Mari Dangerfield / Fhur / Kingston University Stylophone Orchestra
Friday 10th February 2023 @ 229, London W1
Tonight’s gig is an album launch for Dimple Discs signing Mari Dangerfield; an artist who will be familiar to a great many Fresh On The Net readers and is a regular in my Trust The Doc blog. It is just over a year since Mari played the first of three gigs I either promoted or co-promoted in 2022 and it has been exciting watching her grow. But before I get into that, there are two other acts on the bill tonight.
The simple sight of the name Kingston University Stylophone Orchestra instantly screams this is a band I have to see and hear. They do not disappoint. Impressively clad in an array of sparkling silver and black cloaks and outfits, they squeeze themselves onto the stage at 229 along with a sound engineer’s nightmare of leads, mixers and gadgets. I never get the chance to ask the sound engineer precisely how you mic up multiple stylophones along with what appears to be violin, electronic drum pads and vocal mics.
As you can probably imagine, the sound is like nothing you would ever usually experience. Even when there are bum notes and other minor mistakes, it just seems to add to their charm. Having played in a different kind of slightly crazy band for many years in the past, I can relate to their endearing wonkiness. But I can equally relate to their commitment to well-rehearsed musicality and the refreshing uniqueness they bring to a string of carefully curated covers that include the Doctor Who Theme; Are Friends Electric?; We Are The Robots and a closing rendition of Space Oddity that is a perfect finale. Make no mistake. These lasses and lads have serious stylophone skills and their conductor is the glue; her calmness and cheery persona making her the ideal leader. The time flies by and we are left feeling like we could happily have listened to a lot more. Mari is a former member of the band (which figures since the stylophone is such a key element in her music). She could not have made a better choice of opening act.
Next to grace the 229 stage is London-based artist Fhur. Earlier, at the soundcheck, I am reminded that I reviewed her single Yearn in Trust The Doc in May 2022. On that occasion I used the term ‘deliciously dark and disarming’. If tonight is anything to go by, that is one of her calling cards. From the outset, she creates a delightfully daunting atmosphere. Sometimes the rumbling low register synth tones and buzzing chords are reassuringly rich and overpowering. At other times, the paranoid staccato notes and swirling synth snarl can be ghostly and disconcerting but always in a positive way. References are hard to pinpoint but there are echoes, at different points, of Chvrches, Lorde, Grimes and even a dash of Hannah Peel.
Fhur’s vocals are strong and distinct and she explains the basis of her lyrics which can be heartfelt and full of desire one moment, vengeful and sarcastic the next. Her multi-tracked harmonies are stunning at times and the dynamic contrasts, mood swings and shifts in tempi all add to the overall experience. She persuades us to sing along with the hard-edged Kingbut she also saves the best for last. Just Wanna Have Some Fun is epic both in structure and feel with a great chorus and some goose-bumping synth figures. Surely a single in the making if it isn’t already one. It has been a thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable set.
This may be the fourth time I have seen Mari Dangerfield play live in 13 months but it is the first time I have seen her curate and compere her own gig and then have the time and space to play an extended set lasting over an hour in total. In that time, Mari communicates the inspirations behind her lyrics with exuberance, mixes up the album tracks with new ones and divides the set into distinct segments. It is a clever approach and one that speaks to the confidence she has in her ability to deliver. She is surrounded by keyboards and gadgets and, of course, has her trademark stylophone that she loudly plays key melodic figures on in so many of her songs.
She kicks off with Webcam and the former single Screentime, quickly establishing the sound of the album Love And Other Machines with crisp beats, layers of synth, multi-tracked harmonies in Mari’s instantly recognisable voice and the stylophone with iits bendy tones and buzzy vibrato as a lead instrument. It is always hard to pinpoint influences. I hear so many moments of familiarity in her music but then struggle to identify their sources. Maybe strands of Kate Bush, David Bowie, St Vincent, Julia Holter… At one point, when she performs Coping Mechanism to be precise, I even jot down “imagine if the Carpenters had gone through a synthpop phase!” Mari has a quite uncanny knack for coming up with seriously strong and striking melodies but any threat of her music becoming too sugary is always more than mitigated by the off-the-wall originality of her style.
Arrowis a song in which Mari contemplates what would happen if Cupid were the one looking for love rather than firing arrows to deliver it. Eco Anxiety, on a regular Mari Dangerfield theme of fear for the future of the planet, has an exquisite melody and goose-bumping harmonies to match. The piano on new track Somebody is certainly Bowie-esque. As she moves from album tracks to new tracks to works in progress and back to album tracks, the final stretch is the best segment of all. It includes the superb The Stars Were Wrong, a song inspired by overhearing a conversation between two people in a happy relationship who had discovered that, according to astrologers, their relationship should not work because their star signs were incompatible! The chorus is enormous and infectiously singable. But it’s the rendition of Love Machine that steals the show. She rounds off an anthemic performance by bringing the audience closer to the stage so she can take a group selfie with us. Final word to the sound engineer. The sound throughout is pristine and well balanced. It has been a thoroughly enjoyable evening with an audience packed with friends and fellow artists, making it a perfect way to end a busy week. Mari and her co-stars all rose to the occasion tonight.