King Krule released his debut album 6 Feet Beneath the Moon in 2013. Next, in 2015, came A New Place 2 Drown. Two years later, right on cue, we have The Ooz. Between album releases, Krule retreats from the spotlight, so it was a long wait for fans who didn’t detect him emerging from the shadows under various aliases (Edgar the Beatmaker, Lankslacks, The Return of Pimp Shrimp) to release a variety of scattered music projects. Like Midas, everything King Krule touches turns to gold, and each album has gained critical acclaim and worldwide attention. He’s collaborated with Earl Sweatshirt, Frank Ocean, and recently turned down Kanye West – but his use of aliases and snub of the limelight surely means that Krule wants to evade the public eye. Tonight, however, with the queue of fans at The Refectory spilling out across the University of Leeds campus, we can see this might have already become an impossible task.
The support act is Obongjayar, real name Steven Umoh. When Umoh first began performing in the UK, he sang without his native accent, believing an American accent was the route to success. Now his Nigerian accent predominates his songs, and carries proudly in the room. He performs poetic afrobeat with elements of soul and jazz, and it’s a performance I cannot praise enough. The room feels at once enchanted when he arrives suddenly on the stage and dives straight into verse. Later I notice the buzz of distracted chatting in the audience, so it might have just been my own enchantment that made the room feel spellbound. Atmospheric tracks like Blue Skies feel sombre and raw, despite its lyrics singing ‘Baby you’re my sunshine’. Spaceman is a little more fast-paced, but similarly mournful. Umoh’s vocals are accompanied by two guitarists and a drummer, and Umoh also plays the tambourine during some tracks. It’s a simple arrangement but extremely powerful. The frontman dances slowly in one spot on the stage throughout, crouching down to howl his emotional final track, Creeping. The entire performance is full of tension, and I feel woozy when it finishes as suddenly as it began. I’ve no doubt that there are great things ahead for Obongjayar.
The rows from where I watched Obongjayar had felt a bit lifeless, so I determine to move closer to the stage for Krule. I soon find out that this is easier said than done – the room is tightly packed. I come no closer to the front when I try to squeeze ahead, but I do succeed in making every single person in my path very angry. I’m forced to wave a white flag and shuffle back. Some fans here might understandably be a little more prickly tonight, as a late change of venue was not well-received. Fans who first bought tickets for Krule’s rare return to Leeds thought they’d be catching him at Belgrave, before the gig was given two venue “upgrades” by organisers – first to Leeds University Union’s Stylus, and finally to their Refectory. It’s a venue even double the size Krule played in his native London just the night before, and it’s a shame that we’ve lost the intimacy that Belgrave would have granted.
It’s a short wait before the lights dim suddenly and Krule emerges on stage. The room erupts at his arrival. The stage lights remain dim for the gig’s entirety, with only the silhouettes of the band members discernible – Krule is determined to stay in the shadows. Has This Hit begins the show, followed by Ceiling, both tracks from Krule’s first album. There’s a good balance of songs new and old, and next comes one of his latest and most popular, Dum Surfer. It’s chanted almost monotonously in the recorded version, but tonight Krule howls the lyrics into the mic, and it’s a fantastically gritty performance. His sound is genre-defying, a blend of blues, jazz, punk, trip hop and dub – Krule calls it blue wave. Likewise, the live versions are experimental and immersive, with Krule accompanied on stage by musicians on drums, bass, guitar and saxophone. Every single review of Krule’s music speaks of his ‘croon’, but it is hard to find a better word for the guttural growl of his voice.
It’s after Dim Surfer that the frontman speaks for the first time. “It’s good to be back in Leeds… I never went to university…” he trails off. His voice is thick and gruff – muffled further by the room’s huge size. I find myself again pining for Belgrave. A crashing of instrumentals brings in the next song, A Lizard State. Krule moshes around the stage, and is imitated by the ever-livelier audience. “We’re gonna take it down for the next song”, Krule announces. It’s Midnight 01 (Deep Sea Diver). It’s a murky, jazz-heavy number, that captures the atmosphere of everything you might imagine a song with midnight and deep sea in its title would have. We’re brought back to punk with The Locomotive, the lyrics screeched by Krule. The room shrieks back when it realises the beloved Rock Bottom is next. It’s Krule’s most commercially successful number, and the stage soon becomes obstructed by fans clambering onto their friends’ shoulders.
Half Man Half Shark and Czech One are morbid, punk grooves. Baby Blue features a brilliant saxophone solo, met deservedly with cheers. Krule inaudibly introduces each member of his band before his rowdy final track Easy Easy, written when Krule was just 12. The crowd roar back the lyrics and red stage lights flash. Shouts for an encore are met with him returning alone, guitar in arms, to perform the magnificent Out Getting Ribs. It’s a tortured and original performance met with raucous applause. Long live the King.