wanna Come Home” could very well be the mantra for the night, as it had one of the biggest sing-alongs, every single word chanted back by the mostly teenage crowd. A perfect summer night carrying over from the warm sun glow.
“Eventually, Darling” brought the beautifully realistic feeling of losing a friendship or relationship, melancholic yet hopeful, featuring bright bursts of flute. While “Twice Your Size” lamented the effects of media encouraging people to bully and harass other cultures, and featured more acoustic guitar.
A man of quick and precise words, there were a few, “Thank you Portlands,” scattered throughout and the most he said all night, a promising, “This has been fun, we should do it again sometime. There are one or two songs left, but we might have a few more..” causing the crowd to instantly go wild for the safari like “Why Do You Feel So Down.”
Brand new single “Sympathy” saw the return of Eli Smart and Jordan to dance and play tambourine and bring the main set to a close with a party. McKenna jumped on keys halfway through to further show just how versatile and skilled a musician he is.
A brief interlude let the band off, before a swirling, almost casino game like atmosphere brought back McKenna and only a keyboard for a cover of George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass,” which looped and whizzed in an intergalactic jam session as one by one the band rejoined and McKenna jumped in the photo pit.
Last hurrah “British Bombs” was the perfect set closer. It is massive in sound and stature and full of absolute chaos that had everyone in motion, jumping breathlessly until the last note rang out. It was a culmination of madness and brilliance, that truly captured the wall of sound and dynamics the band is capable of, and the dedication the fans have for the young musician and his lyricism.