Whyte Horses @ RNCM, Manchester, 18 Jan
Manchester's premier purveyors of party-ready psych-pop are at their exhilarating best as they launch their third LP
There are more congruous places for cruise ship reunions to take place than the concert hall of a Manchester music school on a bitingly cold Saturday in January. It’s a testament to the infectiously upbeat nature of the Whyte Horses live show, then, that they're now a continent-wide draw.
Tonight’s performance is their first since they were perhaps the feel-good success story aboard Belle & Sebastian’s Boaty Weekender last August. The ship was by no means short of candidates for that title – it also boasted the return of Camera Obscura, as well as three shows by Madrid’s perma-partiers Hinds and a star-studded Buzzcocks set – but something about the psych-pop outfit’s irrepressible vibrancy struck a sufficient chord that this hometown show has attracted hardcore converts from across Europe.
Not that they’d have needed the extra boost to secure a sell-out at the Royal Northern College of Music’s 600-capacity Concert Hall. As much as they remain a hidden gem, they’ve carved out a loyal local following the old-fashioned way, playing around town and earning the steadfast endorsement of Northern Quarter institution Piccadilly Records.
Dom Thomas, the project’s mastermind, has a long-standing history as a DJ and his sets are instructive in terms of what makes the group tick. He’s an inveterate crate-digger who reissues pop oddities through his own Finders Keepers label and Whyte Horses are, in essence, his wildly eclectic record collection made flesh. Like Ian Parton with The Go! Team, he’s found that the essence of fantasy football transfers surprisingly smoothly across to the arena of musical obscurities.
That’s especially true of new record Hard Times, for which tonight serves as the official launch. Released a day prior, it’s the band’s third album, but their first composed entirely of covers and reworkings. The illustrious guest cast assembled on record are absent – no La Roux, no John Grant, no Traceyanne Campbell, no Chrysta Bell – but otherwise, plenty of care has gone into making this more than a front-to-back Hard Times showcase.
Instead, it’s a sprawling 25-track affair that boxes off key new cuts – from the handsome jangle-pop of Want You To Know to a swaggering take on Plastic Bertrand’s Ça Plane Pour Moi, via a jazzy spin on Cher's Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down). Sharp reminders of how well Thomas has translated his weird alchemy into original compositions, meanwhile, are frequent. The chiming prettiness of Peach Tree Street and the dusky chamber pop of Greatest Love in Town are both stirring cases in point, whilst recent Christmas single Next Year Will Be Mine is deemed too catchy to be dropped on account of such trivialities as the date and time.
In truth, though, it’s the little things that cement the sense of occasion; the kaleidoscopic showreel of esoteric film and television touchpoints that serves as a backdrop throughout, or the band taking the stage to The Woodsman’s sinister 'This is the water' broadcast from the Twin Peaks revival, something that’ll make sense to nobody but the lucky ones who caught their appearance up the road at HOME during the Manchester International Festival's David Lynch season last summer.
It’s the unannounced appearance of a light-up, cardboard robot as the carnival atmosphere really begins to take hold, and it’s the peculiar, vaudevillian turns between songs of the group’s mascot, a chap who looks as if he’s just wandered off the set of the second series of Blackadder, like a 17th century Bez. All of these flourishes add up, and remind you that the show’s been put together as lovingly as the songs and the setlist.
Most of all, though, the measure of the evening’s success is in how early on the crowd spill out of their seats and onto the balloon-studded stage floor, suddenly surrounding the ten players on stage and staying there for the duration. In the thick of what is a thoroughly bleak midwinter, the warmth of a Whyte Horses show – especially one that has them on this kind of all-cylinders form – goes beyond the celebratory: it actually feels like sanctuary. They’re a force for good in the world.