With live performances, there can be a divide between musicians who put their rawest feelings into a set but lack presence and musicians who put in a compelling display but offer little in the way of substance. On the 21st night of September at a newly-refurbished Thekla in Bristol, Marika Hackman demonstrates that it’s still very much possible to nail both.
When she first walks onstage Hackman is sporting a white boilersuit and a wry grin; she greets the audience with a cool “hello” before breaking into Wanderlust, the opener from her most recent album Any Human Friend. Playing solo with just a sparse fingerpicked guitar to accompany her singing, she commands the deck - barely anyone so much as dares to breathe until the last chords fade away, before the crowd erupts into rapturous applause. After this the rest of the band (also uniformed in white boilersuits) take their places onstage and the gig begins in earnest with radio single The One. Unbidden, members of the audience chant the backing vocals during the verse (“you’re such an attention whore!”), which definitely speaks to the way Hackman’s music resonates with her fans.
As a performer Hackman is assured and confident: she banters with the crowd between songs, telling the audience how she played The One at her old school the previous evening. “Everyone was sat cross-legged in front of me, and all my old teachers were there,” she says with a smile. “When it got to the part where I go ‘all you fuckers want my dick’ it was very awkward.” You get the sense it wouldn’t have daunted her. Roughly halfway through the gig she puts her guitar down and wades into the audience to dance with the people closest to the stage, drawing audible cries of “oh my god!”. Her energy is electric, and supported by her band she temporarily takes the boat and everyone on board to a different location entirely. The closing section of Send My Love features some frantic tremolo picking that elicits whoops and cheers from the crowd; each song ramps up the energy, like a rollercoaster that just keeps climbing into the stratosphere.
Hackman’s stage presence is such that it’s criminally easy to ignore the rest of her ensemble, but they compliment her perfectly in providing the background for her sexually-charged indie-pop. Tracks like Boyfriend, which crops up fairly deep into the set, encapsulate her darkly comic, sardonic approach to songwriting. On the song she sings of a hidden-in-plain-sight affair with a girl who’s got a boyfriend, deriding him - and by proxy all like-minded men - for not validating the physical and emotional relationships between women. Cut in with these are murkier songs from her earlier albums such as Drown and Violet, which arguably sound even better live than they do on record. Although it’s a difficult metric to gauge, the sheer intensity of the music is exhilarating; I’m entirely sober and by the end of Hackman’s set I’m grinning ear to ear.
Hackman has said in interviews that her increased confidence in her lyrics came from fans of her previous albums telling her that their music helped them to feel confident in themselves. This definitely translates to the atmosphere of the gig; it feels inclusive and friendly, and above all, safe. The Thekla is a fantastic venue as it is (as I enthuse to the poor soul standing next to me after opening act Art School Girlfriend leave the stage, it’s a boat that’s also a club - what more could you need?): with the right band and the right audience, it’s otherworldly. The crowd here give as good as they get, greeting the start and finish of every song with loud whoops and applause.
As she launches into the encore, Hackman tells the audience that she’s leaving her boilersuit on the merch table for people to doodle on. Before she can get halfway through the first sentence a fan screams “I love it!”, prompting laughter and cheers from everyone else. Hackman then performs nothing short of a magic trick by playing a solo version of her song Cigarette with the rest of the band backstage; for only the second time that night the crowd goes silent, hushed and breathless until it finishes, then bursts into frantic applause. It's clear she's having a brilliant time, and so is everyone else.
There comes a point in a gig review when you’re just throwing around adjectives without giving much indication as to the quality of the experience. At its essence, a good live performance should connect with something visceral and make you feel something. For an hour and ten minutes I felt nothing but the sheer thrill of an incredible show, and the sole worry in the back of my mind was how the hell I was going to capture the emotion of it all when it came to the write up. I almost missed my last train home afterwards, but even if I had it wouldn’t have mattered. Marika Hackman put on what was, hands down, one of the best gigs I’ve been to this year. If you have the slightest window of opportunity to go and see her, take it.