The Irrepressibles/Gabby Young and Other Animals, Barbican, London
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The Barbican Gallery is full of mannequins, dressed to the nines in Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto. The two acts in Saturday night’s accompanying concert reflected the exhibition obliquely through a combination of fashion, theatricality and a certain other-worldliness, though in very different ways.
Gabby Young and Other Animals ramped up their circus swing into a big band with an extended brass section. Young strutted in front like Minnie the Moocher with Union Jack umbrella and candy-striped cane. She introduced “Male Version of Me” as being about “someone on this stage”. Stephen Ellis, her guitarist and beau, stood to one side, looking gratified with a melodica. “You’re perfect for me,” she crooned. The songs turned from style to style. “Ask Me a Question” was a relationship rebuke delivered as coloratura burlesque Cossack dance. The mariachi fanfare of “Horatio” broke into a jazzy shuffle before Ellis gave a matador stamp. “Lady of the Lake” punctuated ghostly wails with flapper dance.
Young was all warmth and inclusion. Jamie McDermott, leader of The Irrepressibles, was warmed only by the fires of artifice. The set started sepulchral, mirrored backings lit only by standard lamps that winked slowly on and off. Initially the only lighting was on McDermott, in a white suit with a glittery silver top hat; then spotlights revealed the rest of his orchestra, a chamber sextet plus vibes and keyboards, looking like a faerie house band from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The music was frostily gorgeous: “I’ll Maybe Let You”, “In Your Eyes” and “Forget the Past” had instantly appealing melodies. But it became clear that everything was in thrall to the leader: the musicians jerked in unison like marionettes, or swayed like sailors with the weather in McDermott’s head, the pathetic fallacy made kinaesthetic.
Solipsism is no bar to art: the entire 1970s career of David Bowie is a monument to it. But for all the adoring, whooping fans, there was something hermetic about The Irrepressibles, the mirrored labyrinth all too apt.