By BRUCE DENNILL
Phillip Phillips 8
The Script 6.5
The Dome / Johannesburg / 4 February
The Script returned to South Africa after a four-year break in which they went from radio-friendly pop lady-pleasers, to really successful radio-friendly pop lady-pleasers with a large fanbase of very dedicated fans.
In 2011, at the same venue, a good solid crowd enjoyed a polished performance featuring a number of hits already well-known enough that pin-up frontman Danny O’Donoghue could spend parts of the performance letting the audience do the singing. That was a phenomenon that seems to have made an impact on the singer, as he mentioned it before kicking off one off The Man Who Can’t Be Moved, from their debut album. He mentioned it again afterwards as he and guitarist Mark Sheehan thumped their hearts, underlining – Idols-style – their unconditional devotional to their audience (while on stage, at any rate).
Their set had a similar tone throughout, with young fans whooping and screaming during the opening chords of every song, and singing along enthusiastically with each line of the lyrics. Indeed, during If You Could See Me Now, the words were projected as part of the electronic backdrop, making the Dome a giant karaoke station for a few minutes.
For the super-fans – and there were plenty of them in attendance – this dense, we’re-all-in-it-together mood was probably heaven, but the intimacy shared by band and audience did not, ironically, show them off in the best light possible. Glen Power’s drums and high harmonies came through crisply and impressed, but for much of the rest of the set, the event felt more like a cosy love-in that a rock concert.
Earlier in the evening, the bar had been set high – perhaps unreachably so – by a very different sort of performance by Phillip Phillips.
Phillips is an Idols winner – season 11 of American Idols – so it would have been reasonable to suppose that he would be the one presenting the carefully choreographed show, with the not a hair out of place styling.
To be fair, anyone with a decent ear would have known that might not be the case, as though Phillips’ enjoying similar levels of chart success to his more established peers, his style speaks more of an allegiance to the ongoing roots revival and a debt to the sound and song structures of the Dave Matthews Band. Phillips even – perhaps unconsciously – recreates the little heel-toe shuffle Dave Matthews uses to groove around the stage.
What was probably not expected, however, based on the studio versions of Phillips’ songs at any rate, was the sheer, glorious power of the playing of the singer-songwriter and his band – drummer, bassist, organist (oh, yes), one-man horn section and fantastic guitarist Nate Mercereau, an unassuming Hozier lookalike.
Live, Phillips’s songs are stretched out, ripped apart, coloured in and infused with palpable passion – joy, even. This is a jam band, and a damn fine one – not some solo singer-songwriter coasting on a reputation built on reality TV notoriety. Multiple rhythms, sections where individuals get a chance to take the spotlight, foot-tapping, hip-swaying grooves and all as tight as a bowstring. The effect is fantastic, with those paying attention (as mentioned above, this was a crowd often slavishly dedicated to the headliners) alternately shaking their heads in disbelief – damn, how do they do that? – and surrendering themselves to the energy generated on stage, which generally manifested as goofy grins plastered on heads nodding appreciatively in time to the beat.
Only once did the dynamism waver, though the dip was covered by an equal and opposite reaction from the crowd. This was during Phillips’ biggest hit, Gone, the only song on which the band stuck to the album arrangement and the occasion of the loudest audience singalong of the set. It’s not an unusual phenomenon for acts to be noticeably less keen to play the songs demanded most of them, and if Phillips’ audience is going to continue to fill any gusto gaps themselves, he’s likely to continue treating what for him may be approaching a cliché as a chance to take a breather.