Loyle Carner weaved old favourites amongst tracks from his latest album, in a set that balanced intimacy and power in equal measure at Wembley’s OVO Arena.
An album billed as an artist’s most authentic and vulnerable to date is a charge that’s often bandied around among promo, but it’s safe to say Loyle Carner’s hugo, released in October last year, was exactly that.
Rich, melodic and introspective, it has a clear narrative arc of self-acceptance all derived from the artist’s own experiences: offering forgiveness to a distant father; becoming a dad himself; and feeling an outsider with mixed-race heritage amid a backdrop of knife crime and tokenism, with “the plastic guy at the paper that thinks that Kano looks like Wiley”.
At Wembley’s OVO Arena last night, the recent BRIT Award nominee, real name Benjamin Coyle-Larner, brought all of this to bear during a set that captured the ebbs and flows of hugo – and sprinkled in some old favourites for good measure.
The opening track to his latest album, ‘Hate’, likewise kicked-off the show’s proceedings, making immediate sense of the car onstage that features in the song’s music video. In fact, this car, emblazoned with the number plate ‘S331-HGU’, is far more than just a stage prop: it replicates the car belonging to Loyle Carner’s dad, which – the artist would remind us later in his set – he took driving lessons in, slowly healing the pair’s relationship.
It proved a thumping opener before rolling into the jazzy climes of ‘Plastic’. Here, you began to appreciate that whilst Loyle was no doubt the main event, this display was powered by the live musicianship from the likes of Finn Carter on keys; Richard Spaven motoring through on drums; Marla Mbemba (who goes under the artistic moniker of Martha Kether) on bass; and Mark Mollison on guitar, who, musical nerds will note, is brothers of Ezra Collective’s saxophonist. (A nifty guitar solo on ‘Speed of Plight’ showed just how impressive these familial music talents run).
This strong foundation, along with the personal growth detailed in hugo, seemed to be one of the many aspects that made Loyle Carner seem more confident than ever. Having been “doing this for a decade”, he told us, Loyle Carner has always skirted, though never surpassed, the status of global superstar – being firmly championed as a homegrown UK talent instead.
At OVO Arena, he appeared an artist at the peak of his performative powers, his hair slicked-back and braided, as he donned a flashy leather jacket that he’d later take off, and a custom-made scarf bearing the ‘Speed Of Plight’ refrain, “Is the world moving fast for you as well?”
You could forgive him for posing such a question. At one point, he appeared to cast his eyes up and mouth the words “Wembley”, as if to recall all the hard graft that had led to this moment.
There were plenty of reminders of that journey among the setlist, too. Breezy, Tom Misch-featuring ‘Damselfly’ was the first track to be played from the singer’s pre-2019- Not Waving, But Drowning LP; and although Tom Misch wouldn’t make a physical appearance (despite the numerous shoutouts of his name from Loyle), Erik the Architect would join onstage for the happy-sad 2020 tune ‘Let It Go’. Warm-up act Olivia Dean joining for the sultry ‘Homerton’ marked another shrewd onstage addition.
The most effective of these early tunes, however, was ‘Ain’t Nothing Changed’, with its distinctive, smoky saxophone opener that samples Piero Umiliani’s ‘Ricordandoti’. Having this played to a sold-out show of predominantly twentysomethings, many of whom have grown up with Loyle Carner, and now find themselves in a stagnant socio-economic predicament created a groundswell of support around the chorus of, “They ask why every fucking song the fucking same / And I tell them it’s ‘cause ain’t nothing changed / Saying ain’t nothing changed”.
Subsequent tune ‘Nobody Knows (Ladas Road)’ – also featuring a memorable sample, in Pastor T. L. Barrett’s 1971 tune – was a glorious, gospel-infused highpoint before Loyle relayed how hugo’s name came to be from the bonnet of the car, and then driving headfirst into the album closer ‘HGU’.
Thus, we’d come full circle, from the raw honesty of opener ‘Hate’ to forgiveness; a man’s personal journey of maturation that had been distilled into an album, and now had been delivered with aplomb from the stage.
The encore of Jordan Rakei-featuring ‘Ottolenghi’ cast a final nod to the mellow beauty of Loyle’s output (as well as his Mr. Nice Guy, chef credentials), but in truth we’d had all we’d needed; a beginning, middle and end that delivered what some might say was his most authentic and vulnerable show to date.