How did Keane’s ’80s makeover go down as they made their live Singapore debut? Jonathan Evans joined the huge crowd at Fort Canning.
First published on 9 Sep 2009.
David Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’, the Talking Heads classic ‘Once in a Lifetime’: bands can set themselves high standards with their choice of intro music. How do you follow songs like that? With a Keane gig? Surely not the Keane who offered up last year’s gratingly poppy Perfect Symmetry, an album that scrubbed up their chart-friendly indie with retro gloss and synths, but often came perilously close to resembling the soundtrack to Music and Lyrics (and that was meant to be a parody of ’80s pop, not a homage to it). On first listen, it felt like the band’s makeover had largely expunged the qualities that made their music likeable and successful – soaring choruses, memorable melodies, emotive lyrics.
And so it appeared at Fort Canning as these modest Englishmen abroad, seeming tongue-tied by the grandeur of the setting, set out their stall with the lite-as-you-like ‘The Lovers Are Losing’, then stormed straight into their swayalong chart botherer from 2004, ‘Everybody’s Changing’. So far, so coffee-table – rather than refuting their reputation, this was ammunition for the cynics who pigeonhole Keane as more anaemic than anthemic. But it was on ‘Bend and Break’ that the band really got into gear. Not only was Tom Chaplin’s voice as mesmerisingly powerful as ever, swooping meteorically up to the scorching chorus, the trio is now bolstered by guitars onstage, both acoustic and electric, giving their live sound the shot in the arm it so sorely needed.
Keane had the nous to acknowledge that even in Singapore, two hours of uniformly polite indie won’t cut the mustard – especially not on a stage that’s already hosted Nine Inch Nails and Lady Gaga in the same week. So while they’ve released a finely honed album of streamlined pop, ironically Keane have morphed into a stadium-rock act – albeit one with impeccable manners – and it becomes them. Chaplin in particular seems born again as a frontman, scuttling to and fro Jarvis Cocker-like in his tight pants, rushing into the crowd and fairly brimming over with the confidence of a man willing his critics to challenge him.
Musically the momentum faltered as the first half wore on, not helped by an awkwardly sequenced setlist that interspersed uneven new material like ‘Again and Again’ and ‘Your Eyes Open’ with passionate, crowd-pleasing oldies like ‘This Is the Last Time’. Yet, as so often in gigs, the more affecting, introspective songs drift into the ether, never mind how fine they are – ‘Try Again’, one of their most poignant slowies on record, didn’t work at all – while upbeat hits like ‘Spiralling’ really packed a punch. Likewise, surround-sound songs ‘Nothing in My Way’ and ‘Leaving So Soon?’ – neither of which were among the best on Under the Iron Sea – were truly rousing, midtempo keyboard tunes reborn as strident rockers.
From there it was home runs all the way. Tom Chaplin introduced his ‘all-time favourite Keane song’, and ‘Perfect Symmetry’ lived up to his hype – with its choral middle section reminiscent of Coldplay’s ‘Fix You’, the song’s heartfelt prettiness is propelled by unstoppable drive, and this is by far the best song to marry Keane’s old and new guises. A crowd singalong to breakthrough tune ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ was a no-brainer; ‘Crystal Ball’ cheerfully topped the main set off, and encores seemed inevitable. Re-taking the stage, the band tore into ‘Is It Any Wonder?’ and über-ballad ‘Bedshaped’ with real gusto, as though the crowd’s enthusiastic reception had given them reserves of energy. Chaplin remained energetic to the end, and by now drenched in sweat – tropical gigs are serious workouts for an ang moh band – he looked exhausted but happy. ‘On a Day Like Today’ or ‘The Night Sky’ might have enhanced the set yet further, but against all the odds, Keane actually rocked. Yes, you did read that right.
For their second encore they returned to perform a gob-smackingly great cover of Queen and David Bowie’s ‘Under Pressure’, as taut and potent as the original, with Chaplin outdoing his earlier vocal heroics by matching Freddie Mercury’s outrageously high falsetto. Who needs yesterday’s idols when your own performances are this good? Now follow that.