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Near-Total Immersion: Kelly Lee Owens, Live in London

23 October 2017, 18:31 | Written by Joseph Foley

It’s a miserable Thursday evening, and I’ve joined the queue snaking out through the smoking area and on to the damp pavement outside OSLO, Hackney. Braving last-ditch fags as they huddle against the drizzle, the people in this line are in dire need of an escape.

Mercifully, Kelly Lee Owens is on hand. As we file into the venue we’re greeted by a polite sign on the wall which advises us that a gong bath is in progress, and would we mind very much if noise in the room were kept to a minimum.

It’s a valiant attempt to establish the theme that’s going to dominate Owens’ set – total immersion. The healing energies are undercut slightly by the general clamour of a sold-out room, but the message is clear - we’re on her turf now.

She emerges from the wings with little fanfare, and the gong bleeds into tonight’s dreamy opener, “8”. A swirl of glitched drones and Cocteau-ish vocalising, it has a mollifying effect on the crowd, who begin a sort of communal undulation to the washed-out beat. This meditative mood carries on through “Keep Walking”, which allows her ethereal vocal to breathe in a frequency range all for its very own above a monolithic bass synth.

This set is all about the slow build, and “S.O.” kicks us off with the first real beat of the night. But it’s recent single “Lucid” that sees Owens really come to life, flitting between twin banks of sample pads and demanding the room’s attention. It’s more than happy to oblige, and by the time a dirtied up mid-set cover of Aaliyah’s “More Than a Woman” rolls around, the crowd are sweatily, ecstatically onside.

But despite all that, I didn’t leave completely satisfied. On the train home, trying to work out why, I realised it was an issue with the format rather than the content. Because the way Owens put her material together here felt like a well-planned journey, and the setting – a weeknight gig with breaks for applause between songs – felt a little like being pulled over repeatedly by some officious traffic cop. Even the closer, a pounding rework of Jenny Hval’s “Kingsize”, fell short of the total release that had been set up by the shamanistic display that preceded it.

This is music in which to lose yourself, and it doesn’t quite work when that’s not entirely possible. I want to see Kelly Lee Owens at midnight or later, out of my head in a field with a lie-in on the cards for the morning. She’s the kind of performer that gives everything and asks for everything back in return – and I couldn’t do it at Oslo. That said, if she’s playing near you, you won’t regret buying a ticket. Just keep tomorrow free.

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