A pandemic pick-me-up...

William Doyle gives those willing to venture out in a pandemic a vital blast of live music that proves as cathartic for the audience as it does the performer, writes Nico Franks.

"Thanks for risking your lives to come out and see me play," isn't the kind of sentence you're used to hearing as a gig goer in the UK. But this is 2020 in a pandemic and this is how William Doyle introduces himself to the 40-or-so people sat in pairs at little tables in a 350-person capacity room.

"No singing and no dancing," is also an unfamiliar rule to be told before you enter a gig but, again, this is 2020 and gig going is very, very different now. Whereas before sterile atmospheres were something to be avoided at gigs, these days they're a requisite for them to go ahead.

It's in this environment my flatmate and I sit down to watch William Doyle, playing the second night of his two night residency at Oslo, Hackney on a wet Saturday night in east London. Operating in a pandemic has seen the previously sweaty venue repurpose itself as a kind of vast jazz bar, with table service delivering cans of Red Stripe ordered via an app rather than cocktails.

Eight months ago, Doyle played COLOURS down the road in Hoxton, flanked on stage by a full band, including a saxophonist, having recently released Your Wilderness Revisited, an ambitious album in which the 29-year-old musician conjured up intense memories of his childhood growing up in suburbia in full, electronic technicolour.

Now, presumably for a whole host of reasons, Doyle is back to playing on his own, evoking the days when he played under the moniker East India Youth as a younger man, this time surrounded by house plants and foliage, the de facto accessories of our lives in lockdown.

Doyle is joining the likes of Taylor Swift and Paul McCartney in releasing an album recorded in the solitude of lockdown. He opens with two new songs, one of which involves lots of looping of instruments and lyrics, including the repeated refrain "I'm always dimming the light switch." Domestic life has never loomed over us so much than over the past eight months and many of the new songs Doyle plays feature moments of harsh, atonal dissonance, perhaps in reaction to the unnerving quiet that hung in the air at the height of lockdown.

This transfers over to moments in songs from 'Your Wilderness Revisited' which, for what they've lost by not having a live drummer or saxophonist in the mix, gain from the evident catharsis Doyle feels from being able to play them live again. 'Nobody Else Will Tell You' feels particularly dynamic, as Doyle duets with himself, the powerful chords of his guitar rubbing up alongside his two keyboards and drum loop.

It's a lot for one person to do and at times Doyle looks like he could do with a third arm. But the challenges of making a living as an artist in the UK these days are stark, as our government lurches from one catastrophe to another with arts and culture scenes up and down the country serving as collateral. It's hard to imagine only the most already well-heeled and established bands turning much of profit when venues like Oslo have to operate at 12.5% of their capacity to put on a gig.

But William Doyle in a socially distanced room is infinitely better than no William Doyle at all, as one audience member makes clear when asked by the musician if tonight's gig is a little too weird for comfort. And a quick scan of Twitter highlights how much tonight's gig, and the one the evening before it, have meant to audiences.

Ever since Doyle switched to performing under his own name rather than EIY, the songs from his Mercury Music Prize-nominated back catalogue have been off the table when he's performed live. Up until now, Doyle, to his credit, has preferred to look forward, rather than back.

But with so little to look forward to in 2020, it's been nigh on impossible not to reflect on things. Tonight's gig reflects this, with 'CAROUSEL' and 'Heaven, How Long', from EIY's 'CULTURE OF VOLUME' and 'Total Strife Forever' respectively, getting rare live outings.

The latter, which introduced EIY to the world back in 2013, is the most affecting of all, losing none of its glorious bombast in the intervening years that its laid dormant. As it swells to its redemptive crescendo, propelled by a chainsaw guitar riff, Doyle asks the same question we've all been asking ourselves in recent months as the pandemic rolls on. And on. And on. Heaven, how long?

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Words: Nico Franks
Photo Credit: Eleonora C. Collini

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