Photography by Chontalle Musson
Review by Grace Hood-Edwards
The excitement was palpable as the crowd waited for British act Bastille’s return to the Kiwi stage. Spark Arena was packed – or at least it felt like it was – with the seating folded closer to create a tighter, more intimate space – giving the effect of a bustling arena. The high energy, bouncy tracks post-opening act and pre-Bastille – such as WALK THE MOON’s ‘Headphones’ and The Wombats’ ‘Lemon to a Knife Fight’ served to give the impression of a lively rock gig, as the free-flow seating allowed the crowd to mix and mingle as they wish.
Bastille begin by introducing their structure for the night’s show, with Act 1, titled “Still Avoiding Tomorrow”, beginning with a synaesthetic projection of a clock and a curtained window in a 60’s chintzy wall-papered room. The curtains open and the view looks out onto a partying city. The band members enter, with Dan Smith, lead vocalist, entering last and immediately beginning to leap and bound around the stage, strutting across the raised platform at the back, hardly even looking at the audience as the band break into ‘Quarter Past Midnight’.
Bastille segue neatly into ‘Send Them Off!’ as the crowd cheer loudly at the opening brassy notes. The stage is laid out interestingly, with Chris Wood and his drum set positioned, not at the typical back, but stage-left and facing inwards, which provides a surprising sense of connection between the band members. Smith, who has lost his baseball cap, is incredibly energetic, high-kicking his knees and thrusting his pelvis in time to the beat. Wood encourages the audience to lift up their hands.
After Dan Smith breaks for a second to talk to the audience and crack open a can of what he assures is water, the lights shift into an amber firelight as the silhouetted band begin ‘Things We Lost In The Fire’. This 2013 break-up track hits differently than it did in 7 years ago, something the band is aware of as they begin flashing up images of environmental destruction in the background. As the strings come in, Smith beats the drum in an almost world-weary fashion. In the centre of the crowd, above everyone else, there is a young child in a Bastille shirt raised up on his parent’s shoulders as images of the planet’s destruction play on the screen.
It was an eerie coincidence that the same date Bastille perform their appropriately apocalyptic ‘Doom Days’ concert in Auckland, that the iconic Doomsday Clock was altered ‘100 seconds to midnight’ to indicate that we are closer than ever to “the most dangerous situation that humanity has ever faced”, just as Bastille’s clock is continuously projected as a reminder of their night’s encroaching deadline.
Smith then says that they “wanted to make an album that is set during the apocalypse, that it sometimes feels like we’re all in in the moment, but that was about escapism and having fun and – for one night – setting everything aside and having a good time with your friends and stuff. But because we’re Bastille and all of our music is really fucking depressing, it started off with really happy, noble intentions and ended up being just as depressing as everything else we’ve done.” They break into ‘The Waves’, Smith’s self-described “most nihilistic tune about trying to have fun at a party“, where Smith’s smooth vocals are interrupted only by his trademark runs, which can’t help but bring a smile to my face. There is an innately practiced element to this show, but the little moments where the bandmates share a quick grin is priceless.
The psychedelic soundwaves disappear from the projected window and are replaced with a striking full moon. A lonesome Western intro signals ‘Two Evils’ as Smith and bassist/guitarist Will Farquarson are spotlighted on stage. Smith highly physicalizes his performance, curling up with his knees to his chest, as he croons “who is this man, who’s this act I hide behind?” – an isolated tortured boy in the darkness. It is possible to see his head and neck bobbing as he stretches out his vibrato. Smith is clearly having audio issues as he signals off-stage for his levels to be fixed, and takes out his earbud. The audience cheers as Smith goes into a long and indulgent falsetto run, but his gravelly resolution was the – no pun intended – high point, as it shaped the song into something deep-country and you could even see the tendons in his neck quivering.
An explosion of light and colour shifts gears into radio favourite ‘Happier’, a song featuring DJ Marshmello, as fragmented cityscapes flash across the screen. The mass appeal tune has the audience rising up and roaring. The intelligent stage design sees the projection, the second the chorus breaks, switching to a blurring first-person POV speeding through underground tunnels as Smith jumps – knees hitting his chest – leading the audience to jump with him. After this workout, Smith disappears for a quick and deserved break as Farquarson takes the mic, introducing ‘Bad Decisions’, a track from their album ‘Doom Days’.
