When Young Fathers perform live, the trio’s silhouettes are cast upon a dirty canvas backdrop that makes them seem larger than life. The same idea can be applied to the music of the Edinburgh trio, who have made unexpected anthems out of leftfield ingredients across four albums that now fill theatres and have won them the Mercury Prize.
The band – Graham Hastings, Alloysious Massaquoi and Kayus Bankole – all have different idiosyncrasies, and these are accentuated when they perform live. When Hastings isn’t delivering brilliantly gruff rhymes at their Hammersmith Apollo show, he’s got his back to the audience fiddling with electronics and whipping up a discordant storm. Massaquoi is the singer of the band and possesses a sweet and soaring voice, but is otherwise thrashing away at a drum kit when his melodic choruses aren’t needed. Stood between them, Bankole is the band’s chief entertainer, boogying ecstatically throughout and delivering the most furious raps of the set. If you were putting together a pop band in a laboratory, you probably wouldn’t choose a blend like this, but it’s exactly this atypical nature that makes them so thrilling.
The musicians that join them on stage also bend the rules of convention. A stand-up drummer thrashes away like he’s leading a war chant, while melody comes from an exceptional keys and guitar player. They’re also joined by singers Amber Joy and Kim Mandindo, who are ostensibly backing vocalists, but feel integral to the show’s energy rather than purely providing embellishment. Some of the show’s best moments come when they take the lead on a handful of the slower and more delicate numbers.
Like few other bands out there, Young Fathers believe that intensity and melody can exist side-by-side. Recent single ‘I Saw’ is a pummelling barrage of sludgy riffs, but its sweetly sung chorus then redresses the balance. It’s the same on closing track ‘Toy’, which explodes into a frenzied blast of noise but retains enough pop edge to be danceable as well as gut-trembling. “Are you with us?” Hastings asks the crowd between these two songs, but the fact that the line is delivered half-way through a rapturous five-minute standing ovation means he surely knows it’s rhetorical.
Before ‘Toy’ closes the show, he then leads the crowd through chants of ‘fuck the Tories’ and ‘free Palestine’, making it clear exactly who they’re against. All five thousand inside the Apollo, though, are firmly in the hands of Young Fathers, a band remarkable in their ability to unite people despite their inherent strangeness.