Young Fathers at Oxford Art Factory

Scott Wallace
6th Jan 2016

With Ecca Vandal and Black Vanilla.

Ostensibly a rap group, but taking in influences from dub, rock, garage, psychedelia, high life and Afrobeat, Young Fathers are an un-categorisable trio from Scotland. Their debut full-length release DEAD, a fiercely uncompromising record, won the prestigious Mercury Music in 2014 over strong competition like Kate Tempest and FKA twigs. The passion that has made the group critical favourites shone through in their performance at Oxford Art Factory last night, but what was most intriguing about the group and their support acts was the way they embodied the radical permeability of genre that makes them so modern. 

Sydney trio Black Vanilla opened the show. Vocalists, the enigmatically named Lips and Lockheart, entertained with snake-like dance moves that were perfect for the slithering menace of the group's futuristic R&B. Despite their early slot, Black Vanilla performed with abandon, creating an immediate connection with their shrunken, but no less rapt audience. With their intriguing mix of hard and soft, tenderness and coldness, Black Vanilla effectively set the scene for the two acts that followed.

Ecca Vandal all-but erupted onto the stage. Her mix of punky electro-tinged new wave, metal and hip-hop was a drastic change of pace after the skeletal beats of the preceding act, but she performed with palpable charm that was simultaneously aggressive and sexy. Energy flagged slightly in the second half of the set, but when Ecca Vandal announced that she would perform the single "Battle Royal," only to be informed her set was running too long and she would have to skip to the closing song "Father Hu$$la," she invested everything she had into the performance, which included a miniature cover of Kendrick Lamar's "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe."

Opening with the anthemic "No Way," Young Fathers took to the stage wreathed in shadow. The vocal interplay within the trio of 'G' Hastings, Alloysious Massaquoi and Kayus Bankole was sublime, creating texture and dynamics, even if at times they would only contribute a moan, shout or sigh. When the three were side-by-side at the front of the stage, such was their chemistry as performers that they were like a mythical Hydra, or Cerberus; three heads attached to one body. Their music is raw and primal, full of squealing and squalling textures, as well as enormous toms that hit you right in the stomach provided by live drummer Steven Morrison, but often veers close to the avant-garde, to a place where gospel-like dynamics exist with noisy dub and hip-hop.

The songs with the biggest beats, like "Get Up," "War" and "The Queen is Dead" got the most rapturous response from an audience that was itching to dance. The lead single of the band's second album White Men Are Black Men Too, "Rain or Shine", with its horror-show organ was a massive moment in the middle of the set. The more atmospheric and subdued pieces conjured brilliant atmosphere, but it seemed as if the band weren't concerned with creating a connection with the audience. There was a sense of detachment throughout the performance.

Everything that makes the band great on record was present - particularly fascinating was the way that Massaquoi and Bankole integrate their heritage from Liberia/Ghana and Nigeria respectively into the band's music and the clothing they wear on-stage - but it was hard for those in the audience to feel close or connected to Young Fathers in the context of their live show, particularly after the charismatic performers that had preceded them.

For the most part, though, it was a spellbinding show, and the band's fiery, angry, melancholic music certainly benefits immensely from a tight-packed, communal listening experience. More than anything, witnessing Young Fathers' live performance was a reminder of their brilliantly original sound that no one else is able to conjure but them. 

Young Fathers' tour continues at Melbourne's Corner Hotel on Februray 7, and Southbound Festival on January 9.