A year ago, I’d never heard of the name Loyle Carner, let alone his real name, which is (confusingly) Benjamin Coyle-Larner, despite the fact that it was beginning to pop up all over various ‘one to watch’ lists. Over the course of 2017, I’ve watched him release his debut album, feature on 6 Music Live alongside the likes of Morrissey and Robert Plant, and perform to a packed crowd at Glastonbury festival. It shouldn’t then come as a surprise that I was pretty thrilled to get the chance to go to an intimate performance of his at Exeter Phoenix. This was actually the third time I’ve seen him live, though the previous two times were in festival settings, so I was very intrigued to see how he would perform in a relatively small venue. I arrived at the Phoenix in high spirits considering the ten minute walk through the rain that I’d endured to get there, and after joining some friends in the queue and drying off a little we made our way to Phoenix’s main performance room.
We’d chosen to get there a little early, in order to grab ourselves a space near the front – we ended up being about a meter away from the stage – and to be on time for the support act, Elisa and Srigala. The Brixton-based duo, made up of soul singer Elisa Imperilee, and beat-maker and rapper Srigala, headed onto the stage, both wearing black t-shirts and jeans, and seemed instantly at ease. Duos can often feel imbalanced, with disproportionate attention on one half of the pair, but Elisa and Srigala switched the focus between each other very naturally, and their voices complemented each other well when they sang together. Elisa’s soft, breathy voice was showcased on their opener ‘Difference’, which, accompanied in later songs by Srigala’s quiet, thoughtful rapping, made for a very relaxed performance. Apart from one awkward moment where Srigala accidentally said “What up, Norwich?” instead of Exeter, the audience were full of enthusiasm for the pair, and joined in eagerly when asked for help on the chorus to their final song.
Loyle is a fantastic storyteller
After they finished, there was a brief break in which we had time to take in the staging, which created a homely atmosphere in the room by literally trying to recreate a home – a cosy armchair on a carpet, with a DJ deck painted to look like bookshelves with family photos dotted along the top. Before long, we heard the gospel strains of the introduction to ‘The Isle of Arran’, and Loyle Carner burst onto the stage, just in time for the first verse. Beginning his set with the opener from his debut album, Yesterday’s Gone, was a perfect move, as it engaged the audience immediately, being one of his most well-known songs, as well as setting the tone for what was to come. In fact, his set ran in more or less the order of his album track list, with some old and new songs filtered in, and intermissions where he explained backstories and inspirations.
Within his music, Loyle is a fantastic storyteller, but it was really interesting to be given context. He touched on the death of his father multiple times, firstly before performing ‘Tierney Terrace’, a deeply emotional track and the first single he ever released. He explained that his dad was “a fantastic musician”, and told us that “he said we were going to tour the world together… but sadly we never got the chance to do that because my dad passed away, so I take his football shirt everywhere I go so me and him can share the stage together.” We heard more about his father’s music before ‘Sun Of Jean’, where he explained the song’s complicated composition. The piano sample comes from a song called ‘Drifting’, written and performed by his dad before his death, and the song ends with a poem written by his mother. With his rap over the top of it, ‘Sun of Jean’ becomes a perfect collaboration between him and his parents, and it’s even described in the album listing as ‘featuring Mum and Dad’.
As well as offering new light on old material, Loyle blessed us with some new music, first of all the as-yet unreleased ‘Price Is Right’, performed with his friend and musical partner Rebel Kleff, a song which echoed the repetitious style of their other joint songs, such as ‘NO CD’ and ‘No Worries’ (which I’ve always internally titled ‘Yes-Yes-Yah’). Secondly, in the middle of ‘No Worries’, Loyle actually improvised a section of unaccompanied rap in which he referenced Exeter Phoenix, a moment which predictably went down incredibly well with the crowd.
I was blown away by his talent and his modesty
Throughout the performance, the crowd was extremely receptive, most people there seeming to know his words really well, and everyone seemed quite animated despite the often-sombre nature of his music. He was word-perfect throughout and yet in a live setting he still managed to bring a different energy to his songs, for example, ‘Ain’t Nothing Changed’, which is quiet and dejected in its recorded version, was transformed into the most dynamic song of the set, with the crowd shouting the lyrics along with him. At one point, in fact, a group of people near us in the crowd, who had been pushing each other around and being a bit aggressive on and off during the show, got so rowdy that he told them off between songs. “Look after yourselves in the middle or I will kick you out,” he called, playfully. “I do that now.” This was a reference to a recent incident where he’d got someone banned from a venue he’d played for being sexist to his support act, which he then went on to briefly address in a sweet speech that ended in “just look after each other, man – women are just as important as men.”
As his music is intensely personal, you could grasp the sensitivity of Loyle Carner’s personality just by listening to his album, but after seeing him in person his charm is completely undeniable. Honestly, every time I’ve watched him perform I’ve been more and more blown away by his talent and his modesty. Towards the end, a crowd-member called out to him about how good-looking he is (I promise it wasn’t me) and he responded, “It’s not about how I look, it’s about how I sound” and I have to say, he sounded pretty fantastic.