Dan Mangan's return to Brighton on Wednesday night was almost three years to the day since he last set foot on a stage in the town. In fact, last time I saw the Canadian musician, he was standing on a stool in the middle of a crowd at The Hope performing an impassioned encore just hours before his birthday. This time round, just hours after the celebrations of his 32nd birthday and a last minute venue change, he performed to a small but enthusiastic crowd at Bleach. Fourth album 'Club Meds', which was released earlier this year, is a rather sombre affair and I must admit a little trepidation before arriving at the venue. Mangan's previous appearance in Brighton had been such an uplifting evening, that I was worried the new material would darken the mood of the performance. I needn't have worried though.
If the Juno winning songwriter can do one thing, it's to connect with an audience. This is especially true in a town he's played in many times over the years, indeed at one point he referenced his early solo years, playing in Brighton coffee shops with just an acoustic guitar. All five band members barely fitted on the small stage, but you'd be forgiven for thinking it was a much larger room with the sheer amount of noise they produced. An early outing for 'Offred' and 'Vessel' demonstrated the power of Mangan's recent material, which seemed to translate to a live setting well. These versions are perhaps preferable to the studio incarnations, solely for the fact that you see his band pushing the boundaries of what they're capable of.
However it's the songs from 'Club Meds' which also seemed to test the attention span of the audience the most. One particular sample heavy extended instrumental introduction led to an outbreak of conversation in parts of the room, which seemed to disrupt the flow of the show. For the most part, though, it was these songs that saw the assembled musicians crack the biggest smiles as they jammed out impressive instrumental set pieces. 'Club Meds' is the first time that Mangan has formalised his band under the moniker Blacksmith and this show almost underlined that as each musician was given a chance to shine. For example, bassist John Walsh was placed prominently front and centre on stage. Kenton Loewen was the first to take the spotlight with his stunning two-minute drum solo which slowly built into the opening bars of an exhilarating one-two punch of 'Post-War Blues' and 'Road Regrets' mid set. Gordon Grdina's guitar solo during 'Rows Of Houses' was also a real stand-out moment.
If there's one person, aside from Mangan himself, that sets the whole band apart from many of their contemporaries, it's trumpeter JP Carter. His subtle, but consistent performance underlined specific lyrics and punctuated many of the songs with a precision that works even more effectively in a live setting. It's an example of how brass instruments can be an important addition to a band as adventurous as this. Mangan himself, was as affable and chatty as ever. While he didn't mount a stool again for the encore, he did perform an intimate solo version of 'Basket' before launching into a mass sing-along of 'Sold' with the whole band.
If there's an overriding feeling you have as the band leaves the stage, it's that you're lucky. Lucky to have seen them on such a small stage, lucky that Mangan himself still bids farewell to fans at the back of the room, and lucky that there are bands as talented as this playing in small independent venues in the UK. While it was clear that there's a small amount of tweaking to the newer songs to captivate and hold the attention of the audience in some of those quieter, more contemplative moments, there's very little else that could be improved on with this performance. Judging by the size of the venue and crowd though, it seems that Mangan is still Canada's best kept secret in the UK, not that I'm complaining when I get to see him in front of crowds in the hundreds rather than thousands.
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