Set up for a gig, Madame JoJo’s has the feel of a rehearsal space, all wires and echo, rough and ready. Graham Van Pelt sets up before us, staggering about with drums and plugging this lead into that hole, as if he’s just here for some fancy busking. The atmosphere fits – he’s drawn an interested crowd, not a devoted one – although there are pockets of people clearly in tune with his Beach Boys electro, rocking on their toes for the next big hook. He has plenty of those.
Not a regular visitor to these shores, Van Pelt, Miracle Fortress in one man, has a sturdy reputation in his native Canada where his full debut Five Roses was nominated for the Polaris Prize – a Mercury near-equivalent – in 2007. It was an album that bowled over anyone who came near, but by and large everyone was on the other side of the street. This year the follow-up Was I The Wave? has crept out, a full release slipping and slipping, but it’s the kind of fluid, considered pop album that could find the wider audience its predecessor missed. Five Roses was rigidly in hock to Brian Wilson, its beautiful harmonies and sticky melodies an absolute dream from start to finish; Was I The Wave? is less giving but the tunes are still there and heavier emphasis on electronics and fatter beats brings Miracle Fortress a little closer to the present.
So he’s not playing to swarms, not yet. On stage the personnel is minimal, just Van Pelt, his guitar, synths and a box of tricks. And a drum kit that sits unloved for the first couple of songs before Van Pelt is finally joined by a pal for the second half of Beach Baby and the jerky new wave of Tracers. Things have been sparse to this point, Maybe Lately and – to begin with – Beach Baby handled semi-acoustically, but the broadening into a fuller sound matches Van Pelt’s progress. By the time we get to new single and album standout Miscalculations, there’s pummeling bass, splashy drums and a full-throttle laser show. Motoring.
Chat’s a bit thin on the ground beyond an “It’s great to be here – you guys are very sweet,” but he at least realises everyone’s on-side. It’s hard not to be when the songs are strong, the playing’s tight and Van Pelt makes the best of his effects to soar forth like a one-man choir. The portents are good too – one “brand brand new number” finds uncharted middle ground between Stone Roses/House Of Love jangle and jarring Van Halen stadium synth. If you can make that ugly stew tasty you’re onto something, and Van Pelt does. Whatever the future, delicate encore Last Train sends us softly into the night, soothed but expectant.