You can tell a lot from the wait music being played between acts at a gig. One doesn’t even need to look around at the young, female-heavy, and often outwardly gay crowd which has packed out the community room of Leeds’ historic Brudenell Social Club – as far as I’m aware, the gig has not officially sold out but it’s heaving to such an extent that the semantics hardly seem to matter – to catch Los Angeles pop trio MUNA at one of the first non-London UK shows they’ve ever done in order to catch the vibe. Just instead note the audacity of the wait music playing Madonna, Christine and the Queens, and Robyn one after another. This is a night for the Ls, the Gs, the Bs, the Ts, and the filthy, filthy Qs, plus their friends and allies. Frankly, I fear the roof may have come off this extension had Carly Rae followed Robyn. Instead, roof-blowing was reserved for MUNA and MUNA alone.
Folks, although I was a real late-bloomer to gig attending (my first came when I was 19), I have been to a lot of them over the years. It’s where the vast majority of my meagre income goes. I’ve been to gigs where the artist crushed it yet the crowd was mostly indifferent, I’ve been to gigs where the crowd’s been hot but the artist has phoned it in somewhat, I’ve been to crappily-mixed gigs, I’ve been to fun gigs, dull gigs, gigs where the band has been infuriatingly insistent upon leaning on their weakest material for much of the setlist, gigs where the audience were active twats, gigs where a room full of sceptics or the clueless were converted in real time, gigs where I’ve felt like a part of something bigger than myself, and gigs where I appear to have been the only one who turned up because they wanted to see the band rather than just stand around disinterestedly for an hour and a half. They’re honestly a crapshoot of a thing, but all the mediocre and disappointing and downright disheartening gigs are worth it for lightning-in-a-bottle experiences like this one.
Tonight was something special, dear reader. MUNA operate in a curious niche within the current musical landscape in that they write and play mass-appeal pop music on a major label (RCA) and have toured as the support for the most successful solo artist of one of the biggest boybands of all-time (Harry Styles), yet they not only have zero hits to their name (only one of the four music videos from their new album has cracked 200k in YouTube views at time of writing) but their label doesn’t appear to have tried to force them into becoming the next big thing. I first heard about them entirely due to a couple of comments from regulars on the Stereogum forums extolling the virtues of their 2017 debut album, About U, and that was it. Listening to that record, I immediately fell in love with its dark and proudly queer take on classic synthpop and found myself wondering how they weren’t becoming one of those Internet pop star darlings with rabidly cult fanbases even as they struggle to score conventional hits, like Charli XCX or the aforementioned Robyn and Carly.
Turns out I’m perhaps just running in the wrong circles because the crowd assembled at Leeds is completely ecstatic from start to finish. Deafening screams greet the start of every single song, the end of every single song, and oftentimes burst out in the middle of songs with little rhyme or reason. The number of people in the room who don’t know every single lyric to every single song on the setlist can be counted on no more than two hands, and even less than that spend even a tiny percentage of the show standing still. Between songs, there are spontaneous singalongs of songs later to come in the set, with “Navy Blue”’s unique pronunciation of “water” in particular being a prime source, and in general the room on a chilly and wet Sunday night becomes a communal sweatbox within what feels like record time. Singer Katie Gavin remarks three songs in that the thick sweater she chose to wear had turned out to be wildly ill-fitting for a room this hot and her bandmates take bets on how much further into the set she’ll be able to get before having to shed it. The answer, for those wondering, is barely two-thirds through the following song.
This sensation of something special unfolding before our eyes was not just limited to, and in no way being forced by, the devoted in the crowd. The band evidently felt it too. Disbelieving giggles and smiles at the reactions by those present are a constant from Gavin. Josette Maskin barely restrains herself from stage-diving into the crowd, forever perched on the absolute edge of the stage and somehow turning crowd choruses up from 11 to 12 through sheer encouragement. Even Naomi McPherson, the most reserved in terms of stage presence due to handling much of the synths and additional guitar work, can’t help losing themself in the fun, teasing and playing with both the crowd and their own bandmates as well as getting caught up emotionally in it all. Between song banter is frequent, loose, and playful, with everybody getting in on the fun of the random noises which emanated from Gavin’s mouth to fill potential dead air, but frequently come back to them just being blown away by the pure love filling the room.
It’s well-deserved. This rabid devotion has come about because MUNA write really fucking good pop songs. Like many a critically-acclaimed pop artist (perhaps most relevantly HAIM) nowadays, their throwback roots are readily apparent and completely unashamed – mid-Saves the World ballad “Taken” is explicitly introduced by Maskin as their “Dixie Chicks/Avril [Lavigne] moment” just to reassure savvier listeners that the “I’m With You”-reminiscent structure and chords are intentional, whilst the penultimate track on their debut, “Around U,” is described as “coming from our emo phase.” At times, Gavin’s vocals, a versatile ever-shifting beast, resemble those of the dearly-departed Dolores O’Riordan (a comparison I perhaps invoke from her decision to wear an Irish flag shirt on the night but no less apt), whilst major highlight “Good News (Ya Ya Song)” is a ringer for prime Natasha Bedingfield/The Hills soundtrack (most definitely not an insult). But these tracks, which are already strong on record, take on an additional power live as, augmented by a trio of touring musicians, they bare their teeth and display new dimensions. The aforementioned “Around U” climaxes with a post-hardcore ballad mosh, “Crying on the Bathroom Floor” sheds some of the melodrama wallow thanks to a rocking low-end, and “Never”’s drop to the club in its second half absolutely slams live.
The older songs are received with adoration – the one-two punch of proudly queer emotional empowerment anthems, the former tackling an abusive relationship and the latter rhapsodising a beautiful safe space, “Loudspeaker” and “I Know a Place” especially has the crowd threatening to drown out the band altogether – but it’s actually the Saves the World material which get the most rapturous reception. “Number One Fan” detonates the building and is only the opener, “Pink Light”’s synthwave Kelly Clarkson vibes sees a chorus of voices trying with gusto to match Gavin’s pitch, whilst during anti-sexual harassment anthem “Hands Off” there’s a tangible sensation of demons being exorcised for many in the room. Even with the trio’s sophomore album being such an incredible step up from their great debut (I named it one of my albums of the year), a reaction of this magnitude to the new material in a live setting is quite rare, especially for an album you (at time of writing) can’t physically buy in the UK right now. The band joke that crowd participation for the chorus of “Good News” is “mandatory or else security are legally obligated to kick you out,” but they really don’t need to give the room any extra encouragement to belt that thing to the sky.
And that’s what made this gig so magical. Sure, this was a crowd which wanted it to be a special gig and, yeah, the band themselves were giving it their all and played expertly to their devoted, but that indescribable something in the air felt completely natural. This euphoric sensation that everybody was having the best time they could have right now watching a band putting it so together that surely a room like this cannot contain them for much longer. That their ascent has just begun and the sky feels like the utter limit which I can tell just from looking at the emotional faces of many in the crowd (including my own, ngl) during transcendent autobiographical closer “It’s Gonna Be Okay, Baby” this is a band which already means the world to so many.
Gavin clearly senses this something, too. Halfway through their encore-less set she makes the seemingly off-cuff proclamation, since she caveats it by admitting nothing has currently been arranged, that “we will be back in the UK soon. We have to come back real soon!” Get on this bandwagon before it leaves the station.
Saves the World is available now on digital download and streaming services on RCA.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wqf-U_fibV0&w=560&h=315]
Number One Fan
Crying on the Bathroom Floor
Good News (Ya Ya Song)
I Know a Place
It’s Gonna Be Okay, Baby