The Broken Family Band, hailing from Cambridge (and bits of Foxton and London), are the city’s most successful band of recent years. They’ve been receiving all sorts of plaudits and not just from local press. NME, Rocksound, The Independent, The Guardian (I could go on) all talk highly of their music with Pitchfork claiming them “a triumph of urban wit over rustic convention”. So we’re expecting big things then.
Well, from way back here in the Corn Exchange’s curious V.I.P. area, below the upper balcony, it’s hard to get into such an unenthusiastic band. Those that are here for their brand of shoegaze/alt-country melancholy seem thin on the ground judging from the crowd reaction. Steven Adams, the lead singer, looks like Dec (of Ant + Dec) would look like after a hefty drinking session. He’s sporting a baggy checked shirt and it matches his tired banter with the crowd. “We don’t usually enjoy playing in Cambridge but you’ve been great”, he drones miserably. He follows that up with a resigned “Athlete are nearly on”. To be fair the band barely has time to get the crowd going but they have a go and ‘Don’t Change Your Mind’ and ‘It’s All Over’ are well-received.
From the moment the charisma of Athlete’s Joel Pott hits the stage everything changes. As he sings the first bars of opener ‘Tokyo’, from latest album ‘Beyond The Neighbourhood’, the crowd comes to life. His hard-edged, lilting yet urgent vocal is crystal-clear over the music. It’s pretty unusual to be able to catch every single syllable but that’s what both he and his sound-crew have managed to pull off. Every… single… syllable. ‘Westside’ is a joy with Pott standing alone in the spotlight, all eyes glued to him, as he slowly leads up to where the band provide the back-boost and the crowd join in with that damnable catchy chorus - “Wherever you look you can see that everybody wants to be part of the rock scene”. It’s the leaps in pitch delivery and subtle timing of the words that is so compelling - some are drawn out, others rapid-fire. The band have always managed to produced these perfect pop hits, brimming with clever lyrics and bounding, upbeat melodies, but not always received the acclaim (or airplay) each one deserves. Structured to appear impossibly difficult to perform they are just layer after layer of simplicity and are fiendishly clever.
Athlete have completely hooked the crowd by now and they begin impromptu clapping which the band encourages until it bullets them into hit single ‘Hurricane’ and searchlights swing over the masses searching out the loudest voice. Immediately mobile phones are held aloft, shining out in the darkness, each capturing their own personal memories. Behind the boys on stage four banded strips of neon light change hue and create shapes to each song whilst swathes of beams provide a backwash of colours – it’s quite a lightshow. There’s a brief respite in the songs and a face in the pit shouts out for his favourite song. “24 hours!” he yells. “We’re not playing for that long” retorts Pott with a wry smile. Then he’s suddenly serious informing us of the presence of St. John’s Ambulance and Security and promises that no-one will get hurt. We wonder where he’s going with this before he implores “So, we’ll be very disappointed if there aren’t a few people on shoulders for this next song”. The band strike up ‘Beautiful’ and a bunch of heads obligingly pop up above the crowd.
Throughout the set there are numerous guitar switches from electric to semi-acoustic and back again with a roadie scuttling on and off stage - he’s being kept busy tonight. Steven Roberts’ drums are thundering away under the quieter tracks whilst Tim Wanstall concerns himself with tinkling the ivories as well as flicking switches and turning knobs to create those “organic beats” of his. Bassist Carey Willets spends most of the gig completely absorbed in the music, swinging his head to and fro.
‘Wires’ inspires an impromptu singalong which the crowd take up and repeat back three times – all this without the band making a gesture or uttering a line and without backing. It’s quite a moment and Pott sounds honestly chuffed with the reaction. “Thank you. That’s the first time that’s happened”. ‘You Got The Style’ prompts a round of waving down the front which he returns with a warm smile. It’s tough to find anything wrong when a band is so on form and tight as this. He’s almost apologetic when revealing that they need to leave the stage before the encore - “We need to take a piss”. Such is the response that he retorts “What’s happening? I thought Cambridge was such a reserved town!” They bustle through ‘24 Hours’ take their bows and the fully-engaged crowd enthusiastically chant for more of their blustering piano-driven guitar pop-rock. They return with ‘Shake Those Windows’ and ‘Flying Over Bus Stops’ and as we all decamp to the bar or homewards we discuss nothing but just how heavily under-rated and completely unstoppable Athlete truly are.
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