by Steven Sanchez
On April 19, England’s newest import, Declan McKenna, fresh off from playing at the popular Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, brought the same energy and vibes to the sold out, small downtown venue. The nineteen-year-old singer/songwriter and Glastonbury Festival’s Emerging Talent Competition winner didn’t let up on the intensity with his eyes covered in glitter, nails painted, strutting around in a tiara, and jumping off his amps while shuffling through one anthem after the next from his debut album What Do You Think About the Car? The place was wall-to-wall with screaming high school aged millennials with their cell phones primed and ready to flash away. His audience matched his image in a fashion sense…glittery faces, bright clothing, as if some fans made the drive from Indio, California, that hosts the Coachella Festival, and took the 99 to come see him again.
His whole presence is very reminiscent of vintage David Bowie, with raw energy from 80s pop solo acts like Billy Joel, Bryan Adams, and Rod Stewart with a 90s-alternative edge and similarities to Bob Dylan’s lyrical commentary of society. The show was definitely all about him, but he was accompanied by a very praiseworthy backup band consisting of Isabel Torres (guitar), Nathan Cox (bass), Will Bishop (keyboard), and Gabi King (drums). They provided a solid backbone filled with 70s psychedelic riffs, 60s keyboard rhythms, and hard-driving groovy beats. From spectating his show, Declan’s work has something to say, and his followers listen, demonstrated throughout the night as they sang the lyrics along with him verbatim as if they live their life by his lyrics. Screaming in delight from recognizing the songs within milliseconds of each introduction and clapping to every single beat on point.
In this post-9/11 world, where the youth of America, and elsewhere, are expressing their voices loudly and clearly whether it be through social media or on the street, McKenna does it with his music, as his most renowned songs have resonance because there is a message to his art. “Brazil”, the single that first got him worldwide recognition was a rallying cry against the FIFA World Cup in Brazil and the corruption scandal around it. “Paracetamol” is a support song that is ripped from the headlines based on the suicide of the transgender teen, Leelah Alcorn, from Ohio for having to endure parents subjecting her to religious therapy to “fix” her. “Bethlehem” represents McKenna’s condemnation against religion’s ugly grip on war and hate and what can happen from it. “Isombard” is a satire against negative portrayals being shown on television, especially the news with people and parties pushing their agendas. With that kind of serious content one would assume his music to be serious, but to the contrary, despite his altruistic messages, they are shrouded with upbeat and poppy sound arrangements that are so catchy. If you were to strictly intake his music at face value, you wouldn’t expect his words to have such emotional depth.
It didn’t matter if the song was fast or slow, loud or melodic, electric or acoustic, he’s the whole package and he’s been delivering it ever since he’s burst onto the scene in 2015. In 2016, he made his first American late-night television appearance by his lonesome on Conan performing “Brazil” and returned this year accompanied by his band playing the track, “Humongous.” He played an acoustic set with Isabel for the Take One series on Rolling Stone magazine’s YouTube page. He’s been hard at work expanding his appeal by becoming a recommended name at the most world-renowned festivals around the globe ranging from South by Southwest, Lollapalooza, Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds, and that’s just naming a few.
Soren Bryce was the opening act, and she didn’t receive any less praise than the headliner. It was a one-woman act, with only a guitar, a board of foot pedals, and a laptop to provide background music. The style is titled “looping,” where an artist, with the assistance of technology, can make a sound, and with a press of a button can make it play repeatedly for a song’s running time. The young auteur, in her casual, bohemian garb, commanding the stage with equivalent independence to her solo predecessors like Liz Phair, Tori Amos, and Alanis Morissette, did a cover of “Arcade Fire”, and offered us a treat by admitting to the crowd that she was playing new originals. Throughout her set, shouts of “I Love You” were directed towards her, and needless to say, within minutes of her set, she was embraced by the Fresno crowd. Most audiences get antsy after paying money to see the headliner, that often they shrug off the opener, that wasn’t the case this time. The warming reception bestowed to her show and her new material was very gratifying to witness.
Declan is paving his own route to becoming another valuable voice for this generation of music lovers. Even a fellow Brit, the award winning and acclaimed songstress and phenomenon, Adele, has complimented his talents and efforts, especially how he’s making things happen at his young age. With an endorsement courtesy of Conan O’ Brien when the red-headed funnyman announced on live television during his first appearance that, “This guy is going to rule the world,” and with his youthful exuberance, outspoken lyrics, and international appeal…he has the potential to do that.