Arriving at Cowley Road’s O2 Academy was an event itself, after a long period of time in which live music was forced into hiding – yes, we had livestreams, but oh it was so good to be back! Good to have Maximo Park back, good to be out watching real live music, good to feel that whatever else is going on, Maximo Park are here, still writing great new music, still giving their fans what they love.
How I’d missed that atmosphere before a gig – the audience trickling in to a dark room, background music humming… the anticipation. Then all of a sudden Maximo Park were on stage, and from their first opening bars, you could feel the room - musicians, punters, everyone - relax… We could feel it in our bones as the sounds washed into us, that maybe, just maybe, we could all, together, begin to mend. And the band sounded great - with drummer Tom English giving us his absolute commitment to every beat, the familiar jangle of Duncan Lloyd’s guitar riffs and lead singer Paul Smith’s lilting, reassuring vocals, this is the band that we’ve grown to love, through the years and across seven albums, they’ve held on to what makes them definitively them.
Given the success of their recent album 'Nature Always Wins' (2020), which reached number two in the charts, the band could have been forgiven for focusing wholly on their new material, but tracks from 'Nature…' were interspersed with a few select and well-chosen older hits, which struck a great balance and gave their newer material a real chance to shine. In particular ‘Why Must A Building Burn?’ and ‘Partly Of My Making’ really popped when played live, generating a big reaction from the room.
The band tend to play their music pretty true to the records, so the live energy of the night was directed largely by front man Paul Smith. Any singer who can command the attention of an audience with nothing but a microphone (no instrument to hide behind) is worth their weight in salt, but Smith’s infectious good spirit is more than good stage presence - it comes across as a sheer and honest love of performing. As the band began to enjoy the crowd’s reaction to their new material, the gig’s energy grew stronger and stronger.
Underpinning the performance was Maximo Park’s rich sound. The drums and guitar had a gorgeous full tone which wrapped us up inside the music. There’s a lot of complexity in their writing and arrangements, and their considered playing gave all that nuance room to breathe. Drummer English was on fantastic form - he kept the music grounded, while the breadth of his style added tremendous colour and energy to the set. Smith’s vocals were beautiful and consistent. Jemma Freese’s keys playing perfectly exemplified a less-is-more approach, holding back against fuller sonic textures, and saving her big moments for maximum impact.
With Smith’s good-natured hijinks on stage (jumps, kicks, hilarious patter, banana t-shirt), this gig was more about entertainment than poignancy, though there was plenty of emotional depth there for those who wanted it. But after a year and a half of no live music, an evening of Maximo Park’s high-class alt-indie was just the tonic.
The band ended with two promising moments for the future: firstly, they announced they’d be back in Oxford “sooner than you think”; and secondly, finishing with “Apply Some Pressure”, both band and audience cheerfully sang the tongue-and-cheek lyric “You know that I would love to see you next year / I hope that I am still alive next year” - sentiments tonight’s audience were 100% behind.