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Benjamin Francis Leftwich + Monument Valley + Daughter – O2 Academy Oxford, 18/10/11

24 October 2011, 19:58 | Written by Andy Johnson

The posters and flyers for tonight’s show at Oxford’s O2 Academy bore the proud announcement that the event had been “upgraded due to demand”. While one might have hoped that the moving of the gig into the far larger downstairs area was due to increased attention earned by support act Daughter in recent weeks, this idea does not last long. Instead, the venue is packed with fans of our profoundly lacklustre headliner who show a shocking level of disrespect towards his far superior support. Before our eyes, what began as a source of real excitement is “upgraded” into a showcase for much of what can go wrong in a live context.

Bad omens stalk the room right from the beginning. Ned Younger of Monument Valley is far from inspirational, but then first support rarely is; in any case, this solo appearance by the London singer-songwriter deprives him of the broader instrumentation he has enjoyed of late. No, what is worrying is how few of the crowd are listening. While hundreds are here already and Younger is in full flow, a majority of people are chattering loudly in small distracted groups while staff try to keep still more from sitting on the bars. It is hard to say if Younger realises how weakly his electric guitar and voice penetrate the din.

If Monument Valley’s set proves frustrating, however, what follows is almost the very definition of the crowd-ruined set. Apparently Elena Tonra of Daughter has had to take holiday from her job in order to tour with Benjamin Francis Leftwich; that she has had the opportunity at all is testament to the strength of her vulnerable and damaged but powerful songs. Like Monument Valley, she plays in a reduced format joined only by her electric guitarist and partner Igor Haefeli. This in itself would make it a challenge to match the drama of her superb forthcoming EP The Wild Youth, but take into account the still appallingly rude audience and the task becomes impossible. The little we can hear of the fantastic ‘Youth’ is barely a scrap of what Tonra and Haefeli could achieve given a more intimate venue and an even minimally respectful crowd. What we are left with is simply the travesty of a set destroyed.

When the crowd that we are lumbered with switch abruptly to rapt attention on the arrival of Benjamin Francis Leftwich, it is a baffling reversal which is more evidence of their lack of taste than it is a signal of his quality. The York singer appears with his acoustic in hand but with no backup whatsoever – this, he explains, is because he prefers to play by himself. It’s a foolish choice which leaves him unshielded by the professionalism of the musicians who joined him on his debut album and which exposes the almost laughably rudimentary nature of his guitar abilities. Utterly pedestrian in every respect, his strumming lumbers from chord to chord like a jump-suited inmate on his way to the chair.

While all this is painful enough in itself, what makes Leftwich and his fans so difficult to fathom is the fundamental mediocrity of his songs. All of the same unbearably middling tempo, each is a sequence of lyrical and musical phrases which feature scarcely a single moment of invention or inspiration and never resolve into any form of coherent logic. In ‘Pictures’, to choose just one, we find a song which marries a barely adequate instrumental with lyrics empty of emotion and sense. This is vacant, mawkish, shallow music but tonight its author seems actively to believe that it is the work of a genius.

That such amateurish efforts have spawned a headline tour in an era when so many genuinely impressive comparable artists are so readily accessible is frankly bewildering. What is worse, tonight’s show suggests that whatever forces are pushing Leftwich are also contributing to a culture which leaves those artists literally unheard. With any luck, Leftwich and his followers will again be “upgraded” to some stage where they can do no more harm.

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