Shot! Bastille at the Brighton Centre
On the last night of their UK tour, Bastille put on a future-focused show in front of a sold-out crowd, but just how many got the message?
I first saw a fledgling Bastille in October 2012, when they played Brighton’s Komedia and again a few months later when they played Brighton’s new music festival, The Great Escape in May 2013. Back then, they were one of the headline acts and as such got to play the Brighton Dome. I’ve always thought that the band’s frontman and creative heart, Dan Smith had a very distinctive voice and interesting phrasing. And, whilst there was no doubting his ability to pen a catchy tune, in my mind, Bastille had never quite lived up to their early potential.
Of course I was wrong, the facts speak for themselves. In 2017, for example, they found themselves on the bill at Coachella, 2019 saw them record the song for the John Lewis TV ad and most recently their 4th album Give Me The Future, became their third to reach the top spot in the UK album charts.
Fast forward to 2022 and here they were headlining Brighton’s biggest venue on the last date of a sold out UK tour which included a stop at London’s O2 Arena.
I’d listened to the new record a few times and really liked what I heard. I sensed a band whose sound was evolving. Making my way down to the venue I was curious as to how their live show had developed since I last saw them and how the new songs would sound live.
A long narrow video screen was positioned behind the multi level platformed stage. In the corner was a logo bearing the words Future Inc and throughout the performance the screen carried a mix of ‘futuristic graphics’, close-up live vision of Dan Smith and text proclaiming things like “loading next experience” between songs. Centrestage was a curvaceous black lounger, of which more later.
Compared with the last time I saw them, Bastille had expanded and now included two backing singers — Bim and Senab — as well as adding an extra guitar/keyboards player to the line-up, but otherwise Dan Smith is still backed by the same three musicians, including Brighton-resident Will Farquarson on guitar.
With their recent success and this being the last date of the tour, I was expecting a storming set. In truth, it was a little patchy. Twice interrupted so that audience members could receive medical attention, on several occasions, Smith performed laying on the lounger or laying on the floor. Each time this happened, it brought the energy levels right down.
Perhaps most disappointing was the visual experience. All too often, the performers, especially Smith himself were poorly lit, in smoke-filled blue or red light. To my eyes, it cried out for better lighting and a follow-spot. Other reviewers of this tour clearly saw things differently, with one going so far as to say that Bastille “amazed fans with magnificent, futuristic tech visuals.”
On that subject, in a Rolling Stone interview last year, Smith had this to say: “The visuals are hugely important to us, so when we go out on tour next year, hopefully, the show will live up visually to people’s expectations.”
Whilst the Evening Standard described their O2 gig as “an ambitious, highly stylised show,” I didn’t think it to be either. Apparently, the idea was to bring to life the new album: a concept record based around a dystopian world of artificial intelligence and mass surveillance from tech companies, all filtered through the messaging of a fictional organisation called Future Inc.
The set designers described it as being “a digital landscape, wrapping around the band and supporting the audience’s journey in and out of the virtual world.”
They went on to say that its series of tiered platforms and staircases provided “a playground” for Dan Smith to explore and provided “constantly changing vignettes of musicians and singers in three dimensional space: sometimes epic in scale, sometimes incredibly intimate.”
All I can say, is for me it was a considerably less impressive than their fanciful description suggested.
The reality is for all Bastille’s intentions of putting on a futuristic show where everything was part of “a storyline,” the narrative itself was simply not strong enough for that message to get across.
It’s also revealing that their on-stage setlist laid out a performance split into no less than five so-called ‘interludes.’ These included titles such as “Memory 1 Entering the Innerverse”, “Memory 2 Was It A Dream?” and “Memory 3 Try Again.”
Personally, I think that was all a tad highfalutin and far too contrived. I doubt many in the audience would even have been aware that what they were witnessing was anything other than the band playing a collection of songs. Whilst some may have got the message had the performance been more theatrical or if it were in the hands of a more dramatic frontman than Dan Smith, but a thespian he is not. Wearing a white t-shirt, black trousers and Vans, he was as inconspicuous as could be.
Indeed, I’m in accord with the Standard who wrote that Smith and his unassuming bandmates “lacked the natural star quality needed to charm a room like this without added bells and whistles.” Although, as I’ve already mentioned, for me it was the bells and whistles themselves that were lacking.
Having lofty intentions is all well and good, but assuming that those watching the performance will see things in the way you intended can never be a given. Ultimately, if you want people to really appreciate an epic visual experience, you have to deliver something special truly epic, something this never came close to doing.
Musically, the evening was much more successful, highlighting the quality of Bastille’s back catalogue. Even so, the best moments came when they played some of the stand out tracks off the new album, such as the uplifting Back To The Future and Shut Off The Lights. As good as they were, my personal favourite was Survivin’, the cheerily relaxed lockdown anthem they released in 2020.
Like a lot of artists, Bastille have made the most of lockdown, using it to inspire a set of new songs as well as a shift in their musical direction.
On a night when thoughts about the future was a recurring theme, to borrow a line from one of their new album’s lyrics, for Bastille the future is golden and bright. Visually however they just might want to rethink how they present themselves onstage.
Setlist: Stay Awake | Distorted Light Beam | Things We Lost In The Fire | Laura Palmer | Oblivion | Those Nights | Quarter Past Midnight | Back To The Future | Plug In | What You Gonna Do? | Survivin’ | Good Grief | Promises | Give Me The Future | 4AM | No Bad Days | Happier | Run Into Trouble | Of The Night | Future Holds | Pompeii || Hope For The Future | Shut Off The Lights
Creative Direction: Renegade Design | Set Designer: Stuart Nunn | Lighting Designer: Jamie Trant
Behind the shot: These images were taken using the Olympus OM-D E-M1 with the M Zuiko 1.8 75mm lens and the camera’s built-in digital zoom. I was able to shoot the first three songs from the pit and — most unusually — the rest of the gig from the back of the auditorium. For whatever reason, my camera had an issue with the lighting throughout Bastille’s set and had problems getting the sharp images I usually capture. Camera aside, I also really struggled to get good portraits of Dan Smith, who for much of the time was either running about or just gloomily lit. It’s always disappointing when you don’t come away with a selection of shots you like, but every now and then it happens. It’s one of the challenges you face when shooting live gigs. Photographed in Brighton on 18 April 2022
About the author: Based in Sussex-by-the-Sea, on England’s south coast, Gary is a creative writer and image-maker. He specialises in out of the ordinary portraits of musicians and people with interesting faces, as well as photographing some of the world’s finest flowers and gardens. On the writing side, he has also penned deep dives into some of his favourite songs and has written a biography of Robert Palmer. All these can be found here on Medium, along with his reviews of gigs and events and chats with musicians.