Whether it’s unequalled highs or (more often) crushingly bleak lows, the theme of love has always been Frightened Rabbit’s most prevalent – so it’s fitting that tonight they play their biggest headline show on English soil just hours away from the annual day of romance. Not that coincidental scheduling is the only cause for unbridled affection in the crowd at this sold out date, after all the line-up plays out like a plaid-clad folky’s fantasy and accordingly there’s a revelry-like atmosphere from start to finish.
Glasgow quintet Washington Irving begin the love-in with their highly charged and traditional-infused folk rock, for the most part evoking some kind of ale-induced after hours duel between Neutral Milk Hotel and Flogging Molly. Although they show off their tender side mid-set, with frontman Joe Black standing solo and lending his crackly, Scots croon to an old folk song his mother once sang to him about “some dark shit”. Penultimate song, and new single, ‘Holy Company’ is perhaps still the standout however; its Dry The River-ish slow-build being delivered with the sort of prowess that would suggest they won’t be third on a bill for very long.
Exiting to a wall of feedback, it’s left to razor-sharp Canadians Wintersleep to deliver a tight and punchy string of Americana-infused indie ditties. Of course, in a parallel universe Paul Murphy & Co would land all the plaudits and top bills ahead of The Shins and Band Of Horses, but for now we’ll just have to remain secretly smug in the knowledge that last year’s fifth album ‘Hello Hum’ was one of 2012’s wrongly unsung highpoints. They close with the whopping, proggy feel-good epic ‘Miasmal Smoke & the Yellow Bellied Freaks’, which is easily as exhilarating as any of the wide-eyed moments in Arcade Fire’s live arsenal. Needless to say, the looping synth patch and psychedelic interludes garner rapturous reception and rightly so; perhaps, theirs will be a slow-burning success come album number six.
If anyone knows about steadily built success though, it’s the Selkirk quintet that flood the stage just after watershed. It’s reassuring to see, however, that despite signing to a major label and receiving widening exposure, Frightened Rabbit don’t seem to have lost any of the underdog charm that won them unwavering support early on. That’s why its still heart-battered standouts from ‘The Midnight Organ Fight’ that resonate most. The music may have been ironed out, but the unedited slew of emotions, from limbs lost in Scottish rain (‘The Modern Leper’) to planning your ex’s lover’s demise with a brick (‘Good Arms vs Bad Arms’), still seem as biting as they did in 2008 - particularly because a magnetic Scott Hutchison summons and venomously spits them out as if those feelings are still as raw as they ever were.
Sonically, they now belong with the big league; something showcased by a souped-up ‘My Backwards Walk’ (who’d have ever thought a lyric like “you're the shit and I'm knee-deep in it” would be a mass-refrain) and the light show that synchronises with ‘State Hospital’(s) sweltering, wall of noise climax. Although, that said, this aural growth feels like welcome progression rather than someone treading clumsily over your most treasured possessions, plus any faint whiff of bombast quickly evaporates with an understated, lone rendition of the gorgeous, c-bomb dropping ‘Poke’. Closing their emphatic encore with ‘The Loneliness and the Scream’, the band vacate, whiskey tumblers-aloft, leaving the room to continue howling its primal terrace chant long after they’ve disappeared. It’s a moment of humble euphoria, the kind that only a band who have their fingers wrapped around your heartstrings can orchestrate.