Pop For The Politically Disillusioned: Charlotte Church Live
Daniel Dylan Wray
, April 18th, 2017 09:44
There's a club if you'd like to go... you might end up singing a mash up of Faithless, Fat Boy Slim and Snap along with a leftwing Welsh pop & opera singer and forget that the world's ending, says Daniel Dylan Wray
All photographs by Tash Bright
“I thought you were all going to throw bottles of piss at me,” a relieved Charlotte Church says, between glugs directly from a prosecco bottle on stage at Stewart Lee’s ATP in 2016. It was the first ever outing of her Pop Dungeon and she was understandably apprehensive about how her new outfit was going to go down at a festival crammed with free jazz, obscure post punk and a general head-fest of esoterica would go down. But her opening trio of ‘Laura Palmer’s Theme’ (sung a cappella and with operatic range) into David Bowie’s ‘Girl Loves Me’ and then Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Closer’ had the crowd - who had no idea of what the Pop Dungeon was or what it entailed at this stage - whipped into a screeching mass from the off. It was in fact the highlight of the whole festival for many.
Such was the success of what was initially supposed to be a one-off show that the Pop Dungeon has been bubbling away as a quiet phenomenon through a series of 2016 festival appearances and into her current 2017 tour. Aside from this new musical outing, Charlotte Church has perhaps become as synonymous with politics as she has music in recent years, campaigning and speaking out publicly on a number of issues including Brexit and the environment. (Typically she called Trump a “tyrant” on Twitter after announcing she had been invited to perform at his shitshow of an inauguration.)
However, despite what feels like a surge of momentum from Church in recent years - driven by someone with a clear passion for, and distinct vision in, her political beliefs - when recently interviewed by The Pool and asked what political issues currently were most important to her, she responded: “I’ve become quite disillusioned like the majority of everybody else... So I feel a little bit lost at sea at the moment in terms of where to direct my energies.” It’s a statement that succinctly sums up a feeling most people are going through in the current political climate, that alongside crippling despondency, confusion, anger and fear, of course. The rolling news at the moment is like a pneumatic drill stuck on full and being keenly pressed against one's temples from morning to night, as feelings of helplessness and hopelessness rise ever more. Whilst Church may feel as at sea as the rest of us, her Pop Dungeon does still serve an important political function in its own way: solace.
Somewhat ironically, an overwhelming sense of division and stark polarisation is perhaps the most unifying feeling that many of us can share right now. For those who are not united in hate, we’re generally united through the disenchantment and despair that comes in response to such hate. Church seems all too aware of this and her Pop Dungeon feels more than coincidental in its timely construct. Instead it feels like a bespoke, carved-out haven to escape in for 90 minutes.
Recently on-stage in both Manchester and Leeds, Church and her large group are a ragtag bunch who look like they’ve ram raided a fancy dress shop whilst inebriated at 4am and just looted whatever they can get their hands on. Although rather than projecting any sense of wackiness or forced fun, it seems to function more as a statement of intent, that this is a care-free environment and, quite simply, don’t overthink it. Any lingering sense of doubt as to what you’ve got yourself in for is evaporated in seconds as the group hurtle into Prince’s ‘Get Off’, instantly nestling into a tight rhythm with Church’s vocals rising powerfully above the drum crashes as the funk-strut groove of the most excellent sex anthem locks into place. From then on in the show rarely stops. The band perform as a DJ might, overlapping, mixing and melding tracks into one another, often doing so in a way that teases and torments, building a quiet euphoria through surprise.
As the the Pop Dungeon evolves it also becomes clear that it holds an antithetical stance to poptimism, there’s no hierarchy or snobbery in place in what connects or constitutes pop music within this set. The fact that Black Sabbath, Fleetwood Mac, Nelly, Talking Heads, Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, Nirvana, Prince, Christina Aguilera, Basement Jaxx and En Vogue all hold hands in one long musical line is testament to the true universality of pop music. These songs are able to interweave into one another not only due to the group’s clear talents and abilities but because they demonstrate the boundarylessness of pop, illustrating the futility of drawing such distinctions in the first place. In fact, the Pop Dungeon creates such a judgement-free environment that even when the fucking poi gets cracked out you somehow instinctively overlook it, because you’re far too entranced by the opening synth waves and gliding bass of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Everywhere’ to really care.
The evening slides from moments of preposterousness to poignancy, the fake fire drill that quickly leads into a blast of ‘The Roof Is On Fire’ and then into Talking Heads’ ‘Burning Down the House’ is pure panto brilliance but the emotive charge and power of the rendition of Beyoncé’s ‘Sorry’ carries a sincere weight to it that perfectly captures the relationship and intensity that so many people found themselves attaching to that song, steeped in its anger and raging sense of exposure. Church and her group clearly understand the depth and weight of this music and its ability to be both a canyon of harmless fun as well as a triumphant and towering art form, or of course both at the same time.
The group’s ability to surprise remains one of their most powerful tools and it’s this that elevates them way beyond being just a good time party band and into a group who are deconstructing and altering the structure and essence of pop music in a way that’s genuinely innovating. ‘Survivor’ by Destiny’s Child into ‘Cry Me A River’ by Justin Timberlake into Radiohead’s ‘Paranoid Android’ and then allowing the flowing vocals of Church and her backing singers to come back in with ‘Survivor’ as the spiralling guitar lines of Radiohead continue in sync is one of many instances in which the ride the audience are being taken on feels as unpredictable as it does exhilarating.
On paper a cover band in fancy dress playing a mash up of Faithless, Fatboy Slim and ‘Rhythm Is A Dancer’ is enough to send most sensible people fleeing for the hills in search of new civilisation but in the context of the Pop Dungeon it’s an absolute highlight of the evening. This is not just because Church’s voice is stunning in its range and versatility or that the overlapping structural and melodic craft of the performance is genuinely impressive and supremely executed, but because by this stage in the set you’ve long trampled to death any inclinations of elitism. This is one of the many things that is so liberating about the show: it allows you to drop your hang ups entirely, to be willingly sucked into its vortex of joy without thought or analysis and to sing ‘Don’t Let Go’ with such unbridled joy that it feels cathartic. The Pop Dungeon doesn’t so much insist that you leave your cynicism at the door, it makes you forget it even exists.
The Pop Dungeon is very simply just a huge amount of fun, like the best wedding band you’ve ever heard but who play Can instead of Billy Joel; something to act as a bit of a subscriptive self-care tool, a burst of escapism, a moment of togetherness, a tonic for the times. A pop show for the politically disillusioned.
Charlotte Church's Late Night Pop Dungeon comes to Concorde 2 Brighton on April 28