Dutch Uncles have always been something of a second tier presence in the fertile and now decade-old math rock scene. They were seen as the Sleeper to Foals‘ Oasis and Everything Everything‘s Blur. And it’s not unfair to say that for a good while they deserved to be overshadowed by their peers. Their self-titled debut and its major label follow up were as charming and likeable as they were forgettable, unburdened by any kind of focused songwriting or a single hummable hook. They had the brains and the chops, but nowhere near the kind of manic brilliance unveiled on ‘Man Alive’, the tonally similar debut from fellow Mancunians Everything Everything.
Their evolution as a live act cannot be overstated. Where once older tracks such as ‘I Owe Someone For Everything’ and ‘Face In’ sounded clever but underpowered, now they ripple with barely contained muscle.
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That isn’t to say that Dutch Uncles have done an ‘Inhaler’ and transformed into a full on hard rock act à la Foals. The band have retained their schizophrenic identity, often jamming an unhealthy number of ideas into a single song. It’s just that now they command a powerful groove upon which the rest of their scatterbrained musical eccentricities make a little more sense. Underpinning this is the tight-as-a-nut rhythm section of drummer Andy Proudfoot and bassist Robin Richards. The latter is the star of the evening, his slick fingerwork rivalled only by the hypnotic swing of his hips. If groupie culture is really on the verge of extinction then this could be the man to bring it back from the brink.
Dutch Uncles show off their newfound focus in the first half of their set, tending to stick in 4/4 and relying on the hooks of singles like ‘Decided Knowledge’ and ‘Hiccup’ to draw in Shoreditch’s notoriously hipsterish crowd. Once moustaches begin to be twirled in earnest they start to bring out more challenging material. The glockenspiel interplay between frontman Duncan Wallis and nominal guitarist Pete Broadhead on set highlight ‘Fester’ is truly something to behold, while ‘Same Plane Dreams’s ever shifting drumbeat reassures the audience that, no need to worry, no-one was meant to be dancing anyway.
Duncan’s featherweight vocals remain an obstacle to embracing the band for many. You can’t help but feel that Dutch Uncles would benefit from taking a leaf out of Hot Chip‘s book by employing a gruff backing baritone to ground their vocal lines a little more. That being said, Wallis has become an accomplished showman in his own way. His odd jerky dancing and self-effacing crowd chat (he claims they dropped softer number Tidal Weight from the setlist because “it was a bit shit”) endear him to the audience, while ‘Punk Rock’ Pete’s willingness to drop his guitar and go stand on the venue’s keyboard helps diminish the band’s ‘awkward geek’ persona a little.
One of the more memorable moments of the set comes just after ‘Overton’, a song about “perfect death” as Duncan explains, when he lets the audience know that the band recently received news about the death of Drowned In Sound’s Dan Lucas, an early supporter and good friend of the band. Due to their shared love of The Simpsons, he instructs the crowd to join in him in a shout of ‘Boooo-urns’ to toast their deceased friend. His stuttering emotion betrays a band with a lot of heart, no matter how clinical and machine-like their music can become on occasion.
Dutch Uncles are unlikely to ever ascend to the pantheon of math rock gods and sit alongside the likes of Battles, Foals and Cleft (R.I.P). But that doesn’t matter, they’re well on their way to perfecting their own sound and are building up a pretty impressive discography along the way (They’re on their 5th record already? How did that happen?) It’s always a pleasure to watch a band who act like they’ve just played to a half empty pub in Salford but play like they’ve just headlined the Brixton Academy. Dutch Uncles do this to a tee.