“Turn it up. Turn it all up.” This command, thrown at the sound technician moments after the final bars of Ghostpoet’s opening track, is one that sums up tonight’s show with the kind of poetic accordance that music writers dream of. While ostensibly just another instruction between performing artist and in-house technician, here it serves equally well as the cardinal doctrine of the Ghostpoet live experience. Where Ghostpoet’s two album releases are introverted, melancholic offerings, tonight’s show is hard, fast, and more than a little loud.
Photo: Graham Watson
Obaro Ejimiwe was, until his late-twenties, stuck working at an insurance company in his hometown of Coventry. But in between the day-shift drudgery of customer service, Ejimiwe was working nights under a different name – his artistic moniker Ghostpoet. After a tentative EP release in 2010, his brilliant debut album Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam won a Mercury Prize nomination and thrust Ejimiwe firmly into the mainstream consciousness. While ultimately losing out to PJ Harvey, it was an album of considerable merit – a fearless fusion of understated electro and a lackadaisical, spoken-word vocal delivery that proved the perfect medium for the album’s themes: fear of mediocrity, the onset of old age, and the crumbs of enlightenment to be found amidst the day-to-day tedium.
Fast forward two years and Ghostpoet is back with his second offering Some Say I So I Say Light, an album where, if anything, the murky introspection only deepens. Woven from a fabric of agitated clicks, ticks, and whirrs, it provides Ghostpoet with the perfect sonic canvas for his own unique spiel of ‘kitchen sink’ realism, reconstructing The Streets for the new, circa-2013 London – post-7/7, post-financial-crash, and underpinned by paranoia. Little of that subject matter, however, is on display tonight.
Delayed by the organisers of NS&V until a full hour after the scheduled start time, Ghostpoet throws himself onto stage with the hunger of a man revelling in life outside the office. With time running short, his three-strong band kick their set into overdrive, hurtling through the tracks to try and give the crowd their money’s worth. Opener ‘Garden Path’ sees Ejimiwe at his swaggering, slurring best, his distinctive spoken-word monologue sounding just as keenly sincere as it ever did on record.
With the brooding opening strains of ‘Cold Win’ come a sense of marked anticipation. On record, this track is a truly arresting experience, with clattering, static-washed percussion underlaying lyrics heavy with the themes of resentment and regret. Trademark Ghostpoet motifs are at the soul of this track – recalling “breaking my back all week for/crumbs and abuse,” Ejimiwe opens a window onto some of his darkest days, but this mournful vibe is not the one offered at tonight’s show.
It is here that Ejimiwe makes his demand of the sound technician, and it’s as if, in a moment, the gloves are off and the true nature of the evening can be revealed. Buttons are pushed, switches are flicked – suddenly the drums are louder, sharper, the flowing strains of electro become taut synth-stabs. While the recorded version of ‘Cold Win’ was always a fraught and fragile exhibition of Ejimiwe’s precocious lyrical talent, here the focus is more on getting the crowd going, by any means possible. Ejimiwe’s vocals are less despondent, less introspected, and more an exhortation to the crowd to pick up their heels and move. It’s a reoccurring theme that continues throughout tonight’s set – on record, ‘Survive It’ is a hopeful, peaceful number, with a female backing singers providing the playful chorus of a nursery rhyme ditty. Tonight though, it’s a raucous, pub lock-in sing-along that has the crowd howling the lines back at the stage. Even ‘Cash and Carry Me Home’, the single that first won Ghostpoet mainstream attention back in 2011, is enlivened beyond any recognition. For a song that quite explicitly tackles Ejimiwe’s battle with alcoholism, this re-appropriation as an upbeat dance-number leaves a bitter taste in one’s mouth. This is a song describing a man’s years spent hiding down a whiskey bottle, and all the social isolation that comes with it – tonight, put bluntly, feels like a betrayal of these themes.
Let’s be clear – this performance was not a recital of the recorded material that has won Ghostpoet so much praise and acclaim. Tonight saw Ghostpoet rewire his work to the benefit of a more engaging live performance. And, in all fairness, this re-appropriation accomplishes all that it set out to – the crowd get to have a sing and a dance, and everyone leaves the venue sweaty, hoarse and prepped for a night on the town. But for Ghostpoet fans who really connected with these albums, it was less a re-imagining and more of a betrayal.