“They say you play this venue twice in your life: once on the way up and once on the way down. Well, it’s good to be back,” Declan McKenna quipped at the start of his set at The Sinclair on Oct. 11. The joke was clear to the audience as McKenna’s career has only been on the rise, and this show made it obvious why.
Annie DiRusso opened for McKenna, and although most of the audience didn’t seem to know her songs, its members matched her vibrant energy. DiRusso’s lyrics were relatable and her guitar lines were head-banging, both of which she delivered passionately. Her set would inspire any first-time listener to add her music to their playlists. Several quirky elements made the performance even more fun: the matching outfits that she and her band sported, the trampoline on the stage that her guitarist occasionally jumped on and the synchronized choreography that all of the musicians executed during her final song.
McKenna’s set kicked off with a recorded cover of The Beatles’ “With A Little Help from My Friends” (1967) that played before McKenna even stepped onto the stage, a bit of a surprise to fans who had already stalked the setlist online. However, this choice was certainly in line with the inspiration that McKenna openly takes from pop-rock icons, especially those of the ‘70s. This influence is clear in “Zeros” (2020), the album he is touring, as well as his fashion choices, which for this show included glittery eyeshadow and a Bowie-esque outfit.
McKenna’s first song was “Beautiful Faces,” which immediately engaged the audience as the lyrics encouraged them to “lift your hands up!” He performed the entire tracklist of “Zeros,” which was interspersed with most of the songs from his debut album, “What Do You Think About the Car?” (2017), as well as his most recent single, “My House.” Standouts were “Make Me Your Queen,” a stripped-down version making the emotion in the song palpable, and the opening track of “Zeros,” “You Better Believe!!!” which perfectly encompassed McKenna’s adeptness at shifting between catchy, energetic riffs and esoteric lyrics.
The small and intimate size of The Sinclair was the perfect setting for McKenna. He consistently engaged with fans throughout the show and humorously recounted his previous experience at the venue years earlier when he climbed up onto the balcony and was scolded by a security guard. Sadly, he did not do the same at this show. He also responded to fans showing him images on their phones and accepted a bouquet of flowers from an attendee in the front row. He didn’t hesitate to let his personality shine through between and during songs.
The most notable aspect of McKenna’s performance was the emotion that he injected into every song, which could be heard in his voice, and seen in his facial expressions and passionate body language. Whether it was a vulnerable expression of insecurity like “Humongous'” or an apocalyptic banger like “Rapture,” the audience responded directly to his energy. McKenna hopped onto the piano for “Be an Astronaut,” which featured his guitarist Isabel Torres on a beautiful solo in the middle of the song. Throughout the set, McKenna showed his chops in all aspects of musical performance, from vocals to guitar to piano, and even the tambourine.
He left the stage briefly and came back for an encore that consisted of “Daniel, You’re Still a Child,” “Why Do You Feel So Down,” “Eventually, Darling,” his viral hit “Brazil” and the highlight of the set, protest rock anthem “British Bombs.” It was for this last number that McKenna grabbed a guitar plastered with the U.K. flag, which he then seemingly symbolically threw to the ground before launching into the epic buildup of the song’s bridge and final chorus.
Something that stands out in McKenna’s music is his extensive reference to social, political and often existential themes. This closing performance, as well as many of his other songs, clearly channeled his political frustrations. There is no doubt that his overwhelmingly young audience not only identifies with this feeling, but also appreciates the extremely danceable melodies and guitar lines that McKenna so expertly wraps his scathing political commentary into. A Declan McKenna concert is a space where you can sing and shout along with him about issues from climate change to corruption, and have a grand old time doing it. It is a truly unique and cathartic experience.