Gang Of Youths - latest album and live at Brixton Academy, 15th March 2022
Prologue: in December 2013, my mother died, after a three-year battle with an illness called scleroderma. She spent the last two weeks of her life in hospital battling away, determined not to die. She was quite formidable, bless her. During those last two weeks, I was back in Ireland with them - my father had also collapsed, and ended up in the ward across the hall from her. He needed a pacemaker - it was an enormously stressful time.
My mother finally gave up her fight just after midnight on 18th December. My father was asleep and needed the rest, so I didn’t wake him, instead sitting in a private room with my deceased mam, waiting for dawn to break the news to dad. My lovely cousin and his wife came to the hospital and joined me and the three of us sat with her. Sometime in the early hours, a priest came to see her and say a prayer. Whilst my faith is not so much lapsed, as collapsed, my mam was very religious. This particular priest was lovely, but had a tendency to ‘ramble’ – the concept of a short, punchy sermon was lost on him. He also wasn’t too great on details…
He sat praying with my mam, full of kindness and I respectfully bowed my head, even though I don’t really believe in any of this. It would have mattered to her. The priest said he hoped she was at peace now, and asked her to pray for my father, John senior, and then joked she should pray for him too. He then said, “no Imelda, look after John junior….and the other children”.
”What other f***ing children????” I thought.
Now, if you know me, you will know I am the classic only child, so the phrase “other children” caused some brief consternation. I looked up from my respectful bow across to my cousin who did the same – he looked at me and shook his head and winked – there were no other children. The priest was just a bit confused, bless him.
There were no deathbed revelations, and it’s a story I now look back at and laugh lots – which is exactly what my mam would have wanted (though she'd give me hell for even thinking it was possible there were other children!).
Of course, it was quite different for David Le'aupepe, lead singer of Gang Of Youths. Following the death of his beloved father, he and his sister discovered a series of revelations, including discovering hitherto unknown brothers, who in turn thought their father long dead.
angel in realtime.: Latest album, angel in realtime., deals with this loss, this grief and coming to terms with these revelations. It’s brilliant and I have had to stop listening to it walking to work. By the time I am halfway across Westminster Bridge, I am in floods, as closing song goal of the century comes to its understated, beautiful conclusion – “In a way, it'll feel like you were an angel in real time”.
From, the get go, David was upfront about the album's subject matter - “this record’s gonna be about my father and how he died, and how he lived, and everything I found out about him. That’s the only thing I can really write about. It’s gonna be about him … and about people I love."
The album crackles along like The National, with the most brilliant drumming and heavy on the orchestral backing. The music is exuberant despite its difficult subject matter.
you in everything opens proceedings and sets the scene “it will torture me at first, then it will hurt a little less”, and “I kissed the hands that raised me for the last time” ring true, remembering those final moments with my own father. It’s a baroque’n’roll belter that has the kitchen sink thrown in, using a full-blown 42-piece string section recorded in Budapest and the Auckland Gospel Choir. It’s lovely and it’s huge.
Elsewhere it explores the truths his father had hidden from his family, including being ten years older than he had claimed, and more seriously that he had two other sons. Both these unknown brothers thought their father long dead. He also lied about being mixed race, in fact being fully Samoan. The father he thought he knew was someone quite different. brothers explores these lies and revelations, but it leaves you with this incredible sense of forgiveness and acceptance of this new, wider family David knew nothing about. His brother met him, telling him how he was abandoned at birth by their father but has forgiven him - so David can too.
“I know our father had his reasons, but that can never make it right or fair. And I hate myself for stealing all his love when my brothers thought that he was dead. So as I dig through the collateral, the secrets hid throughout the years, I know I'll hardly ever answer them, but it's the way to keep him near”
It’s raw, but the startling lyrics and tremendous music never allow themselves to be overwhelmed by the grief and revelations they are processing. returner again deals with his father’s revelations “The innocence died in waves of quiet things, nothing feels right or quite the same”, the strings swirling again as a Peter Hook style bass line soars. the kingdom is within you even has a scat vocal at one point that does not send you running for the hills, its lyrics looking at the challenges his father faced in his life, searching for understanding, rather than judging or condemning him.
The only missteps are tend the garden, which soars dangerously close to Bruce Hornsby’s That’s Just The Way It Is and also joining this ridiculous fad for having all the song titles in lower case.
But these are small complaints for what is a revealing, autobiographical story of grief, acceptance and absolution. It’s a stone cold classic.
Live at Brixton: Having fallen head over heels with the new album, I see that Gang Of Youths are playing Brixton, so quickly acquire tickets for me and my friend Mark. We meet at a craft ale bar, round the corner from the station. Mark loves his music, even coming with me the last time I saw Marillion - he even enjoyed it!
Gang Of Youths are a new band for Mark too - we agree they sound a little like The National, which is no bad thing. And we are excited to see them live.
Perhaps it's the epic expectations I have built up, having fallen so madly for the album. but the gig is ok, good even. But not brilliant. They are tight as a band, and indeed David is quite the mover and groover when it comes to dancing on stage.
But whilst the album has blown my mind, the show doesn't quite cut it. It may be where we stood (back left, under the balcony), but the sound isn't great, mainly on David's vocals which sound muddy and unclear - until he lets rip on the choruses when he sounds magnificent. We are too far away for the excitement generated when David leaps into the crowd and sings. But worst of all, the audience around us talks constantly through the show. Again, this may be our fault - we stood in the wrong place. It may be theirs though...
Still, it's a good show. They play a lot of angel in realtime., opening with The Angel of 8th Ave, as David greets the crowd - "Thank you for turning up to my therapy session". He connects with the audience, like few performers - he reminds me of Guy Garvey of Elbow, but with more energy. And at points, he really connects, despite the aforementioned distractions. Brothers, with David sat at the piano, is beautiful, his grief given fresh weight as he explains he had just put his dog down that day. I want to give him a big hug. I have just got to go club a few ignorant people yelling near me to death first...
London is their new home town, so I will get another chance to see Gang Of Youths again, hopefully in a better venue (Brixton is terrible these days) and with better sound. And maybe with less expectations on my part, they will blow my metaphorical socks off. I hope so.
Epilogue: My father died in November 2018, five years after my mother, and again with no traumatic revelations. I spent that last seven weeks of his life with him every day and I am eternally grateful to have had that opportunity. We talked, we even laughed despite the inevitable end that was coming. He knew I was marrying a wonderful woman a few weeks after he passed away, that I was in a good place. And I held him as he left this world; he was not alone and knew he was loved. A nice way to go, if such a thing is possible.
It's still another painful time to recall and I am never sure what you are meant to do with grief. How someone can take that pain and turn it into such unflinchingly honest, beautiful and euphoric music is beyond me. Or indeed then go and play songs about this time night after night.
But I am grateful that David and Gang Of Youths have. The album is life affirming and expresses things I would like to be able to describe but don't have the words. And if there had been some dramatic revelations, I hope I would have been as forgiving and as gracious David has been.
So whilst I didn't love the live show, I remain bowled away by them. I need another go at seeing them live, as I am sure they are better than this week's gig.