Images of human vices – alcohol, gambling, drugs, and more – play in the window juxtaposed against clips of horrors of the modern world. They’re definitely trying to hammer in the message of our ‘Doom Days’, but overall the whole track and staging hit an off-note and gave me pause during the performance. The moment feels incredibly judgy, as the band didn’t talk about or give context to clarify the images they put on screen and just let the title ‘Bad Decisions’ say it for them. Juxtaposing gambling and children eating fast food directly against gun violence and environmental catastrophe is a rather classist attitude that ignores the socio-political power structure behind issues such as gambling and the availability of fast-food, and simply dumbing these behaviours down to ‘bad decisions’ doesn’t work. It’s a simplistic, judgemental, and – frankly – incorrect narrative to pair and associate various addictions with environmental and societal disaster, as their graphics do throughout the whole song. The crowd doesn’t seem to care though and are singing and swaying along happily.
Although it can be argued that Bastille’s whole ethos behind this album and this tour was providing an escape from the tough realities of our current global situation, and that this critical analysis is the exact unwelcome interjection they want to escape from, Bastille’s choice to include these images, and therefore these issues, into their show in-and-of-itself nullifies that goal of escapism.
The band close Act 1 with their oldest and one of their most popular tracks ‘Flaws’, which Smith announces by simply saying “This is the first song we released… We put it out on a shitty old vinyl, but it means we got a job. I hope you like this and that you’ve heard it before.” Halfway through the song, Smith very casually steps down into the crowd, messiah-like, and the crowd parts gently before him. It’s the chillest and possibly the coolest audience-talent interaction I’ve ever seen, with people giving him high-fives as he walks past. Smith seems to end up in the centre of the crowd where the child was balanced on his parent’s shoulders. Smith then continues, for the rest of the song, to travel through the crowd, stopping at multiple points and partying alongside the crowd as he belts out the chorus. It is a move that really hypes up the audience, and is an incredibly heart-warming gesture, as Smith moves among his fans and stays at their level. The audience’s smiles carry right to the end of the song.
Act 2 entitled “Those Nights” is heralded by a short snippet of ‘Weapon’ as a modulated track of Angel Haze rapping plays. Smith returns from another quick break to sit on the platform at the back of the stage and sing the titular “Those Nights”. It is a slow-moving love song as Smith hunches forward, plaintively twiddling his fingers and looking upwards at the heavens. Couples around me sway with their arms around one another as Smith drags his hand across his chest and his heart. There is this carefully staged ‘laidback’ element at play here, until the final lines hit and the lights change to a frenzied flashing red, with a skittering beat, as Smith full-bodiedly throws himself into the beat in these final moments.
Smith sits at the front of the stage for the quiet ‘4AM’, which Smith ends on an impressive extended note that receives huge applause. Partway through there’s a moment of construction as drummer Chris Wood stands up with his phone light on, waving his hand from side to side, encouraging the audience to light up the stadium – which they gladly do. I am not criticising thorough staging or a well-choreographed show – things I happen to love – but up until this point it felt as if there was a lack of authenticity that came through in moments of their performance. The show is certainly well-practiced but feels almost to the point of formulaic at times. It is a difficult, niggling sensation to put a name to – and I considered a few possibilities throughout the concert – whether it be what seemed like a general lack of smiling (something women get pulled up on all too frequently) or a concerted effort to seem un-practiced. However, regardless of the motivations behind their performance, they were performing incredibly well and – most importantly – giving the audience a great time.
The tempo picks back up with another one of their hits ‘Bad Blood’, as the audience dances along to their strong, fun beat. Smith intros ‘Doom Days’ by saying the track is “about as bleak, nihilistic and depressing as this is gonna get this evening. Really the absolute trough of the show, but hopefully we’ll take it back up from there. We wanted to make an album about escapism and trying to avoid real life…”
Green static illuminates the stage with a sickly glow and in an eerie moment the two final and eclectically talented members of the band, Kyle Simmons and Charlie Barnes, stand up straight and mechanically sing in unison into their mics. A heavy beat picks up as Smith beats his chest in time to it. Lyrics flash rapidfire on the screen to help the audience sing-along. The beat sets a great pace and the audience really get into the rhythm. Smith’s audio issues are obviously continuing as he keeps signalling offstage for his levels to be fixed. Perhaps the odd flashes of disconnection could be attributed to distraction. Continuing the shadowy theme, Bastille close Act 2 with ‘Blame’ – really leaning into the darkness of this one in a thrilling half-desperate manner. A personal favourite, this track is a great one to see come alive onstage, as the band electrifies the song with their highly energetic performance.
