Just looking at the elaborate setup laid out on stage before he made his appearance, it was hard to believe it was going to be a one-man show. Yet, for two hours, in what was the penultimate of four sold-out gigs at the Barbican, Nils Frahm dominated the stage only accompanied by a remarkable array of instruments that crossed genres as much as musical eras.
Jumping between more than six keyboards – which ranged from a grand piano to an organ to a Roland Juno 60 – the musician and composer used his whole body to operate the equipment, turning knobs and pushing buttons on the sequencer and delay pedals with a confidence and precision that didn’t fail to impress.
Opening with a few tracks from his most recent album All Melody and closing with the older More, Frahm appeared comfortable between his gear, taking time in between songs to “push a few buttons” and change the settings for the following track, while trying “not to mess up” (as he had apparently done the day before). His assertive movements and playful words created the perfect atmosphere for what often felt like an intimate show put on for a close circle of friends, rather than a public performance in front of a big crowd.
During the course of each track, what often started as a deceivingly simple melody, quietly crafted on the harmonic or the upright piano, would – with a few exceptions – quickly evolve into an intricate juxtaposition of harmonic and rhythmic layers looped with increasing complexity on top of choral samples, expanding in texture to the point of filling up the whole auditorium with warm and reverberated sounds.
“An intricate juxtaposition of harmonic and rhythmic layers looped with increasing complexity on top of choral samples”
His short use of the grand piano as a percussion instrument – skilfully played with some toilet brushes (yes, that’s right) – only made me wish he had gone on for longer, perhaps indulging less in the piano solos and more in dancefloor-friendly intermissions like ‘#2’. But, as he himself was happy to admit, people seemed to have a particular affection for those of his songs that consisted of “the same chord played over and over for six minutes”.
And it’s hard to deny that it was exactly those songs that allowed his live show to reach a few moments of high lyricism, compared to which the occasional attempts to bring in punchier electronic kicks, although musically interesting, sometimes paled.
Despite that, Frahm perfectly juggled post-classical melodies with mesmerising loops and powerful bass lines like very few can do.
And after all, if a crowd of nearly 2,000 spectators sacrificed a rare sunny day in London to gather in the dark and watch him play, it was going to be worth it.
At £15 for a student ticket, I couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend that cold Saturday afternoon.
Support Artist: None. Venue: Barbican. Date: 24th February 2018. Ticket Price: £15.