C Duncan makes beautiful music. His debut album, Architect, released last year, was something of a masterpiece: melodic, emotional and layered, it was a thing to get lost in – so it was no surprise when it got nominated for a Mercury Album of the Year Award. Its haunting folk content was characterised by its rich and expertly mixed symphonic sound, something that no doubt took hundreds of hours in a studio to perfect. So how, with a four-person band, on a stage half the size of the box room in a Lenton house, would he recreate it live? The answer is: very, very well.
At a glance, he and his band are about as unassuming as a group of young men can be; when they walked onto the stage in their Marks and Spencer jumpers and NHS glasses, looking a bit uncomfortable to be in the spotlight, the audience barely noticed. And then they started to sing, with Duncan on lead vocals and his band on back-up, and it was captivating. Duncan’s music combines simple finger-picked guitar lines with airy organ keyboards and undulating melodies that suddenly break out into stunning choral harmonies. His songs are like white light shining through a prism – a single, illuminating line that is then scattered into an array of colours around the room. The power and purity in the polyphonic vocals was celestial, the church choir singing out of joy rather than duty.
Apart from the occasional anecdote between songs (the first time the he came to Nottingham he had a car crash, the second time only four people turned up to the gig), the band didn’t do much on stage. This didn’t really matter, however, as this was a show entirely dedicated to sound. The lack of visual distractions allowed the listener to become immersed in the music, absorbing its layers in an induced synaesthesia, occasionally even becoming quite psychedelic – like if Kevin Parker produced a Fleet Foxes album. It was sonically intriguing, at one point Duncan played a new song in the jarring time signature of 7/4 that was quite brilliant.
The highlight of the show was hit song ‘For’, which features several interweaving vocal melody lines and a whistled hook, which, though played perhaps a little hastily, was excellently executed. He also played a version of Cocteau Twins’ classic Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops featured on his new EP – risky to cover one of the few bands with a sound more lush than your own, but he did it justice, with a warm, folky spin.
There is a trend at the moment for British singer-songwriters to be a bit limp and twee, nice boys playing nice music nicely. Duncan manages not to fall into this category because of his genuine musical mastery. Something as simple as use of dynamics in his music, knowing when to play loudly and when to strip it down to a single plucked note, breathes life into his music, each song is a journey. These are nice boys playing great music excellently.
C Duncan’s shows are intimate, transporting and exciting. He is skilful and likeable and will hopefully continue to put out music for many years to come.