Chintz curtains take over the backdrop again and open to reveal the title for Act 3: “The Morning Doesn’t Reach Us”. The screen slowly zooms in on a black-and-white earth before the technicolour face of back-up singer Bim Amoako-Gyampah peeks through the window with soaring vocals. The crowd surges up as the stage bursts into colour at the first drop of the titular “joy” in the chorus. With the sudden difference in tone in Act 3, I began to believe that possibly the act structure assisted with my issues with band-audience connection. A second act is typically dark and the bleakness of Bastille’s second act worked. The intense amount of preparation and staging also works in correlation with the framework of ‘acts’, where we are witnessing the practiced construction and telling of a story, rather than a simple set-list.
This development in opinion was assisted by the fact that the very next moment, Wood took over the mic to do “a little bit of housekeeping” to offer the band’s “sincerest apologies on not having come down here on the second album tour.” He continues to apologise again and talking about how “blown away” they are to have such a large and great audience, and to repeatedly thank us for coming. This incredibly polite address to the audience felt incredibly sincere and was well-received.
As Bastille begin to climb the ascent of their third act, they introduce the lighter, more radio-friendly ‘Another Place’ featuring Alessia Cara as pink and blue close-ups of human’s touching one another play on the screen. Smith continues to put in a wild amount of energy as he charges from side of stage to side of stage, urging the crowd to raise up their hands. Continuing the positive vibes, the band move onto ‘Good Grief’ which opens with a quote from the movie Weird Science. The crowd really love this one, and as their voices can be heard shouting out above the music, it blends into an enthusiastic back-up chorus.
The screen returns again to the shot out of the window with the clock, and this time the familiar cityscape burns as uncanny wails of guitar score Smith’s words. He earns points by announcing they’re not doing an encore, because they’re “really lazy” and are not going to pretend to leave and come back as they’d “much rather stay here with you guys”. Smith then goes on with self-effacing humour and genuine warmth in his voice to talk about how “(we) may have noticed (he’s) not the best of dancers” and instructs the crowd on when to get down/jump up so “I’ll look a little less ridiculous for about ten minutes.”
‘Of The Night’ is an incredibly energetic dance track, and the audience is lead to jump up from a crouched position not once, but twice – experiencing a fraction of the workout Smith is going through on stage. Smith then leads the audience in a call and repeat, for ‘Million Pieces’ and says to “imagine you’re at this apocalyptic rave and you’re really trying to lose your mind.” In spite of the creepy close up of an eye on-screen, it’s an excellent moment and Smith plays the crowd masterfully. At one point it sounds as though his voice breaks a little, but Smith keeps going without pause – a true professional. The song breaks down in the bridge to a funky beat as Smith sings, and the crowd goes nuts. At this point I realised I had come around on the band and their performance, as their audience engagement was excellent and their performance and conversations felt genuine. At the close of ‘Million Pieces’, Wood directed his applause towards the crowd as Farquarson staggered backwards with a happy expression on his face. Smith, sounding honestly touched, earnestly said “Guys – thank you so much! Thank you so, so much for having us – it’s really nice to be back in New Zealand” before continuing to say thank you again repeatedly and announcing this would be their final song. It’s hard to hear over the applause, but I catch the words “feel very rough coming here”, which gave credence to another of my suspicion of sickness – supported by the rawness in Smith’s voice during their final song ‘Pompeii’.
I went to my first Bastille show in the UK in 2014, a big fan who organised a day off work and caught the train down early in order to queue up for hours to be in the second (an issue with my phone at the door robbed me of first!) row at their Bournemouth concert. Seeing them again in 2020, older and not having listened to much of their new releases, was a real experience – and as Smith and the audience sing out “But if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like nothing changed at all?/If you close your eyes, does it almost feel like you’ve been here before?” I experienced a gentle moment of nostalgia and overwhelming warmth for this band that is clearly loved by so many. White light illuminates the stage as the crowd roars back the iconic “eh, eh-oh” refrain and the band genuinely revel in it. In spite of my doubts and light recriminations at moments of the show, the entire band gave a stellar performance and a great experience to their Auckland audience. After Smith ends the show with the send-off “Have a great weekend. Get home safe. Lots of love” and a cheeky final “Bye!” the audience is loath to leave – staggering about and dancing amidst the detritus of plastic cups. There is even a final moment of good humour as the sound guys cut the audio of ‘Footloose’ to laughs and groans just as the chorus drops. Everyone seems to leave in high spirits.
And yet, it was rather disconcerting having images of nuclear explosions play on loop during ‘Pompeii’ whilst people dance crazily along with joy. The most nihilistic part of the set, ironically, came at the end, with the lingering image of a final nuclear explosion and hundreds of hands straining towards it.