It’s not often you see a whole crowd turn a full 180 degrees and rush back towards the stage, but that’s what happens tonight. After an eventful main set from Sunflower Bean is over, the house lights come on and the PA resumes its playlist, so the punters in KOKO’s deep pit drift towards the exits at the back. The curfew is relatively early and it’s time to go. But suddenly the band bound back on stage for a truly spontaneous encore.
It’s a song they “haven’t played in six months” says guitarist Nick Kivlen. He channels all of the tension and anxiety of the day into playing ‘Space Exploration Disaster’ with passionate verve. Julia Cumming stands between Kivlen and drummer Jacob Faber, bent over her bass guitar as she head bangs furiously and the music gets faster and faster, accelerating wildly. It’s a wonderful moment, full of youthful exuberance and defiance. Kivlen’s right to say it’s been the best and the worst of shows. Best because it’s the biggest headlining gig in their history and it’s been joyful and fun. Worst because Kivlen’s technical set up chose to implode on this of all nights.
As early as the third song, ‘Twentytwo’, Cumming is apologising for the gremlins: “Let’s give it up for the technical difficulties”. But Cumming’s singing on the track is amazingly good and Sunflower Bean fans are supportive and loving — a few screw-ups from the analogue guitar gizmos aren’t going to stand in their way of a night of bouncing, singing and appreciation. This is a high-energy gig from the start, as the three Beans run on to the stage and launch into an incendiary ‘Burn It’, the opener from new album ‘Twentytwo In Blue’.
They intersperse these new songs with tracks from debut album ‘Human Ceremony’ — fast, potent NYC new wave with Cumming and Kivlen taking vocal turns, and driving motorik beats from Faber (‘Come On’ and ‘2013’). A series of four of the new album’s tracks starts with political activist Cumming asking for and getting audience participation and air punching in ‘Crisis Fest’.
She powerfully carries the melody in a sparkling ‘Memoria’. But guitar glitches continue for Kivlen before ‘Human For’ so Cumming tells the story of a New York deli gig where she met the lads and decided to join their band. Kivlen’s guitar break is restricted by the electrical faults, but the track sounds even better than on the album, Cumming emphatically phrasing, “I don’t need your religion, I don’t need your protection, I don’t need you to fit in, I need the sound of the drums, the drums”, and Faber responding on cue with a drum break.
Kivlen initially takes lead vocals in ‘Puppet Strings’ and moves centre stage during the guitar workout, face to face with Cumming as a shouted “what do you do at the end of the day” ends a hard-edged rendition. As usual, the band are determined to play as much new material as possible, but the fans at the front like the old ones best. “This one goes out to you guys,” Cumming says, and the guys in the pit bounce happily, wave arms aloft and sing the chorus of ‘Easier Said’ — Kivlen playing intricate math-rock patterns and Cumming’s voice angelic and beautiful.
A guitar-picking cover of Neil Young’s ‘Harvest Moon’ would require an acoustic instrument but Kivlen’s tech nightmare continues, so Faber plays a drum solo to fill time, and Cumming launches into a drum and bass version of psych-pop/nu-shoegaze banger ‘Somebody Call a Doctor’ from 2015. Bizarrely, it works, and an emboldened Cumming continues: “I think we can do this one without guitar. Do you guys wanna hear ‘Harvest Moon’ without guitar. We’ll see if Nick can join in.” He can’t, but the crowd hold up lighters and lit phones as she pulls it off.
Cumming and Kivlen are deep in improv territory now, deciding to skip his turn to sing lead on ‘Sinking Sands’ as it requires the acoustic guitar, which is bust, and to run straight through from a joyous ‘I Was A Fool’ to the end of the set without a break for a planned encore. His electric guitar works — it’s lovely on show-stopper ‘Only a Moment’ just as her singing continues to be lovely — and he gets to psych out on the Krautrock-punk climax of ‘I Was Home’. After he alternates verses with Cumming and the trio smash the track’s false stop, she moves to his side of the stage, supportive after his mechanical snags. The pit is pogoing now, and it’s punkier than many of the audience expected. Next, it’s that brilliant surprise encore: “No-one can hear you scream, float away from the planet… at a million miles an hour“. It seems to be a wry comment on the whole night — a triumphant ‘Space Exploration Disaster’.
Sunflower Bean’s setlist at KOKO:
Somebody Call a Doctor
I Was a Fool
Only a Moment
I Was Home
Space Exploration Disaster