Mac Demarco Mesmerises Live at Hackney Empire

Mac Demarco struts on stage, bouncing, full of rhythm and slowly nodding to himself. A deep grin buried beneath his now-trademark moustache. He lets out a quick ‘Whoop!’, introduces his band and seamlessly assumes his on-stage-personas: the prankster, the joker, the king of slackers, the DIY legend, the eternal lover, the man of many voices, the singer, and the songwriter.

He quickly tells the crowd that he will be playing Five Easy Hot Dogs, the first of his two releases in 2023, in its entirety. Five Easy Hot Dogs, is also completely instrumental, making the audience wait just a little longer until they hear his famously sweet singing voice. It’s Demarco and his band’s first time back in London since they played a packed-out Alexandra Palace back in November 2019. This time things are a little different. It’s the third and last night of a run of very intimate shows at London’s stunning Hackney Empire Theatre.

Performing as his own support act, he opens the set with Gualala, the first track from Five Easy Hot Dogs, and the band instantly slips into a hypnotic groove. These instrumental tracks stand strong by themselves, the lack of vocals creates so much space for the beautiful and simple textural guitars and keyboards, and the music rolls effortlessly, at what feels like the absolute perfect tempo. 

As the set meanders through different states, from desert to mountain, the performance quickly adopts a cinematic feel. Each piece is a dreamy vignette of a different city and named after the location where it was written and recorded, all in Demarco’s DIY travel studio. During the track Crescent City, which stood out as a highlight, I had to remind myself that I was at a Mac Demarco concert and not at home listening to the soundtrack to an award-winning indie film.

With the band fully relaxed and fully reclined, the set moves up the great Pacific coast with Portland and Portland 2, tracks that are full of peaceful isolation, painting the feeling that you can only attain when travelling alone for an unknown time. Before long we’re crossing the border into Canada and the music starts to build momentum and sounds perpetually motorik. Although the whole album has a sense of steady movement, having been written on Demarco’s spontaneous road trip across the USA while going cold turkey from nicotine, the tracks Vancouver, Vancouver 2 and Vancouver 3 are particularly locked to the rhythm of travel and are perpetually pushed forward by its subtle energy.

Between tracks, Demarco is as sharp and as charismatic as ever. Engaging the audience in a quiz show-esque game of cutting off a dangling hotdog and throwing it into the crowd after each song. These games, and the many voices he summons as he describes the meaning behind the tracks, juxtapose the honesty and simplicity of the music. Heard especially in Edmonton and Edmonton 2, two musical pieces that are dripping in nostalgia as he travels through his mountain hometown; the music instantly suspended in the stasis of familiarity. But soon enough the trip starts to return to his adopted home in the USA, and the songs begin to warm up and defrost as the climate shifts. The peaceful Chicago, Chicago 2 and the sweet and honest Rockaway end the first segment of the set.

Without a moment to catch our breath or process the beauty of what we’d heard so far, Demarco invites us all to join him on vocal duties and announces that he’d be playing a collection of hits and new songs from his latest release One Wayne G. As he starts to play the genre-defining Salad Days, we finally hear the voice that propelled him to reluctant indie stardom in 2014 and the room erupts and sings along. It’s become hard to describe the impact of Demarco’s sound when we first heard it on his breakthrough albums of 2 and Salad Days, and although it’s often been imitated, no one combines warped guitars and a crooning voice with sweet and honest songwriting quite like Mac Demarco.

The crowd falls silent and we’re treated to a live performance of Fooled by Love, a gem buried within the 9 hours of material on his latest release One Wayne G. He then quickly returns to the hits, Demarco puts down his guitar and stands on a stool, dancing like a drunken uncle at a wedding and delivers a beautifully cathartic and therapeutic sing-along version of one of his sweetest love songs, For the First Time

With the songs from One Wayne G that were selected for this live set sitting so comfortably almost the hits from the rest of his back catalogue, I couldn’t help but wonder why these tracks didn’t make yet another strong, yet conventional, Mac Demarco album. But the honest answer is that it’s just not a very Mac Demarco thing to do. Even after the commercial success of his earlier albums, he just carried on at his own unfazed pace, unperturbed by the expectations of the music industry and quitting alcohol and social media along the way. One Wayne G is an album only possible while we’re deep in the current streaming era. It presents the listener with an almost endless ambient soundtrack, a somewhat anti-capitalist release that offers the listeners mass of 199 unfinished tracks, each one a snapshot and a fascinating glimpse into his writing process over the last few years.

The band moves through the classic Mac Demarco hits and demonstrates the strength and depth of songwriting that spans over 5 studio albums, as well as countless EPs and collections of demos. They play beautiful versions of Another One and The Stars Keep On Calling My Name and summon a sonic force so perfect for a venue that was once described as “the most beautiful theatre in London”. Demarco’s sound has matured, and so have we, from dusty and chaotic music festival grounds to plush velvet-clad seats. Adorned with Victorian frivolity, the Empire feels like it was custom-built to house the warmth of this music. 

We’re going to play two more songs then go stand behind that curtain while you clap, then we’ll come out and play two more songs, Demarco announces with a big grin that instantly removes any pretence around the now-expected concept on an encore. And, they do exactly that. After playing the classic songs of  Let Her Go and My Kind of Woman, the band stands up awkwardly and shimmies behind the curtain while the crowd ironically chants ‘two more songs’. They return almost instantly and begin to play the now iconic Chamber of Reflection, with the crowd singing along to the meandering keyboard melody as they can sense the end of the performance.

It wouldn’t be a Mac Demarco set without ending it with Still Together, it’s cathartic and familiar yet beautiful and strange. It’s now 2023 and a lot of things have changed in the 11 years since he released his first album, the ever-evolving and warping society that we live in. But some things remain a constant in life. North will always be north, the British summers will always be disappointing and Mac Demarco will always end his set with Still Together. The perfect end to this epic set that mesmerised the crowd for just over two hours. Although unconventional at times, it was packed full of personality and showcased the range of his songwriting spanning over his whole back catalogue.

While the chaos of life echoes around us, Demarco just continues in his steady groove, one that is based on sustainable mental health and underpinned by hardworking determination. It’s clear to see that without being a slave to external validation, Demarco’s free artistic expression has blossomed. Albums have been released simply because that is what he wanted to release at that time and nothing more. Unshackled from streaming stats, vinyl sales and the capitalistic need to make money. Demarco provides an antidote to the infinite and ultimately unsustainable growth that the music industry expects. If there’s anything we should take away from Mac Demarco’s stunning performance tonight, is that we should probably all just simply nod our heads along to his steady rhythm.

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Photography: Bella Keery
Words: Tom Brierley
Thanks to Stay Golden PR