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Pop Devotional: Grimes and HANA live in London

11 March 2016, 16:38 | Written by Michael Lewin

Who actually goes to a Grimes show? Fans, or merely the curious and the hype-led?

Non-believers have always held that Claire Boucher’s art pop project is more style press cause celebre than something with the songs and power to move an audience, and the unequal balance of media coverage and sales figures (however irrelevant those seem) have kept this question alive. I hope a few of those doubters were at Brixton Academy to witness the cultish devotional that took place.

This year’s Latitude bill sees Grimes headline the second stage when The Maccabees headline the main one, which does suggest the world at large might not be as enamoured with Grimes’ vision of a retro super future than the bright-clad ivory tower brigade would have you believe. At Brixton Academy, however, just shy of 5,000 people gathered in a lo-fi hymnal rave to pledge devotion at Grimes alter, braying their love in regular shrill roars and screams that border on the hysterical. Grimes, they wanted to show, moves people more, and means more, than a hundred magazine covers could ever convey.

Of those 5,000 people, a significant proportion respond to the question ‘Who actually goes to a Grimes show?’ with the emphatic answer, ‘People who dress like Grimes’. Seriously, so many Grimeses! The audience a bleached and pastel-dyed rainbow of heads stretching to the stage. Grimeses in all shapes and sizes, a funhouse hall of mirrors with Grimes at its centre and everywhere, Grimes: tall Grimes, short Grimes, skinny Grimes, plus size Grimes, girl Grimes and boy Grimes and trans Grimes and more Grimeses. Much Grimes, all of them devoted to her battlecry of laughing and not being normal.

Grimes’ protégé HANA is the ideal priestess to conduct the crowd in warm-up rituals. Her music is more restrained, more wistful, and it floats over the sea of bleached heads, teasing the ears and hearts into readiness for what lies ahead. She’s a light presence on stage, moving delicately between decorative parasols arrayed around her. Debut cut "Clay" is a highlight, as is new single "Underwater". Her set is a woozy palliative, and proves a necessary calm before the storm.

The nature of Grimes' identity is to be a magpie - less digital native than digital gone native, her kleptomaniac approach to influence holds nothing as sacred. As if to remind you pre-show, trad string music fills the academy. Attention wanders, and you find yourself considering her staging - fulfilling her promise that she wouldn't go for a big stage show because of its environmental waste, a modest construction of camo netting raised behind her instruments is all it constitutes. Dwarfed by the ever-absurd mock-Venetian bridge of the Academy's proscenium, a mismatched pair of health goth dancers proceed her onto the stage. Given the militaristic camo netting, the feeling is one of post-apocalyptic rave - Rome's burned, and the willfully weird have inherited the earth.

Then, yes, there she is: a kinetic manga stick drawing all over the stage, legs kicking ganglingly. Dressed deliberately in just the wrong amount of clashing garish prints: last season’s electric blue Moschino FRESH print t-shirt and speaker-print leggings under leopard-print shorts, an oversized bright red bow in her hair. (Has anyone ever written about Grimes without describing her clothes? It seems impossible not to, her fits’ reliably deliberate carelessness so a piece with the project.) For so small a figure, her presence is huge, the fizzing energy that moves her sending off cartoon action lines; as unlikely but joyous to observe as she seems to feel on stage.

Frenetic and bass-heavy, the show bounds on with songs as relentless as Grimes’ presence. She’s behind the instruments, hitting a drum pad for a few bars, then off high-kicking and screaming around the stage. While the set is mostly Art Angels cuts, "Genesis" starts things off and establishes the evening’s predominant sound: that of a soup-y bass which synths, shearing guitars and wails struggle to the surface of. I think it answers Grimes’ critics that the glistening and joyful quality of her songwriting still shines through the tar-like bass - which reaches its uncomfortable zenith during "Realiti", causing my breastbone to throb and rattle unanatomically against my adam’s apple.

Throughout the set, I find myself saying aloud, “WHAT a song,” regularly and unprompted, deserved by the in-your-face brashy ebullience of Grimes’ songs at their best. "Flesh without Blood", "Venus Fly", "Scream" (sans Aristophanes, but with a pre-song dedication and curdling screams thoroughly intact), and "World Princess Pt 2" (played live for only the second time) all sounding absolutely fucking excellent. "Go", she introduces as “my most controversial song” before letting out an absolutely horrific scream. The song’s massive, Rihanna-intended chorus is very much suited to the soundsystem’s over-emphasised bass, Grimes throwing herself round to it like a possessed Willow Smith desperate to self-inflict whiplash.

With HANA supporting on vocals and the aforementioned health goths expertly wielding, at various points, Sai daggers (the ones that look like villainous forks) and twirling batons, the lo-fi staging is still spectacular in its own way; Grimes is a ceaseless blur between them all. With all that relentless moving I’m not 100% sure she could actually have played or sang much at all, but I really don’t think that matters and you shouldn’t either. Between songs her chat is what I would call ‘wonky naif-ish’: charming, chattering, lisping, always with a tone that seems to contain a hint of surprise that she is speaking at all, and slightly like she is on the verge of suddenly halting to allow herself to buffer.

There’s little evidence here of the noise artist Grimes emerged from. This is a pop show, to all intents and purposes, but also, it must be made very clear, this is her show - and that is why this crowd of cosplay Grimes and the more fashion conscious is here. Grimes has always made a virtue of her individuality, perhaps to the point of pastiche and certainly to the point of contentiousness, but it remains the honest foundation on which she builds an evermore brilliant project. A more conflicted, less self-certain artist, worried about retaining her credentials, might offer up a more self-consciously arty or difficult show. Grimes simply throws just over an hour’s worth of bangers in your face.

It’s generous, confident, powerful, fun and very Grimes. It’s what the audience want, and they respond in rapturous wails. I’ve rarely heard such genuine and unusual noises of passion come from an audience, and though her demeanour might not show it, Grimes surely feeds on it. This was more congregation than crowd.

Passion, in fact, is the overriding emotional impression left with me on leaving. The passion of those there for Grimes - a crowd of believers that seemed like more than just another fandom, but rather a group of worshippers who seem to feel a more primal connection to this self-professed odd ball and outsider.

And then, there is the passion of Grimes. From how she talks in interviews, she evidently pays an emotional price for what she does. It doesn’t come easily, and that’s because it matters. The show, the songs, the persona or project of Grimes, all comes from a place of passion and show what music can offer when someone cares enough to commit to an idea and see it through. It might not be for everyone, but this show is salvation for the crowd of screaming believers arrayed, and perhaps for Grimes herself.

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