The Portland Arms was left full of smiles after Eliza and the Bear’s superb set last Wednesday night. The up-and-coming indie pop-rockers stopped off here on the second night of their UK tour to promote their long-awaited self-titled debut album, out April 1st. To an audience that knows them only by sporadic EP releases, however, they perform with a self-assurance that shows they’re now more than ready to break mainstream indie territory – and we’re just as excited as they are for it.
The London five-piece have a knack for creating infectiously joyful pop anthems, reminiscent of Of Monsters and Men and Mumford. They open tonight’s set with ‘Lion’s Heart’: a bright, punchy piano anthem complete with crashing cymbals and jubilant brass, which immediately gets everybody’s hands swaying and clapping in the air. But there’s a darker feel that pervades the euphoric renditions of their EP material, on new tracks such as ‘Oxygen’. Piercing, smoky guitar riffs backgrounded by stomping, crunching drums and bass drive home an impressive sense of strength in the band’s developed technical skills. It’s a refreshing change of emotional direction, and promises a progression from the slightly homogenous moods of their past releases. There’s an elated relief amongst the band and the audience throughout the set that these new songs are now, at last, getting played.
The three years in which the group have developed this release has seen them go from strength to strength. Despite remaining unsigned up until their recent deal with Capitol Records, they’ve been featured on Radio X’s Great X-Pectations and Radio 1’s Favourites lists, played Reading and Leeds, and have even done Wembley Stadium supporting Paramore in 2013. It’s no surprise, then, that they manage to sell out tonight’s modestly-sized venue. But the band thankfully manage to avoid coming across as worldly-wise or arrogant in their performance. Even when a fire alarm goes off midway through ‘Talk’, the band take the opportunity to do some hilarious impromptu riffing of Fur Elise and ask if there’s anyone in the audience they can wish a happy birthday. They can still find the funny side amongst the inevitable pitfalls of a first album tour – they can make this accident a happy one.
This is clearly a group who’ve created a rock-solid foundation of performance experience on which to launch their debut. Backstage, guitarist Martin Dukelow tells me: “We feel like the best thing about this band is playing live. We’re confident, we love playing live – we believe in ourselves.” And the band have made it their priority to not overlook their audiences during their recording process. “98% of it was recorded live”, says drummer Paul Kevin Jackson – “We played it as if we were playing it to people.”
The songs tonight do feel as though they could have been made with this very crowd in mind. During penultimate number and audience favourite ‘Friends’, the band triumphantly yell out the joyous chorus – “I’ve got friends, I’ve got family here” – with arms outstretched as if to pull the entire audience into a massive group hug. This sense of togetherness, of having created a record not only to perform but to give to their audience, is what sparks every smile in the room full of dancing listeners tonight. Eliza and the Bear have achieved an extraordinary amount of success for a band who have yet to drop a debut album, but they’re in no need of a reality check just yet. They’ve left space for growth, and for a few laughs too: their trajectory seems upward, but their feet as yet remain firmly on the ground.