‘Whatever they’re playing over the PA pre-M83 appears to have got stuck’ tweeted OMH’s Sam Shepherd ahead of the French shoegazers’ Oxford gig this week, confirming that Sunday wasn’t just some dreadful mistake. Forty minutes with the same purgatorial loop, draining and dragging and progressively sapping any compulsion to continue drawing breath – ten minutes longer and the only movement in the room would have been bodies spinning slowly on nooses fashioned from our own hair.
Perhaps this was deliberate, a cunning and somewhat sledgehammer means of lowering our expectations – after all, the tepid response to last year’s Hurry Up I’m Dreaming didn’t exactly send anticipation for the live show soaring. But, thankfully, M83’s performance tonight transcends such fears and almost, almost atones for the above.
They certainly start confidently. Against a minimal backdrop of tiny, astral lights, the frenetic opening synths of Intro ring out, keyboardist and White Sea mainwoman Morgan Kibby assuming Zola Jesus’ soaring vocal lines to stunning effect. It’s a bold and striking beginning, and one that highlights a shift in M83’s live performances: last time they were here, in support of 2008’s Saturday=Youth, mainman Anthony Gonzalez took centre-stage, opening that show alone and dominating throughout. Tonight he scarcely registers, eclipsed by the dynamism and exuberance of Kibby and only rarely, almost reluctantly, acknowledging the sold-out crowd.
But then he really doesn’t need to. Theirs is a sound that invites solipsism, nostalgia and melancholy and optimism and clear, unfettered excitement meshed together and stained into pretty much every note. If anything, the presence of all the other filthy humans only creates a distraction, and one that many of the crowd, eyes closed and arms aloft as though worshipping at a Pentecostal church, opt to shut out.
Predictably enough given Kibby’s presence the setlist is drawn primarily from the last two albums (large parts of which she co-wrote), with only a cursory nod to the three that preceded them. Of course, 2005’s anthemic Teen Angst still gets a prime position second in the set, but two-thirds of it is sourced, slightly combatively, from Hurry Up, as though anxious to prove its value. And in a live context these songs are great, from the euphoric whooping of Steve McQueen through to the frantic drum-fills of Claudia Lewis. Sure, as pretty as it is Wait probably slowed the tempo a touch too far, and at times the relentless dynamic of swell and release veered upon exhausting, but M83 never come close to being dull.
And then there’s Midnight City, which last time OMH saw them the band simply tossed away mid-set as though it wasn’t one of 2011’s finest songs. Here, thank god, M83 have the sense to afford it rather more respect, its looping synth motif an alarm call for audience response, and almost inaudible over the cheering at the saxophone-led extended outro.
Inevitably it’s Coleurs that ends the night, reworked from the original to minimise the vocals and foreground the dancefloor elements, band members scaling the monitors and, in Gonzales’ case, gyrating awkwardly at the front of the stage. Not that many in the audience would have noticed, of course, lost as they are in their own responses, from those waving arms and tight-locked eyes to their shuffling, uncertain steps. Heck, one person even has a lighter – a lighter – held aloft and shivering, not from any draft so much as the wall of bass and the shifting force of a packed and airless room that, like the unnamed protagonist in the gig’s opening sample, doesn’t need the real world.