Pity the drummer at the Shacklewell Arms. This is my first time here, despite living three doors down from it a couple of years back. It’s an unusual stage – there’s the front main stage area, then at the back are two arches that make up a section that for now I’m going to call the drum cave. The drummer is locked away somewhere there, invisible to the audience. Audible though. Blimey he’s audible. Small venues are (altogether now) the best place to hear new music, but drums are a bloody loud instrument, so many smaller venues do struggle to get the volume of the rest of the band to work with the drums. It’s fine if grotty, thrashed out lo-fi punk-rock-action is your schtick, but slightly trickier when you do synth & glockenspiel-led capital-P pop. The BIG LOUD drum volume works in places, mind. A song like ‘Yulia’, with its 60s soul stylings, open piano notes and wide open spaces is perfect for it. As indeed are some of the louder, poppier moments, like a toughened up, more overtly funky take on Princess Chelsea’s current album title track ‘The Loneliest Girl’, or a lunatic crash through ‘Monkey Eats Bananas’.
Despite sharing a backing band with Jonathan Bree and indeed including Bree on guitar, bass and backing vocals, the live Princess Chelsea experience is much looser and organic-sounding than both on record and when compared to Bree’s recent shows. Without the masks and uniforms, the band are free to let it all hang out a bit more and are clearly having a blast onstage – Chelsea herself and keyboardist/backing vocalist Crystal Choi in particular are all big grins and bobbing dance moves while playing. They’re a talented bunch too, with most members swapping instruments over the course of the set. Chelsea switches between synth, glockenspiel and bass guitar, while her stage persona flicks between self-deprecating humour, brilliantly terrible jokes and hilarious mock-egotism.
The setlist is artfully-constructed, starting with just synth and vocal for much of ‘Machines of Loving Grace’, then gradually building throughout until ‘I Miss My Man’ closes with Chelsea blasting everything she’s got into what continues to be the Biggest Chorus Of The Year™. She introduces it as her favourite of her own songs, and I’d be inclined to agree if it hadn’t been preceded by 45 minutes of other equally-capable contenders. There are many highlights, but particularly worth mentioning are a note-perfect rendition of recent single and brazen Twin Peaks season 4 audition tape ‘I Love My Boyfriend’, ‘Too Many People’ and recent album standout ‘Respect The Labourers’, its sax solo replaced with squalling guitar that ultimately erupts into an unhinged noise-out. The night ends with the uber-loud drums finally tamed by the sound of the occupants of a sold-out venue losing their shit. Princess Chelsea 1, Drum Volume 0.