Shot! Self Esteem at the Brighton Dome
With her kiss curls and mannish suits, Self Esteem brought a strong aesthetic to this stirring sold out show
Invariably, when I go to a gig it’s because I like the artist’s music and know their songs. Occasionally, I go out of curiosity if it’s an artist I think might be interesting or one who I’ve heard good things about. Self Esteem was one that fell into that category.
The nom de plume of Rebecca Lucy Taylor, the 36-year-old from Rotherham has been steadily making a name for herself ever since being announced 2021 Artist of the Year by the BBC’s Introducing, the same year that her sophomore album Prioritise Pleasure topped the listings of the Guardian’s Best 50 albums.
Last year, she was nominated for British Breakthrough Act at the Brit Awards and even got to support Adele at Hyde Park.
Even so, I have to admit she went under my radar until recently.
In the weeks leading up to her Brighton gig I’d read glowing reviews from other dates on the tour. All spoke of how good she was live. Her Birmingham gig was said to be “an astonishing show by any standards” with “mesmerising choreography”. “Razor-sharp pop theatre” was how one reviewer described it, even going so far as to say Self Esteem “harnesses the emancipatory power of pop like no one else.”
Her UK tour, which she dubbed the ‘I tour this all the time tour’, included no less than three nights in London and claimed to have sold 43,500 tickets.
With hyperbole like that I arrived at her sold out Dome show anticipating something really special and fully expecting to be well and truly wowed.
Full disclosure: I didn’t get to see the whole show. Self Esteem’s late stage time meant I had to leave before she finished. However, by the time she finally took the stage my ears had been forced to endure two of the worst opening acts I’ve witnessed in a long, long time.
Both Tom Rasmussen and Nuha Ruby Ra sang along to backing tracks, although in Ra’s case it would be more accurate to say she screamed along, her caterwauling made even worse because she yelled into not one but two microphones!
Anything that followed had to be better. And, thankfully, it was.
As an artist only recently experiencing success despite having been in the business for many years, touring sizeable venues for the first time meant the production was somewhat minimal. There were no video screens, or a fancy light show. Indeed, the only piece of staging was a five-tread riser.
What was unusual was that the backing singers outnumbered the musicians, three to two. As well as a live drummer, there was a keyboard player — Sophie Galpin — who occasionally played bass and lead guitar. So musically, there wasn’t a lot going on. I did like Mike Park’s drumming, his tub thumping playing reminded me of the tribal beats of Adam Ant. But of course two musicians can only make so much of a sound.
What dominated sonically were the three backing singers, the exotically named Levi Heaton, Seraphina Simone and Marged Sion, who had a much bigger role than simply singing backing vocals — which they did with gusto. The trio were an integral part of the performance. Much of the time they threw choreographed shapes around Self Esteem.
Throughout the show, there was a strong aesthetic. Everyone onstage wore the same outfits. They began sporting pale grey suits, before discarding them to reveal red catsuits complete with a masked hood and ending in white shirts, braces and black trousers.
As a songwriter, Self Esteem’s repertoire includes quite a few songs that I think have something special about them, four in partiocular stood out for me: the infectious banger Wizardry, the gospel-tinged The 345 and I Do This All The Time where her deadpan spoken words emphasise her northern roots (think Arctic Monkey’s Alex Turner). I also like Mother, one of several unreleased songs she played, with its tribal drumbeat.
As well as strong percussion, most of her songs feature powerful gospel-like backing vocals. Take those away and the performance would be far less distinctive. Indeed the dullest part of the show was when Self Esteem sang one song solo, accompanying herself strumming an electric guitar.
Where she does score however is with her presentation. She clearly knows what makes a live show look good and how to do it on limited resources. On this tour, her look spans androgynous through to S&M — perhaps not surprising as she identifies as a queer woman.
Whether it’s sporting an oversized mannish suit with her newly short blonde locks slicked down in kiss curls or wearing a tight red PVC number and matching stetson, it’s obvious she puts a lot of emphasis on her image.
One can anticipate even more exotic looks as her celebrity — and bank balance — grows. From what was on show here, her next tour is bound to take her theatricality to another level. That being said, there is a danger that Self Esteem ends up being seen as having more style than substance. With that in mind, I hope she’s able to add a full band to her line-up.
The following day, the venue’s own Phil Newton described Self Esteem’s show as “a life-affirming performance.” Now I don’t think I’d go that far, but based on this performance she’s certainly stepping up to make a star of herself.
Setlist: Prioritise Pleasure | Fucking Wizardry | Moody | Just Kids | Happy Valley | Mother | How Can I Help You? | Love Second | Girl Crush | John Elton | The 345 | You Forever | I Do This All The Time | | I’m Fine | The Best | Still Reigning
Thanks to Chuff Media for arranging the photopass
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. For me, this was a really frustrating show to shoot. Lighting-wise, the opening three songs looked promising, but we could only photograph songs 4, 5 and 6. At least half that time everyone on stage was wearing red outfits and were bathed in continuous red light, the worst colour for live music photography. Photographed in Brighton on 7 March 2023
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 creating 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, not forgetting an array of automotive exotica.
On the writing side, he has used his research skills to author deep dives into some noteworthy songs beginning with Bryan Ferry’s ‘These Foolish Things’ ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials and ‘All The Young Dudes’ by Mott the Hoople.
He has also written a biography of Robert Palmer and the stories behind Whitesnake’s blatant Led Zep rip-off, ‘Still Of The Night’ and Harry Styles’ anthem to positivity, ‘Treat People With Kindness’.
Most recently, Gary has penned the fascinating story behind George Orwell’s dystopian novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four.’
All these can be found here on Medium, along with his reviews of gigs and events and chats with musicians including the likes of Royal Blood, Joe Satriani and Wolf Alice.